My advice to the class of 2018
Commencement address given at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, 21 May 2018
Thank you for those kind words, Dean Marzullo. Professors, faculty, staff, students, friends, family, supporters, and, most importantly, graduates. The class of 2018. It is an immense honour to be with you today celebrating this important milestone. After years of hard work, maybe some late nights and early mornings, frustration with group projects, technical difficulties, “a ha” moments, new friends, you’re sitting here today having completed something momentous.
You’ve chosen to dedicate yourself to the service of humanity. Maybe some of you haven’t thought of yourselves as humanitarians. You set out to become an information professional. You see, where I work, the United Nations headquarters in New York City, and for humanitarians and human rights defenders all over the world, access to information is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most iconic texts of all time which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, highlights the freedom for all to be able “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
So, how are you doing this and how will you do this throughout your future career? You wouldn’t be sitting here if you haven’t decided that you want to help others find the information they need. I understand that there are six different types of degrees being awarded today. Professionals with degrees like yours will work to make sure that government agencies, businesses, non profit organizations and others make their information transparent and easy to find. You will advocate to make websites, databases, social media platforms and all online and offline tools accessible by those who have challenges seeking information. You’ll help write and implement policies and put systems in place to keep and preserve important records and archival materials for future generations. And, maybe most importantly, in most jobs you’ll find yourselves teaching others how to find information. Whether you’re a public or school librarian or just showing a colleague your impressive search skills and understanding of how information is organized.
Information professionals, along with coders, engineers, and programmers are building tools that are fundamentally changing society, and we need people to be there at the beginning asking important questions of cultural impact, to provide historical context, and to consider the ethics of what’s being built. The more humanity is thought of as these technologies are invented, the better humanity will be at keeping up with the implications of that technology.
A little later I’ll explain a bit more about my job, But first I will explain a realization I came to recently in the course of thinking about what I wanted to tell you today.
I’ve spoken on countless panels and given a lot of presentations since I left the University of Maryland in 2002. I find that hearing from students, visitors to the UN, diplomats, journalists and others energizes me. It helps me understand what I know and what I’ve learned over the years. The questions and comments I hear are usually similar though. I don’t expect too many surprises.
However, a few months ago, I was talking via Skype to students at my undergraduate college, a small liberal arts school in the Midwest, Luther College. A student asked me if I could have gotten where I am today without having gone to what was them simply as “library school.”
That one stumped me. I hadn’t thought about it before. I wanted to say to this student that, “Yes, you can do anything you set your mind to.” But I’m also a Midwestern realist, so I know that that kind of answer isn’t helpful. I wanted to say: “Of course you don’t have to invest more time and money into school” when I know that the reality of student loans can be a painful one. There is so much value in learning on the job. There is value to learning gained by volunteering, by traveling.
After thinking for a few uncomfortable moments, I told them that maybe I could have gotten to where I am today but I’m sure it would have taken a lot longer and required some luck and “luck” isn’t the kind of career advice anyone wants to hear.
I went on to explain that a version of the truly priceless degree you will hold in your hands today has always grounded me in thinking about the basic purpose for everything on which I’ve worked. I’m always asking myself and those around me a series of questions. Why is this project needed? Who is it for? Is it useful? Is it necessary? Can it be better? Can it be easier and more efficient? It’s the version of the “reference interview” I ask myself and my colleagues as we hold ongoing conversations about what we want to achieve and as we evaluate our work.
Even though my current job is not a traditional “librarian” job, my degree, my mindset as an information professional, prepared me, just it has prepared you, to put the needs of others at the heart of what I do. As you move on to pursue your own chosen paths, you’ll find that this ability to listen and ask questions is what makes your skills so valuable.
So, how did I get to where I am today?
When I arrived in College Park, I thought I wanted to be a web usability specialist. But through taking some of the required courses, I found out that traditional librarianship was really fun, useful and important. Answering questions was like being a detective. So when I saw an internship opportunity in the library at National Public Radio, I thought this would be a dream come true to mix my communications skills — I had studied English literature and French as an undergraduate — with librarianship. And to be honest, NPR is kind of like Mecca for us news junkies. And I loved it. I ended up finishing my degree and then taking a very similar job at CNN’s bureau in DC.
But I had always had an itch to travel. To work in an international organization and to have a career with a built-in element of service, at a place where helping those in need is at the forefront of its mission.
I started out in the UN’s library, conducting traditional reference interviews with researchers, diplomats and UN staff. When a decision was made that the library should take on the UN’s intranet — at that point simply a boring list of websites put together by the IT team — I jumped at the chance. I set out to create new website which had one goal — to make sure that people working at the UN could hear directly about their work from senior managers, not just what journalist chose to cover in the news. My time answering questions in the library made me keenly aware of what people wanted to know. I knew where to quickly find information to help them to do their job and we integrated these tools into that new intranet, a version of which is still in use today.
After five years of immersing myself in internal communications and using my web usability skills from graduate school, when it came time to start thinking about how the UN could use social media, I was then well placed to step into a new role. I knew everyone internally who needed to clear information — which you can imagine at the UN is quite difficult. I knew what UN staff wanted to know about our work. And from my time in the library, and my training as an information professional, I knew what people wanted to know about the UN.
I understood how these platforms worked from an information architecture standpoint. I also understood the policy implications of online information thanks to courses I took here in College Park. Over the past 8 years, I’ve slowly retrained colleagues to create a “social media team.” Today I manage 20 people who put out social media content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WeChat and other platforms in eight languages. This year, we’re launching a ninth language, Hindi.
We have 30 million people from all over the world who have decided to “like” or “follow” us on social media because they find the UN relevant, important, engaging and interesting. I directly attribute our success to the fact that, under my leadership as a trained information professional, our team focuses on putting the user’s needs first.
Since our followers are truly global, we are constantly studying how people are accessing information. We know that information needs and ability to access information vary widely. Someone who lives in a country that has seen the work of the UN first hand — peacekeepers in streets in post-conflict zones, World Health Organization staff in hospitals, or UNICEF workers in schools — sees the UN differently than those of us in the developed world. For someone who is able to take reliable and inexpensive access to the internet for granted, they can consume our news in a variety of ways. They expect streaming videos and even “fun” posts. For those in countries where data is restricted by governments, where data plans are costly and access to energy to charge phones is scare, we have to be more selective. We can’t have a “one size fits all” approach when world leaders expect our audience to be essentially everyone, everywhere.
So much has changed since I graduated. So much is changing seemingly before our eyes. Laws and policies in this country and others aren’t keeping up with reality of the new online worlds where so many of us spend hours every day. We’re grappling with these changes at the UN. It’s impossible to know how things will change in the years ahead, but people’s need for quality and timely information doesn’t change.
The human rights agreed to 70 years ago at the UN still apply today. It’s up to you, as you carry out your service to humanity, to put these needs first. To always answer these questions. Why is this project needed? Who is it for? Is it useful? Is it necessary? Can it be better? Can it be easier and more efficient?
The University of Maryland turned out to be an amazing place for me and I know that it will be for you, too, as you embark on the next phase in your lives.
So, like Testudo the Terrapin, our school mascot, you’re leaving these halls with all you need to do and know. Slow and steady wins the race. And since you’ve all rubbed his nose for good luck, I’m sure you’ll be ready to adapt come what may. As librarians, archivists and information professionals, you may always think of yourself as a listener first and foremost. But what you do with what you hear sets you apart. Take the long view, always advocate for information access for all, put the users first, humanity first, and you’ll be pleased with your career.