From Library Babel Fish, November 25, 2014

It was what I expected. All the signs were there. A state of emergency declared days in advance. An unusual grand jury process that was essentially a one-sided trial. Months of peaceful protest followed by a week of officials setting up barriers and laying fuses. A decision to wait until dark before making the official announcement – and that, after nearly ten minutes of rambling self-justification.

The prosecutor (in the Mike Brown shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri) has released documents to justify the lack of indictment, unusual in a grand jury proceeding. Included is testimony from the officer who could not be indicted describing the man he shot and killed: “It looked like a demon.”


It’s impossible to grasp. Yet all of this is to be expected. We know our society is deeply unequal. We know that in many communities the militarized police force serves and protects people of property, not the poor. We know that both racism and rape culture are real but invisible to a large percentage of the population. We live in a messed-up world. It’s tempting to simply say “no words” because really, there are none that can explain any of this.

So I’m going to retreat into one little part of this messed-up world I inhabit to think about one little thing I try to do, though without any compelling proof that it works because, well, I’m old enough that I remember Life magazine photos of the snarling police dogs and the bombed church and the burning cities and I still can’t understand how we are here, again. And again.

The little question I’m retreating to because the others are just too impossible to even frame sensibly right now is “what can academic librarians do to prepare the students we work with for this messed-up world?” We want to help our students think about information – how to interpret it, how to see it in context, how to create it, how to understand the social and cultural practices that influence it. This is not something librarians teach. It’s something we (and  the faculty in the disciplines) see as fundamental as breathing – trying to use our minds and hearts to makes sense of the senseless. To decide what to do.

This kind of learning asks a lot of our students. It takes a mind and heart open enough to pay attention to things that are hard and painful and a willingness to avoid the easy answers that put our minds at rest too soon. It takes using our imaginations to see the world from an unfamiliar perspective, to have empathy, to let our assumptions be battered and sometimes discarded along the way.

It means learning history. These events cannot make sense without knowing what Ferguson was like before #Ferguson, without knowing what role race has played in all of American history.

It means understanding economics. The murder of Mike Brown happened in a place where fast food workers went on strike because our cheap hamburgers are subsidized by wages so low that corporations count on their employees receiving federal food assistance. It happened in a city that issued three warrants per household because fining citizens is how they make up their operating budget. Where a school could only afford to buy two graduation robes for all of its graduates to take turns wearing for photographs.

The channels through which information is reported are also influenced by economics. News organizations that fly in for big events aren’t going to have the whole story but they have bills to pay and profits to make so they’ll look for dramatic footage to gain and hold our attention between commercials. Facebook algorithms will create a hall of soothing mirrors to reflect your circles and your consuming self. Twitter will provide a stream of fragments, a pixilated picture that’s partly observation (the coffee shop that was supposed to be safe just got tear-gassed; smoke is coming out of the HealSTL office) and partly emotion, often both at once.

It means knowing who and what to believe when trying to understand what’s going on, having enough background knowledge to understand it in context, and developing enough of a curious, critical, compassionate disposition to care.

There’s a lot to do. I’m not sure what contribution I’m making when I explain what a scholarly journal article looks like to first year students who would rather be studying for the chemistry test tomorrow. I’m not sure what difference it makes when I explain to juniors how to find the books and articles cited in a literature review when that entire infrastructure will be unavailable to them once they graduate. But somehow, collaborating with the faculty who will do the most to help students learn how to interpret evidence and make critical judgments, I have to hope that these small steps, these tiny bits of procedural knowledge, give students tools that will begin to feel comfortable in their hands, so comfortable they don’t have to think about them, they just use them. I have to hope that by using these tools and exercising their judgment they’ll gain enough confidence in themselves to have hope of their own. Because I don’t know what else to do.

Except maybe make a donation to the Ferguson Public Library (there’s a Paypal icon in the upper right corner) or to HealSTL. And listen. And look for signs of hope.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.