We Aim to Misbehave

A graduation address

In 2013, the School of Library and Information Studies asked me to deliver the faculty address to our graduating professionals, and after establishing that they really meant it, I agreed. Please understand that there’s a history of faculty-speech stunts here. When I graduated from SLIS in 2005, Ed Cortez intentionally spilled a glass of water all down the front of his academic regalia, and I’m told that a few years ago the graduating class was knighted en masse with a light-up prop sword. This is a tradition I’m happy to continue, Large Ham that I am!

So I spent some quality time in thrift stores and on eBay, roped in two co-conspirators, and produced the address following, which I am happy to share—hyperbole and all—with all library-school graduates, from this year and all years.


First and foremost, congratulations, new graduates! I know how hard you’ve worked to get here; eight short years ago I was one of you myself. I honor the sacrifices many of you and your family members and friends have made so that you would reach this day. I am proud to know you, and proud that you are all my colleagues now.

I’m told that the purpose of these graduation speeches, beyond congratulating you, is to tell you some more-or-less quotable truths about the professions you’re on the threshold of. So I’ll try to do that. The thing is, I can’t do it in this academic garb; it represents where you’ve been, not where you’re going. I need… a browncoat. Anjali, can you find me a browncoat?

[ORIGINALLY TANYA COBB—YES, “COBB” IS HER ACTUAL SURNAME, FIREFLY FANS—WAS TO DO THIS; SHE UNEXPECTEDLY COULD NOT MAKE THE CEREMONY. IN HER STEAD, SLIS LIBRARIAN ANJALI BHASIN ENTERS FROM STAGE RIGHT CARRYING A LONG BROWN COAT À LA FIREFLY. ANJALI ASSISTS THE SPEAKER IN DIVESTING HER ACADEMIC GOWN AND DONNING THE COAT. THE RESULT, WITH MORTARBOARD, HOOD, AND HONOR CORDS STILL IN PLACE, DEFIES DESCRIPTION.]

For those of you who don’t know, the browncoat comes from Joss Whedon’s Firefly television series, where it’s worn by a group of rebels who fought and lost a bitter war against an untrustworthy and oppressive government. The series’ browncoat-in-chief is the character Malcolm Reynolds, who at a crucial point in the sequel movie Serenity declares, “I aim to misbehave.” And that’s what I have to tell you about all of us, every information professional worthy the name: we aim to misbehave.

And now all your family members and friends who thought you were going into nice, safe, decorous professions are staring at me in utter horror. So let me try to explain.

Librarians and archivists and other information professionals don’t aim to misbehave just because we’re argumentative and contrary people. We’re not. I, for example…

[STIFLED LAUGHTER FROM GRADUATES IN THE FRONT ROWS.]

See, they know me. I am an argumentative and contrary person, and what this turned out to mean for my career as an academic librarian is that I got told, “march yourself over the librarianship county line by sundown and don’t you ever come back!” Which just goes to show, right? We don’t misbehave for the sake of it.

But sometimes… sometimes what’s happening in the world around us is just so egregiously bad that there’s no choice but to misbehave. What’s happening to information is no exception—access to information, access to information carriers and information tools, the ability to find and use and reuse and remix information without being arrested or sued, the privacy of certain kinds of information, getting the right information into the right hands—there is a lot of controversy and struggle and real pain and loss around all this, and it shows no signs of stopping any time soon! Graduates, I want you to remember always that the professions you are entering today have a long history of misbehaving, openly and proudly, when certain lines are crossed.

Now, this surprises a lot of people! Left-wing author and documentarist Michael Moore once said of librarians, “You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man! I wouldn’t mess with them!” He said this after his publisher threatened to destroy every last copy of his already-written, already-printed book unless he rewrote it to be less critical of the United States president then in office. Who made that publisher stand down and release the book uncensored? Librarians, starting with just one New Jersey public librarian: Ann Sparanese. Ann Sparanese aimed to misbehave.

When the United States Patriot Act threatened the privacy to read of every patron in every public library in every city and town in every state across this country, librarians aimed to misbehave. In response to the piece of the law that said that library patrons couldn’t even be informed that the FBI had come to the library to snoop into patron reading histories or investigate library computers, Vermont librarian Jessamyn West designed “technically legal” signs that said, “The FBI has not been here! Watch very closely for the removal of this sign.” Four Connecticut librarians, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Janet Nocek, fought a National Security Letter and associated gag order all the way up the chain. And when he was asked about that on national radio, George Christian pointed to the Library Bill of Rights as his guiding light. When was the Library Bill of Rights originally adopted by the American Library Association? In 1939! We’ve been aiming to misbehave for a very long time.

Coming back to academe, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Aaron Swartz, who took his own life earlier this year after federal law enforcement threatened him with a felony conviction and ruinous legal fees for the alleged crime of downloading a whole lot of scholarly articles. His death is the horrible, wretched, tragic culmination of a long-standing information injustice: publishers don’t pay scholars and researchers to write down and peer-review their knowledge, but a good many publishers do insist that libraries pay outrageous, unsustainable sums of money to let those very same scholars and researchers read it—never mind anybody else! Well, some academic libraries have had just about enough of that. SLIS alumna Jenica Rogers, who is Director of Libraries at SUNY-Potsdam, aimed to misbehave last year when one publisher, one, tried to soak up ten percent of her library’s entire acquisitions budget, for one journal package for one department. Ten percent! So Jenica told that department what was going on, and she made alternate arrangements with them, and then she cancelled that supposedly-irreplaceable journal package subscription with a quickness. And what’s more, Jenica took this story public in the teeth of that powerful publisher’s anger. I know Jenica Rogers. I know she aimed to misbehave.

Archivists, think you’re safe in the arms of the past? Think again! Boston College archivists arranged to have members of the Irish Republican Army tell their stories. In return for these people’s painful honesty, the archivists promised them that their recordings wouldn’t be shared until after they were safely dead and beyond the reach of prosecution. Well, the United Kingdom government got wind of these recordings, and demanded that the archivists break their promise and turn the recordings over. All right, you tell me, what did those archivists do?

[RAGGED CHORUS OF RESPONSES, CONVERGING ON “They aimed to misbehave!”]

They aimed to misbehave, that’s right! Those archivists fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep the promise they made to the people who trusted them enough to tell their truth for posterity.

Now, graduates, I want you to remember that misbehaving comes in all sizes. I’ve been talking about great big misbehaviors, but depending on what the policies are like where you work, giving a homeless person a library card, waiving a fine for someone who just lost a job, letting a frazzled undergraduate drink a cup of coffee in peace, criticizing a publisher on a blog, digitizing some kinds of information, refusing to exploit other kinds of information even when big online services make it seem all right—any of these actions could be misbehaviors. They could also mean the world to someone. So you don’t have to aim to misbehave big, just aim to misbehave right!

There are differences between the kind of misbehavior I’m talking about and a toddler’s kicking and screaming misbehavior. Obviously one of the differences is conscious, deliberate action, but knowledge is the other. I hate to tell you, after all your hard work, but you have not finished learning about information and its place in the world today—you have barely started! Don’t ever stop adding to your knowledge. Don’t ever stop changing your behaviors and your misbehaviors based on what you learn. Graduates, I want you to go out there into the world and be curious, even when some people would rather you didn’t. Ask questions, even the awkward questions, especially the awkward questions. Read, listen, watch, code, build, analyze, learn, and understand. And then aim to misbehave!

Last thing. Misbehaving takes incredible courage. I know you have courage; you’re sitting here about to graduate! But your individual courage will be all the stronger for knowing there are brave and smart people around you who have your back. With [DISTINGUISHED ALUMNA SPEAKER] Dr. Samek, right here and now I promise you, new colleagues, that I got your back the day that you consciously, deliberately aim to misbehave. And I hope you will do the same for me, because I will surely need it.

[LAUGHTER.]

And I tell you that most of the time—not all the time, we’re not perfect; but most of the time—your whole profession has your back when you aim to misbehave. But right now, since the whole profession is not in this auditorium, I’ll just ask you, graduates, to look to the people to either side of you, and shake their hands, and tell them, “I got your back.” Just that. Go ahead, do it.

[MUTED CHORUS OF GRADUATES ASSURING OTHER GRADUATES THEY HAVE EACH OTHER’S BACKS.]

It felt good to hear that, yeah? Didn’t it? Remember that feeling. Wherever you go, whatever you do with your careers and your lives, give your colleagues your word that you got their back when they aim to misbehave, and then honor your word. It means more than I can tell you.

I don’t know where you’re all going once you leave here today. I don’t know what will happen to you, though of course I hope for the best. I do know some of the things you will do. You will change the information professions for the better. You will change human lives for the better. You will change the world for the better. And I also know that sometimes that will hurt, and sometimes it will be infuriatingly slow and bureaucratic, and sometimes it will be scary as all hell, and sometimes just like the browncoats in Firefly you’ll have to lose a lot in order to gain a little, and sometimes you won’t even know what you’ve gotten yourselves into, much less why.

It doesn’t matter. Do it anyway. Help people anyway. Change the world anyway! Speaking some words Joss Whedon gives to Captain Malcolm Reynolds:

[SPEAKER SHIFTS TO SLIGHT SOUTHERN ACCENT, REASONABLY AUTHENTIC (THOUGH RUSTY) SINCE SHE GREW UP IN NORTH CAROLINA.]

“Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before, maybe all… Sure as I know anything, I know this—they will try again… And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. [We] aim to misbehave.”

Thank you, and congratulations once again, Class of 2013!