So I spent a good chunk of the day today at Goddard College which is up the road from me. I was invited to give the commencement speech for their MA in Individualized Studies Program. They graduated ten people and had a terrific ceremony including a singalong to the tune of the Muppets’ Rainbow Connection, a group of drummers during the processional, origami creations given to the graduates, and a lot of schmoopy speeches because when you graduate ten students, everyone gets a chance to be on the microphone. It was wonderful and heartwarming and I was so pleased to be a part of it. I gave a fifteen minute speech that I probably ad-libbed out to twenty minutes. Unlike most of the talks I give, this one was written out word for word for the most part. I was asked by a few people for the text of it so I’m tossing it here, adding some links to things, and people can link to it, copy it, whatever works. Thanks to everyone who hosted me, and congratulations again, graduates.
Hi and thanks for having me here. Congratulations to all of you, I’m honored to get to share this important and transitional moment with you.
Like you, I went to an alternative school, Hampshire, and am similarly interested in personal vision and radical thinking as the brochure says that you are.
By way of introduction, I tell people I’m the most famous librarian in Vermont [not as fancy as you might think], an “internet folk hero” dedicating her life to eradicating the digital divide in the US and helping turn libraries into their democratic ideals free from the influence of bad technology, bad people, and bad laws.
It’s as true as any of the other “who I am” explanations. At some level, realistically, what most people in the world know about you is what they see, what you tell them, maybe combined with what they can corroborate elsewhere. It’s important to have a good story and in the age of limited internet attention spans, it helps if it’s short. Wikipedia calls me an internet folk hero (and no I didn’t write that myself though I suppose I could have) and I like that & I’m sticking to it. It’s not actually so tough to be a folk hero, and I think it’s one of the natural paths from this sort of starting point, where you are now. I’ll talk a little about how I got here.
Part one is framing
I’ve got slightly different answers to the “who are you” question depending exactly on what’s asked.
- what I do for a job
(“um I run a big Internet community”)
- how I spend my time
- what I love doing
(“I teach email to old people… no seriously it’s the best thing there is”)
but I’m one of those people with a poor life/work balance, or maybe a great one, depending on whether you think that your small-w work and big-W WORK [your calling, your passion, your raison d'etre, whatever you call it] should be the same or different.
Mine are the same: I love the democratizing power of the library and the internet and share it with as many people as possible. I lucky that I get to do this for a job … but I did some work to get to this place, and also some not-quite-work. And the good news for you guys is that for the most part you now get to spend some time watching yourselves, out in the great wide world, figuring out what your Work actually is. It’s a time for doing and you can, in fact you should, put off reflecting until later. Now is the time for screwing around.
I live in Randolph, just up the road from here, and I spend a lot of time teaching people how to use computers at the local vocational high school in town. Every week I get to show someone the internet who has never seen it before; it’s great. I also travel around the country teaching librarians how to teach people to use computers. I wrote a book last year about the digital divide and how librarians can use their community resources to help people overcome it. I also run a giant community website called MetaFilter that has an online Q&A subsite where the community can ask each other questions. That’s how I met Braja, she’s my internet friend. As much as I think the library is important, I think it’s more important that people learn to answer their own questions, ones they maybe don’t need a professional for
I’m the resident librarian there, sort of, though my title is COO or “community manager” depending on whether I’m being fancy or not. You may notice that none of these jobs I’ve mentioned involves working inside a library. The good news is that this is fine. It’s an exciting time to be a librarian, even just part of the librarian diaspora. Even in the age of “You can find it all on Google”. We’ve got a whole Justice League of librarians working undercover on the internet and elsewhere, fighting for your cyber rights and other things. You probably know a few. If you don’t, you probably should.
So, you’re excited about your Big-W work… find ways to make it sound exciting to other people.
So, part one is framing your issues…
Part two is preparation
When I graduated from Hampshire College (a place a lot like this) a million years ago, we had a commencement speaker who I had never heard of who gave us all some advice that was quite useful to me personally.
Her advice: get some sleep.
At the time I’d been working on my thesis — an analysis of generic pronouns in English, very important stuff to me at the time — non-stop for several solid months, and this was actually something I needed to do, REST. You probably do too.
But more to the point, “get some sleep” was a metaphor for the other things I needed to do in my life in order to be effective. Because as much as I also want to be happy, and loved, and secure and … oh I don’t know beautiful, athletic, something? what I really wanted was to change the world. It’s one of the reasons I went to Hampshire in the first place. I wanted things to be different, more like how *I* wanted them to be and I was idealistic enough to think I could do this, still do actually.
In order to do that, as much as I enjoyed just arguing into the wind about my great ideas, I had longer term goals and had to dig in and play the long game with people who weren’t necessarily working from the same playbook as I was. The long game doesn’t just take time, it takes stamina, endurance, some good nature, and grace. And you’ve got more of that if you’re rested, relaxed, at ease. Sleep helps that. Keeping your stress level down helps that. Eating lots of apples helps. I probably get more professional mileage out of not getting angry than almost anything else.
This is a difficult thing to manage if you get wrapped up in the 24 hour news cycle (what I sometimes call the fake news) and divert your attention with inconsequential bickering cultivated by people who are trying to sell you something. Or if you get crabby by other people’s bad behavior and it sets off bad behavior of your own. Stay calm, don’t get cranky.
This long game, which I wasn’t even quite aware that I was undertaking at the time, involved getting to a place where people would actually listen to what I had to say (more on that in a sec) because with an institution as stalwart and venerable as Public Libraries (like many others), you need to come to the table with your bona fides if you want people to pay attention to your advice much less take it. I’m not saying this is always right, just that this is how it is. Sometimes it’s good to know both what’s right AND what’s real.
So you’ve got framing, laying your constitutional groundwork…
Part three is communication
In my universe, people are saying libraries are in danger without filling in the rest of the story … that they’re in danger because people have forgotten how to quantify the social good of democratic public institutions, forgotten how to value having an educated and informed populace and decided that it’s somehow appropriate to employ “belt tightening” library closures in our communities that disproportionately affect the poor and working class. People are using public libraries in America more than ever before, 71% of libraries report that they are the only source of free access to computers and the internet in their communities. They’re essential, not endangered. Or maybe both…
Conflict makes good drama, sells more newspapers, gets more clicks and keeps people from changing the channel but it’s only a small part of the whole overall story, and it’s important to know and to tell the whole story, and be well-rested enough to tell it as many times as it needs to be told, to the right people. The long game, keep telling that story. Keep saying what’s true.
For me this includes talking about the digital divide, reminding people that a third of Americans don’t have internet at home and 1/5th don’t have any internet at home AT ALL. Explaining how challenging it is to teach people to use technology as library funding is getting cut, and how crucial.
These sorts of talking points, updated as they change, made up many of the small campaigns in my larger crusade for public libraries and free information. And over time, it added up. I had a little blog. I talked about what I cared about. I went to conferences. I spoke to people. I always emailed or called back when a reporter contacted me [which they do often when you're on the first page of results for the word "librarian" on Google and your phone number is on your website, reporters are sort of notoriously lazy] I noticed that slowly, over time, people were *asking* me what I thought, more than I was just simply telling them. Every state has a library association. Every association has an annual conference. There are lots of opportunities to step up and tell your stories no matter what profession you’re in.
I didn’t overthink and stay uninvolved because I thought maybe I wasn’t the right person to talk about something, I got involved in what was interesting to me, and I did the work. I went to the Democratic National Convention as an “official blogger” in 2004. I got to meet Barack Obama. I’ve recently been involved in Harvard’s Digital Public Library of America project as an “independent librarian.” It’s a lot of meetings (some of them early) but with a lot of interesting people. I tell them about what I do and go home and tell people about who I met and what they’re doing.
Some of what I do is go places that “my people” don’t go to, represent us, and then come back and tell my folks what I found there, whether it’s being a techie at a librarian conference, a librarian at the tech conference or a rural librarian at the big city meeting. The world needs people who stay and people who roam, cross-pollinate, bumblebee style.
Sometimes I was surprised that I’d be one of very few people in my communities speaking out cogently and clearly for my ideas, against filtering, against digital rights management, for copyright reform and open access, that sort of thing.
Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker movement sometimes called this isolation of idealism the “long loneliness” and said it could only be solved by the love that comes with community. I feel that by sharing your ideas and ideals with others, you’re not as lonely.
So you’ve got framing, preparing and communicating…
Part four is reflection, perspective & recommitment
I’m not so in love with my ideas that I think they’re right for everyone (copyright has its roles, filtering can be okay in certain circumstances, drm may be inevitable), but in the big tug of war that we cynically call the “marketplace of ideas”, I’m okay being way out on one end and helping nudge or pull people away from the comfy center, the place where you wind up if you don’t make many choices.
By doing the things that I’d enjoyed, and arguing for the things I’d cared passionately about, over time I’d created a career and something of a reputation. In the looking back over what I’d been doing it was easy to say “oh hey I meant to do that” but really I’d had no idea, for a long time. By reflecting over what I’d been doing, seeing my priorities laid out as an accumulation of past choices, the path was clear in hindsight, and it also offered me a direction forward. You think you know what you want, sometimes, but there’s clarity in seeing your desires made real, distilling and determining your priorities through your actions and what you’ve been able to do. And if you look back and say “That wasn’t what I wanted” you’ve got the option to adjust, figure out what went wrong and correct it.
The choices I had been making, though they seemed sort of small at the time — to move to Romania between my first and second years of library school, to take a job working for VISTA after library school instead of an office job, to move to Vermont instead of stay in Seattle, to live in a small community instead of one with better restaurants, to say yes when the reporters called or people asked me to write things, to say no when people wanted to advertise on my site– added up to being the primary components of … me.
Along the way I got a fair amount of pushback, people at every transition point saying the way I’d done things in this stage weren’t going to work in the next. In high school they said “that’s not going to fly in college” In college, it was grad school. In grad school, it was “That’s not going to work in the Real World…” They were well-meaning, but usually wrong. I never did have to get up before 11 am unless I wanted to. I didn’t have to cut off my dreadlocks until I wanted to. I didn’t have to move to a big city. I didn’t have to get a PhD. I didn’t have to settle down.
You all didn’t come to Goddard, to do “individualized studies” because you wanted to take the obvious or simple or pre-determined path. People in Vermont really like to quote Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken poem without maybe understanding that, as Frost himself put it
“It was my rather private jest at the expense of those who might think I would yet live to be sorry for the way I had taken in life.”
Frost wasn’t sorry; he was an unrepentant curmudgeon. His poem, if you give it a close read, was about two identical paths and after-the-fact rationalizing that the choice you made was the right one. Re-writing your own story and giving yourself a more active role after the fact.
Your time here (or virtually here) has been about cultivating your interests, nurturing your abilities, finding your narrative whether it’s through dancing, drumming, singing, writing, filming, educating interpreting or re-interpreting. This big accomplishment becomes, over time, one small part in your long story.
You may not also know that there is another Jessamyn West–actually there’s a third Jessamyn West, a holistic horse masseuse living in the Pacific Northwest–an author who was popular in the 50s and 60s who wrote a lot of novels about being a Quaker in frontier America. Her book Friendly Persuasion, about pacifism in the face of the Civil War, was adapted into a movie in 1957 starring Gary Cooper and Tony Perkins and made her a brief celebrity.
She used that celebrity somewhat as a platform for her ideas. She was an outspoken… I’m not even sure if you’d call it feminist, but she had a lot of strong unapologetic female characters in her works. She wrote from her bed, where she was the most comfortable, and was an advocate of all-day pajamas (as am I), solitude and other not-particularly-normal life choices for women at the time. Her story is one I keep with me and this quotation from her is one I keep close to my heart.
“You make what seems a simple choice: choose a man or a job or a neighborhood – and what you have chosen is not a man or a job or a neighborhood, but a life.”
Choose wisely. I could wish you luck, but you won’t need it. Pace yourselves. Remember that everything in our lives is part of it. Tell your own story and make sure it’s a good one, don’t worry so much about keeping it short.
Thank you and enjoy yourselves.