Information Inequality, Libraries, South Africa, and Superpowers

One week from today, I will be on my way back to South Africa. This trip is unique to me for several reasons: first, I’m going to participate in my graduation ceremony after completing my doctorate; second, it’s the first time there that I won’t be completing fieldwork, leading students, or in some other way working while there – it’s an actual vacation this time!; third, my family is coming along (partner, sister, and brother-in-law), so there is a sense of responsibility but also excitement in sharing this amazing place with them; last, it may be my final time there, at least for a while. So it’s a big one.

My doctoral research was my initial excuse for going to SA as well as my reason for returning; now that it is complete and I have been there five times, I look forward to spending my time and funds exploring the rest of the world. So it is a funny feeling of sadness, anxiety, pride, and excitement all rolled into one. You probably want to know where we’ll be going – that is the subject of the next blog post! Some of you asked what my doctoral research was focused on, so that is the focus of this post. But believe me, this journey to complete my doctorate was about so much more than the piece of paper or the new letters behind my surname,

I am librarian and my primary reason for becoming and remaining a librarian is to help people get the information they need in order to empower themselves and improve their lives, whatever that may look like. My mission in work and life (I am so lucky and privileged that they overlap and connect as they do) is to support people and communities in their quest for empowerment, equality, justice, and dignity. I knew early on how tall that order was and so when the time came, I narrowed my focus to helping others get the information they need to get that job, finish that paper or grant proposal, assess their NGO’s on-the-ground activities, vote, defend themselves, or just generally kick some ass in any number of other ways.

It’s become my superpower.

While I joyfully serve all folks, I focus on women and girls. And LGBT folks. And those working to improve their lives in the world. I’m a Feminist. Not only do I help folks to get information but I teach them how to do it for themselves. I believe in the power of information and libraries to change peoples’ lives. Libraries can fuel revolutions. Information plus action = knowledge and we all know, knowledge is power. And I am proud of all. of. this.

You see, the freedom and skills to access needed information to improve one’s life or situation is a cornerstone of living an autonomous, fulfilling, dignified life. It’s something we in the West often take for granted. For folks in developing and transitional countries such as South Africa, it is a constant struggle for a multitude of reasons. Living in an information age where access to technology is imperative to keep up and get ahead, the lack of infrastructure for stable internet access, the lack of digital literacy skills, the high cost of data plans and internet cafes… all of these play a role in whether or not people can get access to the information they need. And if they can’t? The gap widens between those who have information and those who do not.

The state of not having the information one needs to thrive is called information poverty. Because it’s important to realize that information poverty is not just about technology, I broadened the scope of my research beyond information poverty to information inequality, which explores the social justice aspects of this the lack of information. Some folks (often those holding power and funds) are not convinced of the power of information for development or they are and intentionally keep that power from the people to keep them subordinate.

Some groups (women and girls, especially) are especially disadvantaged in the acquisition of information to improve their lives. Staggering rates of illiteracy, poverty, and violence show the dysfunction of societies and contribute to the masses living to survive as opposed to living to thrive. And the list goes on…

But so I don’t re-write my whole dissertation here, I will just say that information is imperative to freedom, justice, and equality. People need free access to the right information, in the right language, at the right time, and in the right format so that they may use it to empower themselves, to get out of poverty, to care for their families, to be productive citizens, to live dignified lives.

And libraries have everything to do with this process! Libraries can and should play an extensive role in the alleviation of information inequality and poverty throughout the world. This was the subject of my dissertation but it was focused on the KwaZulu-Natal province of SA, where I spent time in public libraries to see what they were doing (or could be doing) to help alleviate information inequality within their communities.

It’s been an amazing seven years working on this research. And it almost ended me! (I think this is what we call a “first-world problem.”) But thanks to a fantastically supportive partner, as well as my son, friends, and family, I was able to do it. So next week I go back to walk in the graduation ceremony at University of Pretoria.

I will don the cap, gown, and hood, and celebrate for 2+ weeks over there, and see friends, and say, “Hello again!” and “Farewell…” to places I have come to love and long for. I can only hope that future travel experiences can provide even an ounce of what SA has for me. The education I have received there will last me a lifetime…and I’m not only referring to that piece of paper I will receive.

That’s the reason we travel, right? To learn, to broaden our horizons, to see things from multiple perspectives, to explore, to grow, to change and affect change, to live fully and gratefully. Here’s to South Africa and to all the new adventures to come.

Thanks, friends, for reading.

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