For all the programs at the upcoming ALA Midwinter Meeting, which opens this week in Atlanta, I expect the event that will generate the most interest is the one taking place in Washington, D.C., on the conference’s opening day: the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
In a way, it’s fitting that so many librarians will be together on inauguration day. Trump’s presidency—and the divisive politics that led to his election—portend a period of uncertainty for libraries. Here are a few library-related issues on my mind as Trump prepares to take the oath of office.
The Fake News Trend Is an Opportunity for Libraries—Let’s Not Blow It
Talk about a sign of the times: post-truth was named the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2016, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The fact that our post-truth politics play such a big role in the news media today should be not only unsettling to librarians but a personal affront.
It wasn’t that long ago that librarians operated walled gardens, where we collected facts and opinions from high-quality, vetted sources, offering them to users to help them make informed decisions. Of course, the Web changed all that. But librarians’ hand-wringing about Google and the quality of Wikipedia seems kind of quaint, in retrospect. During this year’s election, as the BBC reported, teenagers in Macedonia were cashing in by creating fake news stories for hyperpartisan supporters in the U.S., posting them to Facebook and earning advertising revenue from the site.
But there’s a silver lining when it comes to fake news: it has seriously piqued people’s interests—left, right, and center—and many people genuinely want to know more. After all, no one wants to be duped. And the rise of such blatantly false stories offers librarians the perfect opportunity to engage with their communities. Who better to lead a conversation about reliable sources than librarians?
But for God’s sake, please don’t use the terms information or media literacy. And don’t set up fake news workshops that require people to register online. Instead, find ways to get out and meet your community where they are—book groups, at the Y, churches and synagogues, PTA meetings, senior organizations, and after-school programs. Work with children, teens, and adults. Ask people where they find their news and the context in which they are discovering it. Show them how to locate the sources that produced it, and how to verify it.
Perhaps most importantly, explore the risks of reading news that only supports one’s own perspectives. And position yourself not as an expert but as a fellow learner, ready to help with a process that is ongoing and often difficult.
Will Yiannopoulos Usher in a New Genre?
One of the hot topics in the halls of the upcoming ALA Midwinter meeting will likely be the forthcoming book, Dangerous, from Milo Yiannopoulos, the far-right provocateur and Breitbart editor most famous for being banned from Twitter for engaging in the targeted harassment of actress Leslie Jones.
Yiannopoulos caused a media firestorm this month after signing a deal with Threshold Editions, Simon & Schuster’s conservative imprint. Critics of the deal say that Yiannopoulos, unlike S&S’s other right-wing authors (including Glenn Beck, Dick Cheney, and Donald Trump), invites an especially divisive, fringe element into the cultural mainstream, and there have been calls to boycott S&S in a variety of ways.
Will I buy Dangerous (which, I should point out, no one has yet seen) for my collection? Yes. Like most public librarians, I have a collection development policy that riffs on the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights: materials should not be excluded because of origin, background, or views, and libraries should provide “materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.”
I’ll likely have a small number of patrons who will request Dangerous. And I’m betting there will be many more who will want to flip through it, even though they won’t want to borrow it, and certainly won’t purchase it.
But it’s what comes next that bears watching. If Dangerous is the financial success S&S is betting it will be, it will release that bane of the book industry—the copycats. Brace yourselves: while Yiannopoulos may be the first to cash in on his own particular brand of hate, there’s plenty more to go around: white nationalists, anti-Semites, haters of homosexuals, Islamophobes, and others.
ALA Cannot Afford a Leadership Vacuum
If there was ever a time when ALA needs strong leadership, it’s now. Yet, in the days immediately following Trump’s election, the first statements out of ALA—two of which were later rescinded—were textbook examples of how not to communicate if you are a large, professional membership organization. And what followed was a weeklong train wreck of retractions, more releases, emails to listservs, a blog post, a Q&A “Related to the New Administration,” and finally an announcement for the inevitable town hall at the upcoming Midwinter meeting.
It all began with a postelection statement from the ALA’s Washington Office (which was later rescinded and explained away as a mistakenly released draft). The release outlined how ALA could assist the new administration with certain goals identified by Trump’s transition team, including infrastructure, education, and veterans’ services. But what really upset librarians was a quote in the release from ALA president Julie Todaro that said ALA stood “ready to work with President-elect Trump, his transition team, the incoming administration and members of Congress.”
For the ALA Washington Office, this kind of statement is normal after an election. Fitting libraries into a new administration’s agenda is its job. However, this year’s election was anything but normal. And for many ALA members, this communication couldn’t have been more off-key. Trump’s campaign rhetoric directly contradicted the ALA Code of Ethics and the library community’s core values—especially those regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. And many ALA members believed that any statement from ALA needed to address such contradictions, first and foremost. Instead, draft or not, such words were absent entirely.
There were several troubling things about this debacle, but, to me, the most troubling is that it appears ALA didn’t just take its eye off the ball, but that it didn’t have its eye on the ball to begin with. ALA has since apologized for the mistake. But the episode has left many librarians wondering what will happen when we’re faced with the true “hardball” of the policy wars, as ALA president-elect Jim Neal has put it.
Perhaps, as with so many things we fear today, some good will come from this episode. Maybe it will help to mobilize a new generation of librarians who will lead ALA forward. There’s certainly a whole lot worth fighting for.
Brian Kenney is Director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library, and former editorial director of Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.