Information Activist

Anthony Molaro is the 30 year old Head of Tech Services and Automation at the Messenger Public Library in Illinois, co-founder of the Chicago Deskset and a Doctoral student at Dominican University, Graduate School of Information and Library Science. He was interviewed for The Young Librarian Series, just after this article was originally published in the December 2009 issue of American Libraries. You can read his blog or you can follow him on twitter.

On a recent and blistering cold Sunday evening I found myself flipping through the cable channels.  As I surfed the channels, I landed on the USA cable network.  During a commercial break the cable channel ran a brief blip on their Characters Approved Awards.  These awards are given to defining characters that “are changing the face of American Culture,” people who “surprise and inspire us with fresh ideas.”

The focus of this particular message was Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia.  I leave the debate over the merits or lack thereof of Wikipedia to other authors and articles.  However, Wale’s goal of creating a system that gives access to “the sum of human knowledge” is noble and lofty, one that few librarians would dispute.  The philosophical undercurrent that is the foundation of Wikipedia is to make information freely accessible to all.

The cable network described Jimmy Wales as an information activist, a person who is “giving the power of knowledge back to the people…”  The old adage is true, knowledge is power.  Librarians have been doing this for centuries, and few would debate that issue.  However, I was surprised that he is described as an information activist.  Wales stated that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right and that Wikipedia’s goal is to remove the filter of old white men to information.

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge,” Wales said.  He wants Wikipedia to be a “sledgehammer to break down the barriers of censorship, of ignorance, of apathy about the state of the world.”

Are we librarians information activists?  Just what is an information activist?  The Random House Dictionary defines information as the “knowledge gained through study, communication, research, instruction, etc.”  It defines activist as “an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause.”  Thus an information activist is a vigorous advocate of knowledge gained through study, communication, research or instruction.

Another cable network recognized the type of information activist just described above, but this time it was a bona fide librarian.  CNN’s Heroes for 2008 included a librarian, Ethiopian native Yohannes Gebregeorgis.  Gebregeorgis was working for an American library, and he was charged with the acquisition of children’s literature in foreign languages.  He found that no books were written in Amharic, and that no books represented people or places of Ethiopia, prompting him to write the first bilingual children’s book, “Silly Mammo”.  The proceeds of the book’s profit were used to fund and create a library in Ethiopia.  At one point, Gebregeorgis left his job and family to bring 15,000 books from the San Francisco’s Children’s Library to Ethiopia.  He also started the Ethiopia Reads program. He even opened a library in an extremely poor area in Ethiopia, which provided children with their first safe place for both reading and fun.  Gebregeorgis is truly an information activist.

While the notion that an information activist as a “fresh idea” is not entirely true, it an inspiring idea.  Librarians and the libraries they work in have always valued the access to information.  We have strived to remove barriers between the users and the information.  But maybe we have let that message, that grand and noble truth, take a back seat.  I don’t know if we are information activists or not, but I believe that we should be.

What would the world, and Libraryland, look like if we pursued vigorous advocacy of knowledge gained through study, communication, research or instruction?  How would the world views us differently if we hold this truth to be self-evident, that all persons are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are the free access to the sum of human knowledge so that we may attain Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?  What would the world look like if we succeed in giving every single person access to the sum of human knowledge?  How many of the world’s problem would be solved by such a movement?  If that threshold was reached how much would the world’s GDP increase?  How much faster would knowledge grow?  How much would poverty and starvation decrease?  How many new technological and medical breakthroughs would occur?

There is little doubt that the attainment of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness would be far easier to attain if the sum of human knowledge were within any person’s grasp.  Did the Characters Approved award succeed?  I, for one, am deeply inspired, and I hope that you are too.  I hope that if we ever meet we introduce ourselves as librarians and information activists, and that we live up to that noble truth that access to knowledge is a fundamental right of all people.

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