no crystal balls

Below are my remarks from the Look into the Crystal Ball: Future Directions for Higher Education and Academic Libraries panel at ALA, sponsored by ACRL University Libraries section. I think it was recorded and will be available somewhere. Google that in a few days if you want to hear the whole thing.

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There are no crystal balls – the future is notoriously unpredictable and it is certainly not linear.

I think the events of just the last few days make that clear – at least to me. On the same day that the Supreme Court issued a historic ruling for marriage equality – something many of us simply couldn’t allow ourselves to hope for in our lifetimes – our President gave a eulogy for a pastor who was murdered in a heinous act of racial terrorism that also claimed the lives of 8 members of his historical black church in Charleston SC.

Yesterday was a day of both celebration and sorrow.

I believe Dr. King was right — the arc of the moral universe is long and it surely bends towards justice; but it does so in fits and starts; and it includes times like this marked by progress and by pain. In the span of a few days we have seen history being made and we have seen history tragically repeat itself. Three black churches have burned in the south in the last 5 days.

So I’m even less inclined than I usually am to try to predict the future, or to describe how libraries ought to react to future trends.

As my friend and colleague Francis Kayiwa says – if we could predict the future, I hope we’d all play the lottery and then use the winnings to build great libraries.

That said, just as many us work towards social change even though we can’t predict the path or timing; we can and should work towards the kind of future research library we want.

I am less interested in how libraries can respond to changes in higher education and much more interested in how libraries and those of us who work in them can create the change we believe in.

Let me respond to some of what my colleagues have talked about and bring up a few other topics:

Most of my colleagues on the panel stressed the coming wave of online education and roles librarians can play to support faculty and students in online courses. Sure, libraries and librarians can do all the same things around online education as we do for face to face education; but to me a big challenge of online education that only libraries can address is one of preservation – of the massive amounts of data being generated by the multi-institutional experiment in online learning that is at the heart of edX and other online education ventures.

I’m also less interested in helping faculty find open resources for their online courses than I am in pushing to make more and more scholarly content and educational resources open in the first place, so finding resources that can be used in open education is easy for everyone.

As more university presses land under the purview of the libraries, we have real opportunities (obligations?) to work together towards our common cause of providing access to scholarship. Together we can and will figure out sustainable models for funding the production and dissemination of scholarly research.

My fellow panelists also talked about the need for librarians to help students find the “right” information by providing curated sets of resources. Again, yes librarians can help students make sense of a deluge of information through curation …

But it would be so much better if we could develop discovery environments that put intuitive curation and filtering tools in the hands of users, so they could do their own curating. Let’s give them the power and the choice.

[Here I gave an extemporaneous shout-out to the Code4Lib article Bess Sadler and I wrote about building feminist values of choice, empowerment & transparency into our discovery environments.]

Along with that – I want to put real resources into developing truly effective virtual browsing capacities – instead of mocking scholars who tell us that browsing physical stacks is important part of their research process; let’s figure out how to recreate and enhance that experience in a virtual environment. Let’s get to work creating a virtual browsing enviroment that allows a scholar to browse collections regardless of format or physical location.

On library instruction I agree with my panelists that there is an ever more important role for librarians, and want to stress the need for us to work in the realms of data literacy and critical thinking.

I also think librarians are uniquely equipped to help students and our communities understand that the issues we are grappling with as a society have histories.

I think librarians’ single most important contribution to the future will be to equip our communities with the history, the context, and the data to understand and solve the big problems of our times – persistent racial and ethnic injustice, climate change, global poverty, and staggering and growing degrees of income and wealth inequality to name a few.

Let me be very clear, I am calling for activist librarians who will be the change we want to see in the library world, in higher education, and in our communities.

We have a particular expertise, a perspective, and a set of values that goes well beyond merely supporting and advising faculty – we need to lean in and claim our seat at the table when the future of higher education is debated and decided.

In some cases we need to take our cues from the new generation of activist and radical librarians and archivists who are already doing this kind of work.

I hesitate to name names because I will inevitably leave folks out who are doing great things; but I have to single out Bergis Jules & Ed Summers who are creating and analyzing an archive of #CharlesonShooting tweets. Others among us contributed to efforts to develop a Ferguson syllabus and resource guides, a Ferguson archive, and a Charleston syllabus. Former Stanford colleagues developed a GIS application to track Mass shootings in America after the Newtown shooting.

These are examples of curation, education, publication and yes activism all rolled up together.

There are more examples and more people who rarely get asked to talk about the future of libraries, but who are making that future every day. My twitter pals, you are the future of libraries and I see you. I see you.

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