Access and Truth: Should Librarians Provide Context?

Intellectual Freedom Issues, News Literacy

By: guest blogger Melissa Chiavaroli

A few weeks ago I posted about an ethical conundrum on the ALA Think Tank Facebook page. My concern was whether buying Milo Yiannopolus’ book Dangerous was an essential freedom of information purchase or if I was doing harm by spreading the reach of an alternative facts, alt-right fame seeker and self-proclaimed provocateur.

I do realize this particular point is now moot since the book was cancelled. However, this discussion is still important because this is not the last time a member of the alternative facts community will be published in the foreseeable future. We are lucky that it is a biography this time and not the new history of science. It was this fact and not the memoir itself that started me down this road.

As I always do when in doubt, I pulled up the ALA Code of Ethics and Library Bill of Rights for guidance. As it turns out, there was no argument. Stock it and hand it out with a smile. And for a memoir, I agree that this is the right choice. But, we should be careful to not miss the forest for the trees. When our patrons need us most, we are struggling to come to terms with the difference between freedom of information and promoting propaganda and alternative facts. We have not made any major updates to our guiding documents since the internet has taken over every corner of life. Yes, we are teaching information literacy skills, but is it enough?

We live in a time where we can access more information in .04 seconds than most people less than two generations ago could access in a lifetime. Yet, we have not evolved enough as a profession to be able to stand up to the responsibilities of having so much information at our fingertips. If we are not helping our patrons curate the information, what is the difference between us and Google? Neil Gaiman famously stated, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” Are we living up to such high praise?

I have recently spoken with journalism professors who are baffled at how we got here and how to best teach skills that separate fake news from real news. With experts confused, how can we expect our patrons to be able to do it without better tools and more guidance? By not being more proactive in our development choices, we are setting ourselves up to not only give the wrong answer, but set back the education of the public we are supposed to serve.

We need to fight for our patrons. We have entire segments of our community who are under attack, and it is in our power to put out information that stops fear, unites people and empowers individuals.

When it comes to propaganda and alternative facts, it’s easy to say patrons will know what’s not true or what is only one source. But, we know this is not the case. Reference anxiety is a real thing and the thought that each patron will come to us for clarifications is naïve at best and ludicrous at worst. Our patrons are drowning and we are uniquely poised to help.

Don’t get me wrong. I abhor censorship. This is not what I am suggesting. I am the poster child for freedom of information. You want me to order you the Anarchist’s Cookbook? ILL here I come. Bill O’Reilly and all of his non-fiction books without citations, we have at least four copies per book. I go deep against my every personal conviction and stock each of Ann Coulter’s books on my shelves. But now, we are watching a campaign of hate and propaganda unlike anything since WWII and the “separate but equal” era of the Civil Rights Movement.

We are supposed to be the keepers of the culture. This is a much higher responsibility then just shoveling mountains of information and letting our patrons figure it out. Again, they have Google for that. Yes, we need to offer these materials, but we also need to find a way to convey that the information they contain may be questionable.

To be clear, I am not saying we start assigning value to items. I am stating that we need to be more careful about just putting it on our shelves without the context of accuracy. When Pluto was demoted from planetary status, we had no issue with taking these materials off the shelf and adding updated items with the correct information. When James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces proved not to be a memoir, we moved it to fiction or discarded it from the collection.

How can we step up our skills and services to be truly worthy of 21st century librarianship? We have no problem being community centers and active hubs of discourse. So why, when it is most important to our patrons, are we struggling to find a way to ethically provide information while also providing some context for it?

Generations of our predecessors have fought these battles, but they have never had to do so with the wealth of information and information access that we have now. It’s our generation’s responsibility to put frameworks into place so that when parents are called upon to tell their children what is fake news and alternative facts, they can do so with confidence. And we need to do it much more cohesively, loudly, and sooner rather than later.

It’s easy to hide behind the banner of intellectual freedom and say we hand out information equally and at will. But is this truly a service? My argument here is that we cannot allow a country of patrons that are already angry, confused and looking to us for our expertise to drown in the sea of information we are supposed to help them navigate.

In this moment we have the opportunity to let it be known that we will stand for access and truth. That we are worthy of our patrons’ trust — that we will not just feed them content but will give them context as well. We are often asked why we have libraries in the age of Google. We just have been given the perfect opportunity to prove our worth. Will we open the discussion and grab it?


Melissa ChiavaroliMelissa Chiavaroli has a B.A. in Communication Studies and Writing and a masters in Library and Information Studies from the University of Rhode Island. A community relations manager for Barnes & Noble for more than a decade, she has a proven record of success in strategic planning, programming, outreach, marketing and customer service. A 2012 ALA Emerging Leader, she now serves as the head of reference for the Cumberland Public Library. Melissa is passionate about advocating the role of libraries in the community and providing innovative services and programs to her patrons.


  • I am delighted to read such a thoughtful discussion of information in context and libraries civic duty. Once upon a time (think Boston Athenaeum circa 1810) it may have been true that the only library patrons were educated and critical readers, that books were published after educated and critical review (think Alfred A. Knopf). In the current age, however, we cannot trust that we are providing “real “information or that our uncritical readers are able to discern fiction from fact. Ms. Chiavaroli eloquently describes the conundrum of balancing access with truth. I have long been concerned about patients convinced that vaccines cause autism or that chelation is a viable alternative to coronary artery by-pass surgery. While it is the patient’s/patron’s right to make their own choices it is the DUTY of the librarian to assist in informing those choices. If you assume no such responsibility then how is your service any more that than of a self-serve bookstore?

  • Good questions, Melissa. But I’m not altogether sure quite what you’re recommending. You write, “I am stating that we need to be more careful about just putting it on our shelves without the context of accuracy.” How, specifically, would you do that around political discussions around, for instance, immigration?

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