As we celebrate National Library Week and School Library Month, we reflect on the importance of the library profession to American society. Digital access, privacy issues, and misinformation continue to intensify with the evolution of technology, prompting library professionals to revisit and refresh how they help patrons with their information needs.
This must include a renewed emphasis on media literacy as more Americans get their information from all types of media, including social media, television, Youtube, user-generated content, and infographics. How do librarians in all types of libraries help patrons navigate this rapidly-expanding technological information landscape?
ALA recently published “Media Literacy in the Library: A Guide for Library Practitioners” (free download) to help all library professionals (public, academic, school, special) plan programming and curate resources based on the experiences and expertise of 30 leaders in the field. This publication is part of a 16-month project, Media Literacy Education in Libraries for Adult Audiences (although the materials can be adapted to other age groups).
I recently interviewed 2 contributors: Dr. Nicole A. Cooke, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and an associate professor at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina, author of “Misinformation and Disinformation,” and Kristen Calvert, Division Manager for Dallas Public Library in Dallas, TX, author of “Meeting Patrons Where They Are.”
What was your inspiration for collaborating on the document “Media Literacy in the Library: A Guide for Library Practitioners?”
Dr. Nicole A. Cooke: I think many of us in the profession have been giving serious thought to fake news, which is a form of misinformation, and disinformation, and wondering how to address these concepts with our students, patrons, and community members. Information professionals have been doing this work for many decades in the form of information literacy instruction, and school librarians and educators have been teaching media literacy in their classrooms, and here we are faced with the same information quality problems. But this time, we need new ways to address old problems, particularly with the inclusion of social media, bots, and foreign adversaires deliberately launching disinformation campaigns. The guide was created to help practitioners and other users get up to speed with the various dimensions of misinformation and disinformation, and be able to hit the ground running with targeted programming that will benefit communities.
ALA’s Public Programs Office convened a great group of information professionals – practicing librarians and LIS and media literacy educators – all of whom needed to address fake news and misinformation with their constituents in relevant, interesting, and non-partisan ways. The work has become more challenging and we all have a lot of great ideas that we needed to bring together and distill for the profession. After the larger advisory board met during an October 2019 immersive working session, a smaller group continued the work of creating the guide.
Kristen Calvert: In every interaction we have in the library, I think it’s really important to understand where our patrons are coming from so we can best meet their needs. If we don’t understand their perspective, how will we ever answer their questions? This is especially true when talking about media literacy. Library staff are looking for ways to provide factual information and they want their customers to believe it’s sound and trustworthy. To help them get to that point, we need to understand why they might not want to trust what we’re telling them.
What is your advice to librarians who are hesitant to address topics of media, news media outlets, and misinformation?
NC: Librarians and information professionals no longer have the luxury of being hesitant and/or not addressing disinformation. In this age of COVID, racial unrest, climate change, and rampant societal inequities, libraries are more important than ever in terms of information provision. These are not easy things to teach, especially when so many people believe with their guts instead of their minds, but we have to make an effort when the outcome of disinformation or lack of information could literally result in harm or death.
Information professionals need to get on board, whether it’s with this guide or with another resource of their choosing. Pick something manageable, e.g., disinformation on TikTok or misinformation about the voting process, and work with those until you’re comfortable taking on additional topics. Work with colleagues, and even consider bringing in experts to help you tackle these topics in your libraries. There are so many resources available now you don’t have to recreate the wheels or go it alone.
How do you handle a situation in which a patron may insist that a resource you have shared is not reliable?
KC: I would start by asking the patron why they think the source is unreliable. Depending on their answer, I would either show them other sources with the same information or I’d go in-depth on media bias/reliability and why I chose the sites I chose. This would probably focus on things like who pays for varying media outlets, research into what sources are the most trusted by Americans and why that is. This is really where relating to patrons on an individual level is so important. If I can understand where someone is coming from and why they believe what they believe, I’m more likely to make an impact and help them on their journey to finding good and reliable resources and information.
What are some practical tips for ensuring that library staff are not spreading false information or using unreliable sources of information?
KC: By nature, librarians and library staff are by and large very skilled in finding accurate and good information. We believe in the importance of giving people the best and most thorough information we possibly can. This is innately who we are as professionals and as people. I think this mindset and desire to provide the most accurate and thorough information makes it pretty straightforward. We train library staff in the same way we work with customers on finding the best information. Training on accuracy, source quality, information bias, etc., happens both in school, on the job and through professional development opportunities. We train our people to be thorough, on how to use databases and why finding the right information to fit the need is important. Many times, librarians learn as they work. Two staff members often work the reference desk together. This allows for an opportunity for both staff members to work together to find the best information possible, not just relying on the expertise of one person. Library staff are taught to ask for help if they don’t have the answers. They are encouraged to take down a phone number and email if they aren’t immediately able to find the best information to answer an inquiry. This allows for an opportunity to research in depth and to seek out other staff for assistance.
Library staff are taught not to be driven by personal bias when answering questions. We do our best to remain neutral and answer all questions to the best of our abilities, even when we don’t personally agree. Providing access to information is a pillar of librarianship.
Can you share a story about programming/education that has gone well?
NC: My small wins this semester include seeing the undergraduates in my news literacy pick up new facts and strategies and realize that they can always learn more and do better. Also, I’m pleased to see that more news outlets are using the terms misinformation and disinformation and moving away from the phrase “fake news”.
KC: I had a customer who would regularly visit the library to discuss things she had seen on television and to ask follow-up questions. I took the time to find the information she asked for, but I also took the time to show her other ways she could fact check, like using some of the tips in the infographic I linked to earlier. I was able to help her understand bias and why sources could be biased a little better.
Dr. Cooke, your section, “Misinformation and Disinformation,” provides librarians with practical programming ideas for patrons. Are there any common pitfalls to avoid?
NC: Pitfalls, and there can be lots of them, include: trying to do too much in our programs or instruction; not making our content relevant to our communities lives and interests; not making our content culturally relevant (e.g., Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected by COVID and the misinformation/disinformation they are receiving could be different than what you’re receiving); and, thinking we’re smarter than our communities and not addressing the multiple sides of a given topic (i.e., avoiding examples or content because YOU, the information professional, don’t agree with the slant or viewpoint of a source that could actually spur conversation, comparison, empathy, or understanding. “I won’t include this station in my list of examples because I HATE that channel!” Or, “That movie is garbage and biased, and it shouldn’t be listed in the Media Guide!”).
Kristen, you point out in your section that mastery of media literacy is not a reasonable expectation because the information landscape evolves. What do you think are some of the most important media literacy skills that might transfer despite how the information landscape evolves?
KC: I think knowing how to find background information on sources will always be beneficial. Answering questions like, “Who is paying for this site?” will always be important. Having a broad understanding of how people consume information and what they’re relying on for information is also important, because it helps us understand where to start when providing the tools to help patrons find quality information sources. I also think understanding why a source is quality and why one is not will always be important. The fundamentals of what makes something trustworthy have changed less than the actual mediums we get our media through.
Can you share programming ideas?
KC: I think media literacy skills are best worked into other programs. I love the idea of discussing media portrayal in book club discussions and after movie showings. I also think that we should add media literacy to skills taught in our beginning computer classes. I like the idea of inviting local journalists into libraries for informal conversations with patrons. Since the use of local journalism has declined over the past couple decades, I think this gives a great opportunity to discuss and build trust with local news outlets.
What additional resources related to media literacy can you share?
NC: There are lots of books, professional development webinars and resources, and short courses and research reports available at sites like the News Literacy Project, the Center for News Literacy, Pen America, The Center for an Informed Public, First Draft, and The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Cooke, N. A. (2017). Posttruth, truthiness, and alternative facts: Information behavior and critical information consumption for a new age. The library quarterly, 87(3), 211-221.
Cooke, N. A. (2018). Fake news and alternative facts: Information literacy in a post-truth era. American Library Association.
Cooke, N. A. (2018). Critical Literacy as an Approach to Combating Cultural Misinformation/Disinformation Online. In D. Agosto (Ed.), Information Literacy and Libraries in the Age of Fake News, (pp. 36-51). ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited.
Cooke, N. A. (2020). The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Digital Legacies. In H. Moorefield-Lang (Ed.), Library Technology Report on Digital Legacy, (pp. 12-16).Chicago, IL: American Library Association.
Cooke, N. A. (2021). Media and information literacies as a response to misinformation and populism. In H. Tumber & S. Waisbord (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism. London, UK: Routledge.
There are many strategies in the guide and in my ALA book “Fake news and alternative facts: Information literacy in a post-truth era” (2018). A couple of strategies include: reading/consuming outside of your comfort zone – break your own filter bubble; be your own fact checker, and don’t accept every piece of information at face value; be mindful of your own biases and periodically reconsider who your gatekeepers/trusted sources are; and, take a breath when you see or hear something you don’t agree with and check your emotional responses. It’s healthy to be skeptical and discerning, but don’t let that keep you from doing your own due diligence when critically evaluating information.
KC: I don’t really like to point patrons to one specific source, even if it’s a source that I use and trust in my personal life. Instead, I try to give patrons the tools they need to evaluate their own sources. Action 4 Media Education has a great infographic that takes customers through a logical way to understand how to evaluate news. NAMLE also has some great tools for helping people get accurate information on big issues like COVID-19. I also recently found allsides.com and their Instagram @allsidesnow which ranks media outlets on bias and provides news headlines from all sides of the political spectrum. I have used sites like snopes.com and politifact.com to help engage customers in conversations about misinformation they’ve found through social media. The Knight Foundation did a very in-depth study on information bias in 2018, which I found helpful when going in-depth with customers.