Conspiracy Theories and Intellectual Freedom

Intellectual Freedom Issues, Professional Ethics

By: Ross Sempek

Ryan Dowd is great. He really is – his positive attitude and commitment to empathy for all human beings is something the world needs, especially in this current moment. But, I have to remind myself, Ryan Dowd is not a librarian. He’s a super-intelligent lawyer whose life’s work with people experiencing homelessness has made him (in addition to a saint) an expert in guiding human behavior with positive reinforcement and genuine connection. All great things to bring to the library in terms of policy enforcement, and patron rapport. However Dowd’s inexperience with the ethics of intellectual freedom gave a recent “homeless tip email” an air of generalized snobbery about what ideas people choose to pursue, and what motivates these decisions of autodidacts.

Here’s a selection from the Homeless Tip email:

Arguing with someone about their conspiracy theory only makes them feel special.

Trying to prove them wrong only proves that they erroneously know more than everyone else.

So, what works? Be boring!

The key is to combine ambivalence with indifference.

For example, imagine this conversation in a library:

Patron: “Did you know that COVID was manufactured by Barrack Obama in a Kenyan super lab in order to drive down the price of Australian cotton?”

Librarian: “I hadn’t heard that. Our travel books are on the second floor. There is a great book, Lonely Planet, on Australia.”

Let’s start with the good stuff. Arguing with patrons isn’t generally advisable, conspiracy theory or not. And Dowd does include a link of a real-life story that sounds tin-hatty, but really isn’t. Giving credence to the actual and brutal chicanery that occurs at all levels of government. But I digress…

I wasn’t hired to be boring, and never once have I been instructed to combine “ambivalence with indifference” when interacting with patrons. Call me an ideologue, but that sort of attitude shouldn’t be used with quirky patrons who are following the rules. To me, this is the beginning of a reference interview; an opportunity to get at the heart of an information need.

I also resent the pejorative inherent within the term “conspiracy theory.” Too often it gets used to dismiss ideas as “crazy” without having to do any real research to bolster such rebuffs. Anything deemed as such doesn’t even deserve the baseline mental faculty we exercise when we want to learn more about something. So what comes to mind when you read “conspiracy theories?” How about “skeptics,” “independent thinkers,” or “open-minded intellectuals?” What about “non-conformists?”

It’s the difference between “provocateur,” and “instigator;” “person experiencing homelessness,” and “bum.” The same thing dressed up with different words drastically changes our attitudes toward them. And his advice is to use this term in order to judge what a patron is talking about, and change the subject to something more professional. I get this, these theories are usually political in nature, and as librarians we can’t get involved in giving credence to one side over others. That’s our patron’s prerogative to find out, and that’s precisely my issue with Dowd’s approach. Deflecting the topic at hand stymies an information need communicated at the outset, and judging someone’s motivation for sharing information assumes a litany of pretenses.

But most importantly you most likely have information in your library that could be placed under the conspiracy or fringe theory umbrella. But with a perfunctory dismissal patrons are cut off from any information of value to them. Check out your catalog; if you have anything by David Icke, Jim Marrs, Stephen Greer, Jesse Ventura, Andrew Collins, or Daniel Estulin you’d have a legitimate bank of knowledge to recommend to this patron. Ambivalence and indifference shuts down this service, and communicates to patrons that they’re just not worth your time. And to borrow from Dowd: Their perception is your reality.   

So if you follow Dowd’s advice in this instance you will be deaf to an information need before you enter a reference interview; you will judge a patron’s intentions based on their area of interest; and you will have given them no help in pursuing a topic they’ve expressed interest in. I love Ryan Dowd, but I don’t think librarians should dismiss patrons based on a cloaked information need that seems immediately nonsensical. It’s our job to get at the core needs of patrons, and that requires focus, not indifference.

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.


  • Hello, Ross — Ryan doesn’t pose a reference question. He poses a conversational question that librarians might hear. If the question was something like, “Was Covid manufactured by Barrack Obama in a Kenyan super lab?,” then I would see if I could source the rumor and go from there. When, however, a patron only presents an attempt to start a provocative conversation that by its nature would take me out of my professional role, I don’t want to engage accordingly. We have a patron who asks often for information about “sovereign citizenship.” I personally think he is delusional, but I and my colleagues always try professionally to get answers to his questions. We have other patrons who try to start religious or political conversations with us, and we do change the subject. I think, as usual, Saint Ryan is right on.

  • I have spent more minutes than I know saying ‘hmm’. To numerous threads of conversations. Anyone in my library is entitled to believe what they wish, and as long as they don’t shout, they can say what they wish. Sorry Ryan, in your house, your rules, in my house, everybody is special, equally special.

  • Hi, Evan.

    I appreciate your readership, and comment! And you’re right, there’s no direct information need communicated other than the yes or no question. And I think that answering, then changing the subject is the right strategy, but not with indifference and ambivalence. Additionally, I believe that any positive or neutral interaction with a patron is an opening to get down to an information need, extend a kindness, or get to know them personally. There are also better ways of responding to this than a verbal wave of the hand. Such as:

    I haven’t heard that – nice to see you ___ !
    I haven’t heard that – my name is Ross, what’s your name?
    I haven’t heard that – what can I do for you today?
    I haven’t heard that, but I’ve always wanted to go to Australia, have you been?

    What I don’t like about this approach is that you’d be pushing the patron toward the stacks when you haven’t even tried to see if they need anything.

  • Appreciate this contribution from Ross — and the fact that OIF actually published it! My preference and self-identification is “recreational thinker.” 😉

  • Hey, Sarah!

    Thanks for reading, and commenting! I am often amazed that my admittedly unorthodox viewpoints get published here, but it’s a testament to ALA’s commitment to IF and free speech; it isn’t mere lip service. The editing staff here is also superb. Open-mindedness is certainly a virtue 🙂 I like your ID, I’ll add that to my lexicon – cheers!

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