Is Information Enough?

Tomorrow I’m flying to Orlando to attend ALA Annual. I’m participating on a panel with some brilliant people, and I’m really excited to see some old friends, but I’m also having a hard time reconciling how I feel about the whole endeavor. I know that several of my colleagues requested this conference be relocated in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, and more recent responses from ALA and its affiliates addressing still more targeted violence have left me wondering how much I want to be a part of this meeting, at this time, in this place.

The truth is that I want things to change, and in the wake of the shooting at Pulse, I’ve been crushed by the routine. The shock, followed by grief, followed by finger pointing, followed by inaction, and on and on. I don’t have anything insightful to add to the discussion around gun control or racial profiling or hate crimes that hasn’t already been voiced in the news and shared on social media, and I won’t go off on how there are creepy echos of a lot of bad ideas showing up in our national discourse. I’m very frustrated and confused about a lot of things right now, but I’m damn near certain that I’m not going to change anybody’s mind on these topics with a blog, so I’d just as soon not go down that road.

The thing I did want to write about, though, is the role “information” plays in these discussions. If you’ve followed the debate around this shooting, or any of the dozens of other shootings, then you might have noticed how nearly every side is claiming some sort of data or information to substantiate their calls for action (or inaction). And in many cases, the collection of still more information is hailed as the solution, such as the push to allow the CDC to research the effects of gun violence, or for the federal government to develop the database of gun owners that is currently prohibited by law, or to expand the FBI’s program of secret surveillance.

As a person who talks a lot about “information literacy,” this is an interesting situation to observe. There isn’t a shortage of information being exchanged right now, and yet it doesn’t seem like many minds are changing. Which leads me to wonder—is more information really going to improve the situation? I know Congress’s intransigence isn’t the most accurate measurement of the country’s sentiments, but I was still disheartened by the same tired arguments that were voiced as the votes were tallied on Monday. Awash in another round of testimony from the public, things more or less split the way they have for the last two decades, and there was minimal discussion of who was actually targeted in this attack, with “Orlando” being presented as the victim, rather than people of color in the LGBTQIA+ community.

So what can I do as a librarian interested in changing things? As someone who has access to information that can answer my questions, and the means to teach other people about that process, what should I do in these moments?

Most of the time, I’ve learned the importance of shutting up. As I mentioned, this was an attack focused on the Latinx community, and the last thing the world needs is the perspective of another cis-het white guy rambling on about what we should really do. So the role I’ve been happy to play in this, and other tragically similar events, is to listen and amplify. Listen to the people whose lives are threatened, whose existence is questioned, and share their stories with people who otherwise might not hear them. Use my privilege to connect People Like Me with information from outside their bubble. Hope that I can help provide them with a means of finding answers to their questions.

But the past ten days have solidified my suspicion that information is not enough. It’s not like we have many doubts about how many people get shot in this country, and we’re pretty clear on the fact that racism and bigotry are still happening. And yet the outpouring on social media and in public has run into the same ramparts of prejudice and denial.

Frankly, these are some of the same concerns I wrote about a couple of years ago, coming back up again. But this is also a little bit different. In 2014 I wrote in the context of how frustrating it was that our society generally and librarians specifically didn’t have a shared understanding of what counts as “evidence.” This time around, we’re witnessing once again a national conversation around information, with people on all sides using it to support conflicting views of what should come next.

But at this point, we do know what comes next. What comes next is that something like 30,000 information professionals are going to descend on a city where a lot of people were murdered last week. In the middle of a national debate about “getting the facts,” a bunch of us are coming together to talk about organizing and ensuring access to information. The whole country is paying attention and looking for answers, and we’re the people who often help them in that role.

So instead of just talking about how we do our jobs, I want us to talk a lot more about why we do them.

The conference that is about to begin is our chance to talk about the “why” that lives at the heart of librarianship. If our profession claims to be about equity and inclusivity and justice, then we can’t go into this claiming neutrality or an apolitical position. This isn’t a time to let things play out “naturally.” We need to talk to each other about why we feel frustrated or angry or sick or confused, and then we need to talk about what we’re going to do about it. More than that, we need to listen. We need to listen to our colleagues whose backgrounds our profession has marginalized, and we need to listen to the city and its communities who are hosting us.

I’d like for all of us to look for how each session, each conversation, relates back to what happened at Pulse, and how we can make things better. And if we’re taking part in sessions that we cannot relate back to this event, we need to ask why that is, too. Honestly, I’ve spent the last few days trying to think of a part of librarianship that doesn’t intersect with what happened that night, and I haven’t been able to come up with something—an observation that’s both affirming and challenging. Affirming in that this profession is so ingrained in the culture, and challenging in that we really do need to do something.

For my part, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be “authentic” in the classroom, and how I talk about “authoritative” information. I’m thinking a lot about how I see students, and how I want to do better by them. And mostly, I’m wondering if talking about “information” in the abstract is worth anyone’s time. I’ve been optimistic that more information will help us take better actions, but the last ten days have tested that. Still, I’m hoping that there will be a few more answers in Orlando.

With that, safe travels for those who are making the trip, and happy summer to those who are staying home. This has been a lot to consider, but I’m glad to know I have so many friends in this profession, many of whom I’ll see this week.