Kennedy Jr. did precisely what a keynoter should
When governments run the corporations, it is communism. When corporations run the governments, as Mussolini showed us, it is fascism. To keep our society between and away from those extremes, we need a humane, socially, politically, and economically responsible entrepreneurial capitalism. That is a paraphrase of some of what Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said in his keynote speech at the recent conference of the Public Library Association (PLA) in Philadelphia. I didn’t record his exact words, but that is what I took away.
Later, I heard a lot of librarians complain because Kennedy didn’t mention libraries, or as they put it, didn’t use the “L” word. I thought their criticism was shallow and misguided.
Some reactions to Kennedy reminded me of one of my earliest assignments as an LJ reporter and how our biases and cultural views change the way we receive information. Lev Vladimirov had just won the post as director of the Dag Hammarskjold Library at the United Nations in an international competition. Vladimirov, scion of a Lithuanian aristocratic family, had become a university librarian in what was then the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Vladimirov family home and library had earlier been confiscated and turned over to the University of Vilnius. He was asked to study librarianship and to serve as university librarian.
When he landed the UN post, I was assigned to interview him for LJ. During the process I learned that he was enormously proud of the public libraries of the Soviet Union. I asked him to tell me the purpose of the Soviet public library system. After some discussion he answered, “To make better communists.” We talked some more, and then I said I thought his answer seemed a bit narrow and ideological. “What is the purpose of the U.S. public library system?” he asked. I resorted to my favorite document from library history, the 1852 report of the trustees of the Boston Public Library written to convince the Boston city fathers to build that great library. They said the purpose was to inform democratic self-government. When I told him that, he shot back, “See, same thing!”
Even though Kennedy didn’t use the “L” word, I believe librarians and libraries have an integral role in the enlightened society he envisions. Whether we can create socially responsible, entrepreneurial capitalism is very much an open question. Our current political debates don’t give me much hope. We will have to add a much broader, more aggressive information function to that ancient Boston mission. We’ll have to learn to help citizens sort out useful information from junk and show them how to validate information they find.
People today are inundated with information. Much of it is either inaccurate, biased toward the agenda of its source, or corrupted by its political, social, or commercial purposes. Individuals do not always have the expertise to correct all the errors, the inadvertent and purposeful misinformation pouring from thousands of tainted sources. Information is not only distorted by extremist ideologies, excessive efforts to sell things or make profits, or narrow religious convictions. It is often simply inaccurate owing to neglect, flawed methods of gathering or creating it, or cultural bigotries so deep they are not apparent.
To contribute to the enlightened society Kennedy proposed, librarians will have to enlist in a much more militant effort to find and deliver, even broadcast, the most current, accurate, comprehensive, and understandably articulated information to help people take action to build it.
While I have to believe this could be done, I am not confident that it will be done. I am grateful to PLA for bringing in Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to do what a keynote address should do. It made me and many others consider just where the public library should be positioned to serve a more enlightened society, whether it is the one Kennedy described or another. He convinced me that libraries and librarians, and the information expertise they bring, will have a vital and much more aggressive role in the struggle for a more enlightened future.