Librarianship in the Age of Alternative Facts

Intellectual Freedom Issues, News Literacy

By: Sarah Hicks

Librarians are simple creatures, for the most part. We want to uphold the First Amendment, provide access to information, find the right answer to an asked question, and maybe recommend someone a good book. We are committed to education, accessibility, intellectual freedom, innovation, and maybe cardigans.

Unfortunately, we now live in a world where the idea of “alternative facts,” which would otherwise be called either “lies” or “mistakes,” is somehow acceptable. It’s been coming for years, but it’s finally reached its zenith. Our job just got a lot harder.

America has long had an anti-intellectual streak (have you heard of these guys?), so I’m not going to pretend that this is the first time that verifiable facts have been seen as optional. But the advent of the internet means that people have a far easier time finding like-minded individuals, who then reinforce their existing beliefs. The less we see from opposing viewpoints, the more we believe that our beliefs are the correct ones, and the more entrenched the beliefs become. As one Wired article points out, “There is plenty of ambiguity in life that the internet has a tendency to gloss over with false certainty.” It’s certainly comforting to believe that our points of view are the right ones, which is why “alternative facts” can gain so much traction.

Fictitious World Map
The fictitious world map from “1984.”

This article isn’t intended to be partisan. Everyone, to some extent, engages in these behaviors. When it’s coming from all sides, however, it can seem particularly difficult to combat. No longer are we, as librarians, solely concerned with the lone patron who believes the moon landing was faked. We’re instead on the forefront of a battleground with not only patrons who may refuse to believe provable facts, but also numerous news outlets and the new administration itself. If I were the type of person to quote Orwell, I’d do that here, but regardless of how much you feel 1984 applies today, it’s been proven that the more we’re inundated with “alternative facts,” the less our brains can sort it all out. The cognitive load is merely too great.

So what can we do as librarians to help counteract all of this? Some answers were offered up at the ALA Midwinter conference last week. Part of the solution, certainly, is staying the course; remain committed to intellectual freedom and accessible information in our libraries. Part of the solution also lies in greater education of our communities. (Does your library have information literacy programming? Maybe some resources on critically evaluating websites?) Part of it is making sure that our organizational guidelines are firmly on the side of actual facts, if possible. A lot of it is vigilance and determination.

Our right to free speech not only covers our right to be free from censorship, but also our right to receive information. In safeguarding and providing access to information for our patrons and our communities, we are upholding a core element of the First Amendment. We are key in this new battle against provable facts and objective truth.

Of course, free speech also covers fake news, but its proliferation by people in power is a proven strategy to keep the public unsure and easy to manipulate. We, as librarians, need to do what we can to combat this and provide accurate information as often as we can. This won’t be easy, and we can’t do it all ourselves. That doesn’t mean that the work won’t need to be done, or that we can just walk away from it. We’re librarians. It’s vital that we keep fighting the good fight, for the benefit of everyone.


shicksheadshotSarah Hicks is a current MLIS student at the University of Pittsburgh, and works in a local public library. She has long been passionate about issues regarding intellectual freedom, and believes that these issues are becoming increasingly important worldwide, especially those related to privacy, surveillance, and censorship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as certain stereotypes about librarians are not wholly untrue, she is both an avid reader (of many genres) and a total cat lady. Sarah can sometimes be found @exactlibrarian.

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