Librarianship in a post-truth world: An information science student’s perspective
We are living in a post-truth world where fake news, half truths and alternative facts are rife. Indeed the term post-truth has become so entrenched in the popular vernacular that Oxford Dictionaries made it their Word of the Year for 2016. Not to be outdone, fake news was the Macquarie Dictionary's 'Committee's Choice' Word of the Year in 2016 as well as a runner up for their 'People's Choice' category.
The widespread use of terms like fake news and post-truth is no surprise when you consider that many members of the community inform their opinions via news and commentary posted to social media websites like Twitter and Facebook; and those in the know are buzzing about the dangers of doing so.
According to recent research by the Pew Research Centre, 6 in 10 Americans get their news from social media. Websites like Reddit, where user generated content is common are also popular destinations for accessing news, according to the same study. This is concerning because the internet can be a problematic place to get information. After all, anyone can author a webpage, news article or blog post positioning their thoughts or beliefs as truth. Perhaps then, the proliferation of fake news, incorrect information and alternative facts isn’t so astonishing.
But what can librarians do to help their communities better navigate a post-truth world?
As an emerging information professional, I have spent a bit of time lately thinking about the kinds of skills librarians have and the services they can offer their communities to help them navigate a post-truth world. A few immediately come to mind such as developing information literacy and providing access to reputable sources, encouraging critical thinking, being mindful of the information we share and wanting to be a force for positive change in the community.
Developing information literacy
Librarians deal in knowledge and information. We form our professional lives around understanding, evaluating and organising information and knowledge. As a result, I think librarians are well positioned to help grow information literacy in their communities. In a world where information is more available than ever, and content is easy to create and share, it stands to reason that the truth can sometimes be hard to find.
Knowing where to find ‘good’ information and how to evaluate the usefulness of information is the librarian’s bread and butter. Librarians can and should take an active role in engaging with their communities to find ways to increase their information literacy.
Providing access to sources
Another way librarians can help increase the information literacy of their community is by providing access to reputable research and repositories. This may look a little different depending on the type of library the librarian finds themselves in, however, it is something that all librarians can offer.
In academic settings this might mean showing students reliable peer reviewed journals relevant to their studies. In public libraries it may mean showing members of the public reputable open access repositories. Regardless of the means and method, providing people with access to reputable and reliable information repositories is within the skill set of many librarians.
Encouraging critical thinking
Thinking critically about information and information sources is another skill that is teachable and honed with practice. Once members of our community know how to think critically about where and how they access information, they need to learn how to think critically about the information they have collected. This might mean understanding the need for finding corroborating or contrary information to determine the validity of their ideas, identifying logical fallacies or understanding bias. Again, librarians are well positioned to help developed these skills in our communities.
Wanting to be a force for positive change
As librarians, we are often deeply embedded in and trusted by our communities. We are also easily accessible – community members don’t need to pay directly for our time or expertise. As a result, we are a frequently accessed information resource. Need to know how to find an academic journal relevant to you assignment? Go speak to an academic librarian. Need to know about the rainforest for your school project? Go to your local library. Want to do some historical or genealogical research? Go see your local history librarian. You get the picture. Answering questions is an important part of librarianship, but it is about more than just that.
If you have read R. David Lankes’ ‘The New Librarianship Field Guide’, you will be familiar with this idea:
I think wanting to be a force for positive change is the most fundamental way librarians can play a role in lessening the negative impacts of a post-truth world. When I took my plunge into librarianship it was because I wanted to be involved in information literacy development among undergraduate students, because when I was working as a sessional academic I noticed this was something a lot of my students struggled with. I wanted to be a force positive change, even if it was in a small way. Many other emerging librarians and established librarians I have spoken to have expressed similar aspirations.
Librarians are well placed to be a force for positive change when it comes to equipping the community with the skills they need to be information savvy enough to successfully navigate a post-truth world, but there is more we can do to address the issue head on. Now is not the time for information professionals to be neutral about fake news, half truths, alternative facts and those that perpetuate them and allow them to flourish, it is the time to be proactive, noisy and passionate about addressing the issue head on. Indeed, many already are.
Being mindful of the information we share
Being a force for positive change is not only about educating our communities. We also need to be mindful of the information we share, including our own reposts and retweets. I am certainly guilty of retweeting things that seemed legitimate on the surface, but ended up being less than reliable upon consideration. Being a little more savvy about the kinds of information we share can only be helpful – both in terms of developing our own fake news and alternative fact radar and not helping bad sources of information spread even further. I will be following Alissa's lead by adding 'mindful retweeting' to my list of 2017 resolutions.
Being proactive: #1lib1ref
Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites in the world. It is a highly accessible information repository used by many to gather general or background information. It can be a useful tool, if its entries are well curated and evidenced. For this reason #1lib1ref is incredibly important. The good news is anyone can do it; getting involved with #1lib1ref is a great way for emerging information professionals to play a role in improving information resources used by the community.
During #1lib1ref I updated 5 references on pages about Australian Roller Derby and my home town; both topics I knew a bit about and felt confident adding to. My effort pales in comparison to other librarians I have seen posting about their work on Twitter, but every little reference helps!
#1lib1ref may be over for 2017, but it doesn’t mean the good work has to stop. If you have some spare time, why not update some references on Wikipedia on topics you’re knowledgeable about to improve the quality of information available on one of the most visited websites on the world wide web?
What's the prognosis?
In short, I think librarians have an incredibly important role to play in helping communities navigate a post-truth world. There is a lot of work to do, but many hands to do it.
I am also hopeful that the collaborative nature of librarians and librarianship will help us find diverse and innovative ways to tackle the issues thrown up by living in a post-truth world. Librarians are creative and innovative problem solvers. We are used to change and embrace it enthusiastically. I think these qualities combined with our hard skills and our desire to make positive changes in our communities will establish us as an information safe harbour.
What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.