In the introduction to this collection, I promised inclusion of one talk I’m ashamed of. This is that talk, the 2013 faculty commencement speech for the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Because of the way I phrased my introduction to the Boston College archives situation, I gave the impression that our archives students and graduates expected safety from their work. That is wrong, and the students who felt insulted by it were entirely justified. I am sorry, and sorrier still to have insulted them on a day they should have been celebrating their accomplishments and looking forward to their futures.
The smallest rhetorical flourishes sometimes make the biggest messes. If I had only changed a few words in that introduction to make clear my true belief, parallel to my expressed belief about libraries—that many people outside archives wrongly think archives jobs are safe and uncontroversial—but I didn’t. I will not forget the lesson. I hope it helps others avoid my mistake.
This talk was also lambasted publicly for its focus on heroism and its allegedly too-obvious choice of library and archives heroes to feature. I do not apologize for this. I in no way think it was wrong. I deliberately chose this focus to explain to our graduates’ family and friends in attendance why they should be proud of our graduates and their accomplishments.
If my non-librarian family and friends are any indication, many people sitting in that audience were still mired in stereotypes about information work and the people who do it—indeed, a few of our guests came up to me at the reception to tell me my talk had completely revised their mental image of librarians and archivists! The “usual suspect” heroes any modern librarian or archivist knows about, the ethical commitments and advocacy work that good professionals take for granted, were completely new to these people.
I am not and will never be sorry to have taught our graduates’ well-wishers something. I am and will always be sorry I insulted some of our graduates.
Curiously, no one (that I know of) argued with the humorous frame I chose. In case anyone is curious, however, SLIS faculty commencement speeches have a long and honorable history of gimmicks and jokes. The year I graduated from SLIS, Dr. Edwin Cortez intentionally spilled a glass of water all over his commencement regalia. Another year, Dr. Stephen Paling knighted the entire SLIS graduating class with a toy Jedi saber.
Chances are I will someday be asked to do another faculty commencement speech. I commit absolutely to doing better then than I did in 2013… but I do think I will keep the humor.