Commencement Address: San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science
May 29 (San Jose) and May30 (Fullerton), 2004
Thank you for that very warm introduction. I'm delighted to be here today and honored that you've invited me.
Good afternoon to all of you, and congratulations on entering the ranks of professional librarianship! As you are joined today by your families and friends, I know they share your excitement in reaching this milestone in your career. They too have made the sacrifices for you to arrive at this moment.
But today is yours. You are entering the field at what I think is perhaps the most exciting—and at the same time, most alarming—point in its history. With apologies to Charles Dickens: it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
Why the best? The employment opportunities may be endless, depending on your interests and abilities. There are so many different areas that graduates can move into, from public, academic, or specialized libraries to Web site architecture to system design to pure research. You can even work for the FBI, CIA, or Homeland Security. And the term competitive intelligence means something to librarians. No longer does the word librarian mean one type of person in one specific building doing one particular task. The skills and tools you have developed here have applications in any endeavor that involves identifying, organizing, and providing access to information.
And the amount of information itself is an embarrassment of riches. Remember Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer's apprentice in Fantasia? Broom after broom after broom bringing bucket after bucket after bucket of water—sometimes that's how I feel about the ever-increasing numbers of titles confronting us. In this parallel, Mickey was lucky—he only had to worry about the broom, and it was only bringing water. We're looking at a—pardon the pun—virtual explosion in the creation, storage, and delivery formats—that is, the brooms—as well as in the content itself—that is, the water.
The continuing evolution of the technology that support, or drives, the information industry means that we must find ways to collect, preserve, and provide materials in print and digital formats. And not just text-based materials; there are also images, data sets, streamed audio and video, Web sites, software that we must consider. Anyone remember how The Sorcerer's Apprentice ended? Anyone? Mickey and the broom both go down the drain—which I hope will not be our fate!
We are in California—the Golden State. But what does the future hold for libraries and librarianship? Building on the rich native heritage of the Californias, it started with the Gold Rush and the development of a mining industry in San Francisco that generated more wealth than the gold itself. Agriculture was next, and by the 1880s California had the most productive farms in the nation. The development of the Central Pacific Railroad in the late 1800s linked California with the rest of the nation.
A generation of builders, aerospace pioneers, and entertainment masters followed. And from the invention of radar and transistors to the advances in microelectronics that continue in the Silicon Valley and other parts of California, it is clear that the spirit of invention and innovation remains strong today.
I am convinced that the inventions of the future will be as amazing to you and me as the skyscrapers or the space shuttle would have been to our ancestors. For within our lifetime, we will surely witness the evolution of new technologies that will transform the world. The emergence of nanoscience is just a next step. We have built some of the most prestigious and innovative libraries in the country. Will our libraries in California keep pace in this new global village?
Today libraries aren't just warehouses for information. They're also exhibition halls, cultural spaces, social centers, educational institutions, living rooms. Librarians are cheerleaders, social workers, curators, travel agents, teachers, listeners, and friends. Children come for story hour, teens come to hang out, immigrants come to learn English, and the homeless come for a safe place off the streets. For many visitors, collections, whether in print or online, are beside the point. Its connections they seek, and find, at the library—connections with each other and with the world.
This has never been clearer to me than in my many visits to libraries abroad. Libraries in the emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe are playing a vital role in creating a civil society. They provide a stable center in a time of tremendous change and help people learn about the rewards and obligations of participatory government. To see the creativity and dedication of librarians in these countries—in Slovenia, I visited a library operating in a storefront at a railway depot, providing services to students commuting to classes every day—in Croatia, I saw libraries that had been bombed, that had scaffolding holding up their walls, open and offering services to patrons—serves as both an inspiration and a challenge.
Visiting other countries and bringing librarians from other countries to visit us provide opportunities for professional exchanges, of course. But even more important, these exchanges build human connections. They create an international community of shared understanding and humanity. They do on a global scale what each individual librarian does in his or her own library: they connect people and ideas. This act of connecting creates new knowledge.
All of this sounds quite inspiring, doesn't it? The field offers many kinds of employment opportunities, there's much work to be done, and usage levels tell us that libraries are popular places anywhere from the smallest town in the Midwest to the largest city in Russia. But it's time for a reality check: there are serious problems that libraries everywhere are grappling with.
One is that perennial problem: money. Take the current situation in California as an example. City libraries must compete with police, fire, and essential social services for scarce and shrinking tax revenues. Academic libraries at public universities like the UC and Cal State systems are caught in the crunch between dramatic cuts in state funding and out-of-control increases in the costs of scholarly journals. In the commercial sector, many Silicon Valley and other information technology-related companies still haven't emerged from the tech bust, which reduces job prospects in that area. Buildings are aging, staffs keep shrinking, and demand is growing. There's always been too much to do, and not enough money to do it with. But the economic downturn over the past several years has made the problem particularly acute.
Lack of money isn't the only bad news. A serious challenge to our professional ethics as librarians is posed by the USA PATRIOT Act. The act's enhanced surveillance procedures relax the requirements that federal or state authorities in terrorism or clandestine intelligence investigations must meet to obtain a secret court order to seize business records. It also broadens the definition of these records to an alarmingly vague any tangible thing.
For libraries this means not only the obvious, such as circulation records or interlibrary loan requests. It also encompasses Web server logs, records of reference exchanges, and any information gathered by vendors of electronic resources. All of these, and much more, were previously protected under state public records and privacy law.
Point three of the American Library Association's Code of Ethics reads as follows: We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted. If faced with a subpoena issued under the PATRIOT Act, you will find yourself facing an impossible choice: break the law, or betray your ethical standards. I have no easy answer for you. I can only say that this threat to our most basic civil liberties is an issue we—all Americans, not just professional librarians—ignore at our peril.
But today is a day for celebration, not for gloom. So as you embark on your professional lives, I have one final piece of advice: don't ever forget these words from a Monty Python sketch: I don't believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that's been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians.
Just think of it—kangaroos as catalogers, alligators in the archives, reindeer at the reference desk, iguanas offering instruction, tigers prowling technical services—the possibilities really are endless!
Congratulations and good luck!
©2004. Gary E. Strong