In December, Bloomberg News reported that anti-vaccine books frequently appear as top results when searching for books via Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. I decided to try this out for myself and sure enough the results were populated with highly polarizing or provocative titles (the aim of this post is not to blacklist or draw attention to specific books, so I am trying to refrain from identifying any authors or titles). I always tell my students to evaluate an author’s background and expertise, so practicing what I preach I performed a quick google search on some of the authors and discovered pretty quickly that there are debunked conspiracy theorists or even former doctors with revoked medical licenses writing these books. Some agenda-driven books, however, are harder to identify and weed out than others, and many people do not take the step of evaluating an author’s credentials.
But these are retail searches, so why does this matter to libraries and relate to intellectual freedom? Those of you who have worked library reference are most likely accustomed to patrons showing you an Amazon page on their phone asking “can you get me this book?” Performing a book search for “COVID-19” via both Amazon and Barnes and Noble shows books suggesting debunked conspiracy theories within the first ten results. Additionally, searches on OCLC WorldCat reveal that books with such misleading or debunked information wind up on the shelves of public, college, and high school libraries. Amidst a pandemic where vaccines and changes in public health practices are necessary, materials claiming the contrary can pose significant health risks. Back in August, BBC reported that over 800 people had died due to COVID-19-related misinformation during the first three months of the pandemic. The World Health Organization has referred to this as an “infodemic.”
I could easily go down the rabbit hole of identifying these books and how many are in libraries, but the point of this post is not to attack authors or evaluate individual books. I want to address the implications of intellectual freedom with regard to said materials. Article II of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights states “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” So this brings up the potential dilemma, if a patron requests their library purchase materials with misleading or falsified information, does refusing infringe on that individual’s intellectual freedom?
Libraries are not the only institutions or organizations that are facing these types of issues. Twitter, for example, released last month their plan for combatting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Part of their plan includes placing a label or warning on Tweets with dubious or misleading claims. Even YouTube has been cracking down on misinformation by removing videos which allege false claims about voter fraud and misleading information on COVID-19. Despite backlash to these efforts, these companies can do this due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows companies to remove offensive or objectionable content, as long as it is in “good faith.” Section 230, however, does not apply to libraries’ offline collection development activities, in addition to warning labels being considered a form of censorship.
Since censorship is not an option, how can libraries help?
ALA’s January 2017 “Resolution on Access to Accurate Information” states that “access to accurate information, not censorship, is the best way to counter disinformation and media manipulation…” Rather than focusing on the challenges of misinformation, I wanted to highlight some libraries that are working to promote quality information surrounding COVID-19 and the government’s vaccine rollout plan. While there may not be a quick cure to this “infodemic,” efforts to disseminate and promote authoritative information can be seen as antibodies to help fight against misinformation. Below are examples of libraries who have made a concentrated effort to disseminate quality information, or otherwise play a pivotal role in their communities vaccination plans.
Los Angeles County Library
The LA County Library put together a resource guide for COVID-19 and vaccine information. Among these resources is a curated booklist, which features materials available for children, teens, and adults.
Palm Beach County Library
Staff at the Palm Beach County Library not only provide up-to-date vaccine information, but are also helping their patrons make vaccination appointments through computer assistance.
Cincinnati Public Library
The Cincinnati Public Library has made significant efforts to inform its community. Starting in October, the library partnered with the Test and Protect Initiative to provide free COVID-19 testing at multiple locations. They have called for community feedback and provide timely updates on the vaccine rollout. In addition to disseminating accurate information, the library is involved with distribution itself by committing its transportation fleet to delivering the vaccine.
Transylvania County Public Library
The Transylvania County Public Library has partnered with its local public health department to act as a vaccine call center. Library staff are readily available to answer calls regarding vaccine availability.
Citrus County Library System
The Citrus County Public Health Department has partnered with county libraries to provide COVID-19 vaccine information at any of its branches. The library system also makes accessible vaccine consent forms and fact sheets via its website.
North of Chicago, The Warren-Newport plans to promote the COVID-19 vaccine and the Waukegan Public Library is planning to make virtual mental health services available to provide additional pandemic support.
The ALA’s Public Library Association has rolled out a new health literacy initiative, and provides training resources, program ideas, and credible information sources that librarians can utilize.
As many in the library profession return to providing in-person reference services, we will likely be faced with patrons inquiring about the COVID-19 vaccine or related literature. While libraries should not be in this fight alone, our commitment to providing quality and timely information to our patrons is extremely important right now. As misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine begins to make its rounds, it is important for libraries to do what it can to provide accurate and timely information to their users.
David Sye is a Research and Instruction Librarian at Murray State University in southwestern Kentucky. He is liaison for the History, Political Science & Sociology, and Psychology departments, as well as teaching instruction sessions and credit-bearing courses on information literacy. He holds a BA in History from the University of Illinois at Springfield, in addition to an MA in History and MLIS from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Prior to working at Murray State University, he has worked in public libraries and briefly taught middle school social studies.