I wrote recently that the rate of media illiteracy is the information crisis of our time (“Faked Out”), but now that very real issue has nonetheless been trumped by a deliberate assault on the flow of information—from journalism and scientific research to dissemination via social media and traditional channels. There is no such thing as an alternate fact, but there is certainly an alternate reality: a chilling, censorial, obfuscating one being offered as a threatening new normal by the new federal administration in the first days and weeks of 2017.
These encroachments are sparking vocal outrage from many. They should have everyone in the library community on high alert. Information, and the ability to share it without risk of retribution, is central both to our work in libraries and the democratic process as a whole.
These events should clarify things for anyone who doesn’t see the library connection. This is not a partisan issue; it is about information access and defending a culture that celebrates and benefits from the robust discourse possible only when information and ideas can be shared openly. That seems so obvious that the need to state it is disturbing to me. Our work to protect freedom of inquiry and expression is never done, but it is more critical than ever in this heated and rapidly evolving environment.
As was apparent at the Town Hall held at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta, librarians want ALA leadership to step up and advocate for the core values of the profession. I agree. This era demands more responsiveness and calls into question the viability of the slow pace that can be a signature of decision-making by committee. What mechanism must be created to foster a more nimble, reflexive, responsive, and even proactive national voice?
If ALA does its job in this regard, librarians and members will be supported and can better focus on the work ahead in their local settings. To that end, ALA should also look to provide practical assistance for affected libraries. First, there is the work of reference and research to bolster. Basic information flow is being compromised in an unprecedented way. As a frontline librarian, how do you confront the interruption of trusted information from previously verifiable sources? What are the strategies to ensure you are finding the best information in a world in which official sources are no longer trustworthy and the unofficial work-arounds (such as rogue Twitter accounts) are shrouded for self-protection in ways that make verifying them difficult? Beyond that, the systemic contempt for the idea that facts have objective reality, apparent in the appalling concept of “alternative facts,” brings even more urgency to the need for media, information, and digital literacies.
Beyond streamlining its internal mechanics, ALA should be more vigorous about getting the library perspective into the mainstream conversation to campaign for free expression. Librarians have always been defenders of this key right. Now there are assertive allies (particularly scientists) that are making eloquent efforts to raise awareness of the risks of censorship and the chilling effects of inappropriate oversight. For example, the new administration clamped down on the social media channels of the national parks and the Environmental Protection Agency and threatened to insert politics into the research process with a political body reviewing scientific output before public release. Each such trespass must be confronted and rejected. James LaRue’s statement from ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom was a good start, but more needs to be done. [ALA released this statement after this editorial went to press.] Librarians are the natural champions of this cause. We must find a way to make our voices heard in the rapidly evolving discussion of the 24-hour news cycle before it moves on without us.
The urgency of the moment calls for leadership, and ALA and all our associations should engage. If they won’t or can’t, though, librarians must do it without them. Librarians have always been willing to go rogue in the defense of intellectual freedom; it would be so much easier if the field were able to present a strong, timely, and unified voice.