We can stipulate this much: the internet and the rise of powerful search engines such as Google have changed the game forever for reference librarians and publishers. Over the past two decades, information once forced into book-shaped containers housed in special sections of libraries has been freed. So much information today is readily accessible; cheap, often free; and increasingly interactive and powerful.
Sure, Google does not answer every question perfectly, but librarians today are at least comfortable off-loading the job of answering basic questions to the internet. And they have redirected efforts and resources once dedicated to traditional reference into programs that are making a greater impact in their communities, whether they’re providing tax help, job-search help, citizenship classes, social services, or ukulele lessons.
We now appear to be firmly within a new era of reference. And after some initial hand-wringing in the library profession, it’s become clear that libraries have survived the seismic change brought by the internet, and in many communities they are transforming reference into something truly powerful.
As PW contributing editor Brian Kenney wrote in a column in 2015, patrons today want help doing things rather than finding things. And librarians are rising to that challenge, ditching the fortress once known as the reference desk and better integrating themselves into their communities where their customers need them.
But it’s also clear that more challenges loom. In 2016, “fake news” entered the lexicon, and it’s had a profound effect on our society. Powerful information technology, unwieldy social media platforms, and a political climate in which players even at the highest level of our government seek to undermine Americans’ trust in the information they consume has put librarians in the middle of a battle over truth.
“People are genuinely curious about this idea of fake news, and they kind of want to see it, and be able to identify it,” says Kenney, the director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library. Like many libraries across the country, White Plains has been hosting workshops on identifying fake news and broader information literacy. “We’ve been doing it outside of the library—at church organizations, at the synagogue, current events groups,” Kenney adds. “It’s provided an opportunity get out there and talk about evaluating sources—trying to explain to people things like Google’s algorithms, how what you read and search online is going to impact what you are exposed to in the future. It’s been something that the public has been very receptive to. And we’ve been able to have these discussions with a fair amount of respect.”
Indeed, fake news and Americans’ declining trust in the information they consume has become a hot topic in the Trump era, and one that strikes at the root of the library’s mission. How can libraries help people better sort fact from fiction? And can librarians help restore Americans’ trust in their institutions, and in the information they consume?
PW recently caught up with Donald Barclay, university librarian at the University of California-Merced and author of the new book Fake News, Propaganda, and Plain Old Lies (Rowman & Littlefield), to get his expert take.
Well, the idea started in 2016, when fake news really blew up. And it occurred to me as a librarian that this is nothing new; this is just information literacy. This is about trying to decide what’s credible and not credible, what suits your information need and what doesn’t. Now, there are a lot of books about fake news coming out written from one political position or another. But my intention was to be as politically neutral as possible. Because when you step back and look at it, people at all ends of the political spectrum stretch the truth.
You raise a good point about the rise of fake news—the term’s commonality is new, but it’s not a new phenomenon. Why has today’s information environment made authority such a difficult issue for so many Americans to parse?
Right. Fake news is not new at all. But the incredible volume of information out there in the digital age just blows away anything that existed before, as does the speed at which information travels, and the low cost—almost zero, in fact—at which information can be created and distributed. In 1980, if you had some crackpot conspiracy theory and you wanted to try and influence as many people as possible, you’d have to type something up and go to Kinko’s to make copies. But on the internet today, you can crank out one conspiracy theory idea after another and put them online, where millions of people might see them. And with social media, maybe your friends or your uncle or your mother picks up and reposts one of these things—suddenly, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a stranger; it’s coming from someone you trust, so it feels more intimate, and real.
In talking with librarians, I’ve found that more libraries are now hosting workshops for the public on fake news and information literacy. Information literacy has always been a core mission of libraries, of course, but it certainly seems to have become more urgent. What advice would you give to librarians who are putting together programs like this?
I think the emotional component of information is an important part of this. I’ll give you an example: the recent op-ed published anonymously in the New York Times. People who don’t like Donald Trump are going, “Yeah, we knew that was what was happening.” But what if Breitbart published an anonymous op-ed like that during the Obama administration?
My point is that it is easier to be critical of things that don’t resonate with you. When something does resonate—whether it makes you scared, angry, happy, or smug—those are the things you should probably check out and make sure the information’s credible. It’s really about making good decisions. And the impact information has on someone—if it challenges or reaffirms someone’s deeply held beliefs, for example—will often determine what kind of effort they put into evaluating it.
And the other part of this is that, because we have so much information coming at us these days, it’s just impossible to evaluate it all, right? We have to sort of triage it. And I think that’s important to keep in mind, too, because one of the dangers of this information overload is that people will give up—“It’s all BS, so I’m just going to go with what feels right.” And that’s not a good place to work from—that kind of total cynicism, that everything’s a lie so we might as well not even try.
Yeah, that’s a tough one. We enjoyed a long period, roughly from the end of World War I to very recently, where objective journalism was considered the norm. Now there are people who really think the New York Times is no better than Breitbart, or that they’re both corrupt, or that everything is BS. And that is a scary proposition. But that’s why it’s important that we get people to think more critically about information again.
It seems to me that your book could become an essential reference tool for librarians as they help the public wrestle with all this. Did you envision this becoming a kind of reference book when you set out to write it?
I thought of it as a book that ordinary people who care about information would want to read, and I thought it would be useful in high schools and colleges, where they teach critical thinking, or writing or communications. But I think that’s a good target audience. Like the Strunk and White of information literacy—it’d have to be updated a lot!
But, you know, I’d really like to see it be used in schools, because I think that we as a country really need to think about teaching about information for more than just one hour a year where your class goes to talk to the librarian about it. I think we need to start teaching it from grade school all the way through college.
There’s a reason they call this the information age. The ability to make sense of information and to think about it critically is as important to us now as the ability to work with iron and wood and steel and coal was to people living in the industrial age. More and more people make their living with information. And even in fields like agriculture, farmers are not sitting out there just guessing at things or looking at almanacs. Information is everywhere these days. It’s in all of our fields of endeavor.