In May, I was pleased to be asked to make remarks at the Awards Luncheon and Graduation Celebration of the USC Master of Management in Library and Information Science Class of 2019. My remarks were entitled "Of Value and Opportunity," and follow below.
10 May 2019
Thank you Dean Quinlan–Catherine–for inviting me to speak with you all today during this celebration. Before I begin, I’d like to congratulate the Class of 2019 on the accomplishments for which you’re being recognized today. In the words of Jimmy Fallon, “You’re here. You made it. You’re a hot crowd!” Give yourselves a big hand!!
I’ll be bookending my remarks today with excerpts from two commencement addresses near and dear to my heart:
• Small Epic Poem, delivered by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) at the commencement ceremony held at Revelle College of the University of California, San Diego, in 1978; and
• This Is Water, delivered by David Foster Wallace at the commencement ceremony held at Kenyon College in 2005.
Let me begin by reading from Dr. Seuss:
I’ve been brought here this morning
At the enormous expense
Of precisely one dollar and fifty five cents
– Plus 19 cents more if you add on the tip
To the driver who drove on this hazardous trip
From the wilds of La Jolla
Far, far to the south –
So that you can hear wisdom pour out of my mouth.
I’ve been brought here to warn you
Of the stress and the strife
That you’ll face as you bravely ride forth into life.
So I’ve compended a compendium
Of gruesome grim items
Of stuff that should scare you
Don’t worry, I have come with no such compendium today!
David Foster Wallace, meanwhile, observes that: “… [there] is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, [namely] the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.”2 This is the story he tells:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”3
The story thing [Wallace notes] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre … but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be.
I am not the wise old fish.4
Nor am I. No, I want to spend my time with you today, talking about Value and Opportunity, and not in that order. Instead, I want to touch first on some of the many opportunities that await you as you strike out into the profession and then, on the value that the education you have just completed will provide in engaging with those opportunities—or at least some of them. Because, as I like to say, there is no dearth of opportunity.
I. Let me begin by talking about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). This 2019 class is itself an interesting study in diversity. Of the 49 of you:
• 90% of you are female;
• 45% of you are non-white; and
• 39% of you are from outside California.
• 40% of you are ages 20-29;
• 40% of you are ages 30-39;
• 10% of you are ages 40-49; and
• 10% of you are over 50.
In other words, you represent four generations: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z.
And, of course, none of you is only one of those things. I recently did some consulting at an institution that has a bowl at its circulation desk full of buttons that read: “I contain multitudes.” So does each of you; each of us. Let me use myself as an example: I’m not just a “white guy,” I’m a white male Baby Boomer, born in Germany of an English mother and a German father, most of whose family died in the Holocaust.
Recognizing and embracing one's own diversity furnishes each of us with a “lens of opportunity” through which to see, recognize, and embrace others—a lens of opportunity that can serve to broaden, rather than narrow, how we think about ourselves, how we think about others, and how we think about our profession.
II. I’d like next to move on to talk about engagement: that is, about getting involved in the profession, whether locally, regionally, nationally, or even internationally. In ALA (the American Library Association) alone, there are 11 divisions, organized functionally or by type of library; 11 divisions with, literally, 100s of committees and working groups and councils and round tables. If ALA’s not your thing, go find your people somewhere else—because there are plenty of other places to look.
The more engaged you are, the more engaged your library will be. The more engaged your library is, the more engaged your library patrons will be. The more engaged your patrons are, the more your library will be valued in the community.
III. Let me talk now about the evolution from Library as Space to Library as Place. The Oxford English Dictionary5 defines “space” as “an area that is free, available, or unoccupied.” It defines “place” as “an area used for a purpose or activity.” To think of a library as space, is to think of physicality; to think of it as place, is to think of agency. Each is apropos, though there is a continuing evolution from one to the other.
As centers of their communities, libraries have long been recognized as safe and trusted: not neutral, but safe and trusted. As a consequence, libraries are increasingly looked to to help communities navigate increasingly troubled, and troubling, political realities. We live in a time of so-called “Fake News”; a time of science denial; a time when immigrants are decried as criminals, gang members, and worse. Whether it’s a woman’s right to choose or everyone’s right to read, freedoms we have taken for granted for years are increasingly under threat.
Merriam-Webster6 defines “debunk” as “to expose the sham or falseness of.” Is it any surprise that people increasingly look to libraries for help in debunking the untruths and the misstatements we are presented with every day? Who is better positioned than libraries to do so? This opportunity casts libraries’ information literacy programs in a whole new light and raises their imperative to a whole new level of urgency.
- ⊳ Who is going to lead the continuing evolution from Library as Space to Library as Place?
- ⊳ You are.
IV. In turning next to considerations of access, I’d like to do so in three dimensions: organization, preservation, and economics. The limitations of the Library of Congress Subject Headings and the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) are well- and long-known. By way of illustrating this, let me ask how many of you know who Dorothy Porter was? [Small show of hands] The first African American graduate of Columbia University’s library school (in 1932), Ms. Porter was a librarian, bibliographer, and curator who, over a 40-year period, built the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington DC into a world-class research collection. To help her do so, she devised an alternative to the DDC in order to better classify the richness of the African American experience: an experience she knew extended beyond slavery and colonization—which were the only classifications the DDC allowed for.
This is but one of what are doubtless so many more examples of ways in which commonly available (and used) classification systems are limited or limiting. The good news is that, in the profession, there are a growing number of diverse ways of thinking about how to organize information for access. Plus, there is a proliferation of technical tools that facilitate reimagining how information is organized and made accessible (e.g., BIBFRAME7, LD4P8).
- ⊳ Who is going to lead the development of these and other approaches to reconceiving information access?
- ⊳ You are.
Organizing information for access in the present is one thing. Preserving it for access in the future is quite another. This is no less true for digital content than it was for print. On the contrary, the comparative fragility of digital content—not to mention the relatively fleeting nature of so much of it (Twitter, anyone? Instagram?)—only make answers to preservation’s Ur-questions so much more urgent.
- ⊳ Who is going to decide what to preserve? Who is going to decide how to preserve it? Who is going to administer what is preserved?
- ⊳ You are.
Now, finally, a word or two about the economics of access. It is no overstatement to say that we find ourselves in the eye of a perfect storm fueled by proliferation and profit. Current responses to the storm tend to begin with the word “open”: open access, open educational resources, open data, open research, open science. The economics, and the politics, of these responses are fierce and high-stakes. Why?
First, there’s a lot money at stake; that’s an economic issues. Second, who gets access is at stake; that’s a social justice issue. If you’re “poor,” you may not be able to read the journal literature. If you’re “poor,” you may not be able to afford textbooks.
- ⊳ Who is going to address these socio-economic issues?
- ⊳ You are.
V. Before closing, let me share some thoughts about technology and data. The technology that supports, enables, and shapes our world and our profession changes so constantly and so dramatically, that it is almost impossible to keep track of it, much less predict “the next big thing.” Let me suggest three things to keep an eye on: digital displays, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. The proliferation of digital content has pushed demand for better and better displays, and will continue to. Why? Because digital content lends itself to a kind of immersive interactivity quite different from interacting with analog content. And, augmented reality displays—scaled-down, wearable—are best-of-class examples of the drive toward such interactivity.
Last November, YS Chi (then-CEO of Elsevier and now Director of Corporate Affairs for RELX, Elsevier’s parent company), stated during an interview in New York that fully 60% of Elsevier’s hiring in the next five years would be AI Engineers. Why? Because Elsevier, once a scientific publisher, now describes itself as “a global information analytics business specializing in science and health.”9 Meanwhile, RELX, Elsevier’s parent company, describes itself as “a global provider of information-based analytics and decision tools.”10 Suffice to say that the data being processed by these $4B and $48B companies, respectively, are sufficiently massive that human analysts are not doing the bulk of the processing (or, possibly, any of it). Rather, AI is—and increasingly sophisticated AI at that. Hence, all those engineers Elsevier anticipates hiring.
- ⊳ Who is going to lead this technology and software development?
- ⊳ You are.
To what end, one might wonder, all this data analysis? Why, to learn more about me and you, of course—and our library users. What do we look for? What do we use? What do we study? What research do we pursue? What could be marketed to us? This “surveillance economy” raises profound issues of privacy and anonymity.
- ⊳ Who is going to help arbitrate these issues?
- ⊳ You are.
I’d like to close now by returning to David Foster Wallace for some thoughts on Value. Remember his little parable about the fish? Well, he notes that:
The immediate point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.11
He goes on to say:
… the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. [Emphases supplied]12
… the real value of a real education … has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, [awareness of what is] so hidden in plain sight all around us, [and awareness] that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
‘This is water. This is water.’13
He concludes with:
It is unimaginably hard to do this—to live consciously, adultly, day in and day out.
Which means that yet another cliché is true: Your education really is the job of a lifetime, and it commences—now.
I wish you way more than luck.14
As do I. Congratulations, good luck, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.
- Brian E. C. Schottlaender
 Theodor Seuss Geisel. Small Epic Poem. https://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/DigitalArchives/mss0230/m230b19f3.pdf [Accessed 2019.07.16]
 David Foster Wallace. This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life. New York: Little Brown, 2009.: p. 5.
 Wallace, pp. 3-4.
 Wallace, pp. 6-7.
 https://www.relx.com/our-business/our-business-overview [Accessed 2019.07.16]
 Wallace, p. 8.
 Wallace, p. 14.
 Wallace, pp. 131-133.
 Wallace, pp. 135-137.