Distinguished Alumna Award
Presented to Gail Schlachter, University of Wisconsin, May 2007

The More Things Change...

Gail Schlachter
2007 "Distinguished Alumna"
Acceptance/Commencement Speech


University of Wisconsin, Madison
School of Library and Information Studies
May, 2007


 

Thank you, Dr. Bunge, for such a warm introduction. I'd like to take this opportunity also to thank the University of Wisconsin SLIS's Alumni Association for bestowing this honor on me and offering me the opportunity to speak before you today. In addition, I want to tell my family, who interrupted their perpetually frenetic schedules to fly from California to be with me today, just how much I appreciate their support: my husband Stuart, my daughter Sandy Hirsh, my son Eric Goldman, his wife Lisa, and two of my darling grandchildren, Jacob and Dina. I also want to acknowledge my mother, Helen B. Goldstein, who 40 years ago--almost to the day--sat proudly in the audience at my graduation from Wisconsin's library school, the way your family members are doing now. While she passed away many years ago, I keenly feel her presence here today.

Actually, I had not started out to be a librarian. When I was young, I thought I would be an historian. When I graduated college, I thought I would teach in high school. When I went to graduate school, I flirted with Latin American studies. Unfortunately, by the time I had finished my second master's degree, I found myself well educated but without an occupational passion.

That was 1966--a time of great turmoil. The U.S. had just bombed Hanoi, France had withdrawn from NATO, the Cultural Revolution had been declared in mainland China, the Black Panther Party was formed, and the Beatles had announced themselves "more popular than Jesus.”

Personally, I too was in turmoil. Where was I going? What was I going to do with all of my education? Then, by accident, I ran into a former classmate from a course in Latin American history. I shared with her my ongoing failure to find a career focus. Her response? Go to library school. Her rationale? Anything I had ever learned would be useful as a librarian. Intellectual frugality! That concept resonated with me.

So, I arranged a meeting with the then dean of Wisconsin’s library school, Margaret Monroe, intent on impressing her with my academic background and achievements. After listening patiently to my recitation, Margaret leaned forward, locked glances with me as only she could do, and said with great deliberation, "Just because you've done well in other fields doesn't mean you can excel in librarianship."

Initially, I took that as a personal challenge. I was determined to not only meet her expectations, but to exceed them as well. Over time, however, I have come to appreciate the true meaning of what Margaret said. Being a librarian requires training; but being a great librarian requires something more: a special combination of knowledge, compassion, insight, creativity, commitment, and ethics.

When I graduated from library school 40 years ago, the technological landscape looked vastly different than it does today. Photocopiers, microfilm, keypunch cards, and telephone reference were state of the art then. There were no computers, online services, wi-fis, video sharing sites, blogs, online social spaces, listservs, wikis, ebooks, ipods, podcasts, chat rooms, or instant messages.

But, the hot new technological riches available today have come at a cost to librarianship. Back in the 1960s, when I graduated, the library was unchallenged as society’s information resource. The main way, then, to get information was from books, or magazines, or newspapers, and the main repository of these printed materials was the library. Not surprisingly, then, the library was the recipient of the most laudatory of labels. Read back through the literature, and you’ll see the library called the people’s university, the heart of the college, the medicine chest for the soul, the diary of the human race, and the delivery room for the birth of ideas. Henry Ward Beecher characterized the library as “not a luxury but a necessity." And, as tennis star Arthur Ashe said of his childhood days, libraries were his court of last resort. That’s because, he explained, “The current definitive answer to almost any question could be found within the four walls of most libraries.”

Not so today. Information, albeit not necessarily definitive, is available from a myriad of sources:

  • Each month, nearly 750 million adults log on to the web
  • 97 billion emails are sent each day
  • Google, so popular that it’s become a verb, had more than 300 million visitors last month
  • There are more than 173 million personalized pages on MySpace
  • There are more than 75 million web logs, which are collectively changing how the world gets its news
  • And in its first year of operation, Yahoo Answers received more than 50 million questions

Back in the 1960s, when I graduated, the librarian was looked upon as the true information authority, the dependable provider of accurate and relevant answers. But today, information is no longer a precious commodity dispensed by the few; now anyone, from any walk of life and any part of the globe, can step forward to post information, answer questions in real time, catalog and retrieve information using their own personal systems, add entries to Wikipedia-type sources, and even create their own online reference content.

This can lead to a whole host of problems. How can the user know, in this kind of free-for-all information environment, if the data are accurate, reliable, or authoritative? How will the information be preserved? updated? corrected? How will intellectual property be protected? Who’s cataloging the blogs? How are webeam feeds being indexed? Where's the access to or preservation of web pages that are deleted or superseded?

What a challenge this presents to the library field. As your school’s mission statement describes it, “technological changes have profoundly affected the library and information professions…[forcing] professionals to redefine or reclaim their jurisdictions, reexamine specialties, and develop new areas of practice.” We used to talk about rethinking reference. Now we are rethinking the entire profession.

But new does not necessarily mean different. And remember that technology is only a subset of innovation. Let me explain what I mean by that. When I was driving back from my Mother's Day celebration last week, I turned on the radio and heard Paul Harvey presenting another segment in his “Rest of the Story” series. This one was about the first assassination attempt against an American president. If you're an American history buff, you know this was not a segment about Abraham Lincoln, but instead about Andrew Jackson. On January 30, 1835, as Jackson was on his way back from attending the funeral of a South Carolina congressman, an unemployed house painter named Richard Lawrence, who was convinced that Jackson had prevented him from becoming the King of England, shot twice at Jackson and—fortunately—failed at this as he had at most of his attempts in life. For totally different reasons, both shots misfired, and Jackson's life was sparred. Paul Harvey used this event to make a point and then concluded his rendition by invoking what he called a truism: that "the more things change, the more they remain the same."

That quote, "the more things change, the more they remain the same," sums up how I see librarianship today. The flashy technological developments of the past four decades, no matter now exciting and new they look today, are nothing more than a continuation of a long history of innovations in the library field, including such revolutionary creations, for their time, as the development of the first dictionary catalog nearly 400 years ago, the first library catalog cards in the 1790s, the first circulating public library collection in Boston in 1854, and the Dewey Decimal system in 1876. Many of these ingenious innovations may seem mundane to us today. They are so ingrained in our operations that we take them for granted. But, it is the collective impact of hundreds of years of these types of innovations that has made our field what it is today.

It’s true that the tools they are a-changing. And our populations and markets may be changing as well. But our core values and goals remain the same. If you look at the five Laws for Libraries issued by Ranganathan at the beginning of the 20th century and the Five New Laws issued by former ALA President Michael Gorman near the beginning of the 21st century, you’ll see that the language has changed but the message remains the same. We as a field stand committed to selecting, preserving, transferring, and organizing information, to enhancing the user experience, to using new technologies to support those core functions, and to providing and protecting equal access to resources.

Just how the field accomplishes that, in the next 40 years, now falls to you, the graduating class of 2007. What incredible challenges you, as librarians, are going to face! And what a difference you can make! Welcome, my fellow colleagues, to what I believe is the most honorable of professions. I hope that--like me--your career becomes your professional passion. And may your future match your dreams.


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Last modified June 1, 2007.
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