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Dear Mr. President:

Once I again I take keyboard in hand to compose an open letter to you in response to comments from your May 9 Hampton University Commencement speech.   In this speech (prepared remarks and then the actual transcript), which I first became aware of via an article at Mashable this afternoon,  you make several remarks that trouble me as an educator and as a librarian.

In this first passage, you comment on social media, mobile computing, gaming, and the transformative power of education:

And meanwhile, you’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations — none of which I know how to work — (laughter) — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We can’t stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time.

First, the real problem here is not information itself or the devices in which people access it, but instead, the core issue is the fact that too many people lack essential information evaluation skills that are relevant for today’s information landscape.   Secondly, information and the gadgets are like anything else—people have the free will and choice to use them in a positive manner or a less than positive way.

I also find it incredibly irresponsible for you to label devices like iPods and iPads as instruments of “distraction” and “entertainment” that are not capable of “empowerment” when you admit within the speech you don’t know how to work these gadgets.  If you do not truly know the capabilities of these kinds of devices, then how can you make this broad sweeping statement that not only is erroneous but also reinforces existing negative stereotypes about mobile computing?  Are you aware there are apps like Evernote which I’ve been teaching my students for social bookmarking and notetaking as part of their research for anytime, anywhere learning?  What about news apps, like Associated Press Mobile or the free Kindle for iPhone/iPad/iPod for reading books and magazines?  Have you seen this list of apps for those with special learning needs, the 100 Most Educational iPhone Apps, Time’s top 10 back to school iPhone apps?  Have you explored what this community of educators is sharing about using iPod Touches in the classroom?

As Clay Shirky so aptly pointed out, “The problem is not information overload.  It’s filter failure.”  If you have not been taught how to discern the quality information from that which may be unreliable or frivolous, then I can see how you might perceive devices like iPods and iPads are gateways to distraction.  However, the answer is not bashing these devices and dismissing them as a stumbling block to this challenge.  Instead, these devices can be an integral tool in helping people filter and focus on the information that really matters for their information needs.  Misinformed assessments like the ones you convey in your commencement speech spawn hysterical anti-technology conversations instead of meaningful, thoughtful conversations about ways of teaching people how to harness the power of these tools and the information they can provide.

Next, I do agree with you that we as a society can adapt to the changes in the information landscape.  However, “education” in and of itself will not prepare today’s students to effectively deal with this plethora of information and know how to properly evaluate it if your October 2009 call for information literacy to be privileged as a mainstream and essential literacy along with reading, writing, and math is not answered.  Instead, we need to provide students a comprehensive education in K-12 that positions not just information literacy as a mainstream literacy but embeds transliteracy, the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks, across all content areas.  As information and learning specialists, librarians are one of many stakeholders in the educational ecosystem who can scaffold students’ abilities to access, evaluate, and transact with information through multiple mediums.

In October you stated the following in your proclamation:

Though we may know how to find the information we need, we must also know how to evaluate it. Over the past decade, we have seen a crisis of authenticity emerge. We now live in a world where anyone can publish an opinion or perspective, whether true or not, and have that opinion amplified within the information marketplace. At the same time, Americans have unprecedented access to the diverse and independent sources of information, as well as institutions such as libraries and universities, that can help separate truth from fiction and signal from noise.

I could not agree more with your statements above!   Librarians should be an obvious team to whom you should turn to help students cultivate what Howard Rheingold calls infotention,

Honing the mental ability to deploy the form of attention appropriate for each moment is an essential internal skill for people who want to find, direct, and manage streams of relevant information by using online media knowledgeably.  Knowing how to put together intelligence dashboards, news radars, and information filters from online tools like persistent search and RSS is the external technical component of information literacy.

Many librarians are already teaching Rheingold’s concept of “infotention” to help learners effectively evaluate and manage the dizzying streams of information around us.  In fact, I have been teaching these skills to 10th graders this past year at my school library.   What librarians need is the ability and resources to scale these efforts to reach more students so that they know how to deal with the sea of information you cite and to learn how to manage it using cloud computing tools, mobile apps, and information management tools.  These kinds of efforts can also help learners explore concepts of social scholarship, which can address your concerns about “…so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, and on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s not. ”  We as librarians can function as sponsors of transliteracy by helping people know how to evaluate the authority and credibility of a blogger, of a YouTube video,  or of a stream of Tweets.

However, how do you expect institutions like libraries—public, school, academic—to effectively and broadly answer this call when funding for library personnel and services are being slashed across the country at all levels?  Your proposed federal budget does not include any funding to help compensate for the shortfalls or to supplement funding that has been lagging for years for libraries, especially school libraries.   Did you know that in many states, school libraries are operating without fully certified and highly qualified school librarians or that many school libraries do not have a full-time school librarian?  Or that many schools expect one librarian to serve up to 2800 students with no assistance whatsoever?   How is “Race to the Top” genuinely addressing these challenges?   How can we talk about information literacy as a mainstream literacy when it is barely assessed on standardized tests that dictate what is taught in many schools?

In your October proclamation of National Information Literacy Awareness Month, you conclude:

An informed and educated citizenry is essential to the functioning of our modern democratic society, and I encourage educational and community institutions across the country to help Americans find and evaluate the information they seek, in all its forms.

I completely concur with your position as do institutions like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy and scholars like Dr. Deborah Brandt.   Recommendations Six and Seven from the Knight Commission both call upon libraries and schools, as you do, to help provide instruction on these new literacies so that all citizens may have the cultural capital needed to participate in today’s society and to help close the existing participation gap that is the real digital divide.  Dr. Brandt, author of Literacy in American Lives, shares the following observations about the importance of our current transition from traditional literacy to transliteracy, which encompasses the new media literacies:

We know from history that changes that are introduced into literacy and communication rarely result in changes in the social order–the routes to access and reward for new literacies will take predictable forms that favor the already privileged. Also, as in the past, even obtaining high levels of technological skill and experience will not inoculate people against discrimination by gender, race, class, age, or other sources of stigma. But this means that our democratic institutions (schools and libraries particularly) have to work hard and thoughtfully to mitigate these forces. The gaps are complicated. One big gap is generational, creating problems in schools where older teachers struggle to keep up with technologically innovative students. We have to find better ways of allowing young people’s skills developed outside of formal institutions to flow more regularly into school. We have to make sure schools and libraries invite critical and active uses of media that strengthen our democratic potential. Wouldn’t it be great if people could go to their school or public library and get into conversation (by video conference or by internet) with people from all over their society and their world? This is certainly a period when educators and librarians and others could really re-imagine education and what is possible with new technology to distribute access and reward more equitably and to make sure that these incredibly powerful resources are used to better people lives and increase our capacities for democracy and justice.

I can’t say it any better than Dr. Brandt—it is imperative that all students everywhere have as much access to information as possible.  For many students, lack of broadband access at home or high-speed Internet in their schools in one challenge.  A lack of a qualified librarian to act as an information sherpa to teach them the navigation skills they need is another major barrier to this kind of literacy Brandt envisions.  Filtering policies in schools and public libraries  also lock down the possibilities for quality information access when they cannot Skype with an expert during the school day with their peers and teachers or watch a quality YouTube video that could completely transform their understanding of an issue or topic they are researching.   Most school districts prohibit the use of devices like an iPod touch or a smartphone, which seems ridiculous when these students are coming to school with a tool that can function as a mini-computer for research and learning; for some students, these devices may be their primary point of access to information, so why not teach them how to harness the power of the technology as well as the information?  When you make dangerous statements labeling these devices as gateways to distractions and irrelevant to real learning, you are exacerbating the participation gap and hindering the very effort—an informed citizenry with equitable access to information–that you champion.

In a little over a month, I—along with thousands of other librarians—will be in your backyard as we come to Washington D.C. for the 2010 American Library Association Annual Conference. I will be in town from Friday, June 25 through Tuesday, June 29 , and I am offering you my services to show you these kinds of tools and skills I have shared in this letter to help you better understand not only the possibilities for evaluating and managing information streams, but to also provide you a personal learning experience as to what librarians can do for the citizens of this country.  As a librarian who subscribes to a participatory philosophy of librarianship, I invite you to come join me in conversation so that we can learn together.    I, along with my librarian peers,  would be honored if you could join us in the Networking Uncommons for some fun and informal learning with cloud computing as well as gadgets like iPhones and iPads.   You have an opportunity to model lifelong learning for the citizens of this country by joining us at ALA.

You took an important first step last fall with your proclamation of National Information Literacy Month in 2009. Now is the time for you to take the next step by rethinking some of your statements and by taking action to provide libraries, librarians, and educational institutions the resources we need to mobilize and broadly implement your ideas so that the vision of an informed citizenry can be realized for everyone, not just a privileged or lucky few.  By formulating and implementing a plan to embed transliteracy as an essential literacy in our libraries and educational institutions, you have a historic and unique opportunity to shape the course of  this country by recasting and amplifying the power of education.

We need bold action and leadership from you to help truly realize the possibilities for a democratic society in profound ways—that is the kind of change we can believe in.  Are you willing to be a catalyst for this kind of change?  The invitation is on the table.

Sincerely and respectfully,

Buffy J. Hamilton, Ed.S.
School Librarian
Creekview High School
buffy.hamilton at