Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Information Failure

A recent Library Link of the Day was to this article about The headline asks, “Can mythbusters like keep up in a post-truth era?” If Betteridge’s Law of Headlines is to be believed, the answer is of course, “no.”

But why would this be a Library Link? I have a couple of possible reasons. The first reason is rather mild. Here’s a partial description of the Snopes founder’s house: “Bookcases line the property: there are tomes on Hitler, Disney, Titanic, J Edgar Hoover, proverbs, quotations, fables, grammar, the Beach Boys, top 40 pop hits, baseball, Charlie Chaplin – any and every topic.”

What does that sound like? It sounds like a reference library, the kind that graces just about every town in America.

And what about the founder of Snopes himself? “Mikkelson’s restless mind stems from a challenging childhood. His mother was a hoarder and his father moved out, leaving young David to seek solace in reading and obsessively following the LA Dodgers. ‘I was trying to find ways to impose order in response to home difficulties. I was always trying to organise and categorise.’”

He sounds like someone who’s spent his entire life in training to be a reference librarian and didn’t even know it.

The second reason is possibly more critical, with Library Link of the Day implicitly asking, why have libraries failed so spectacularly as information providers?

The time has long gone when people would settle bar bets by calling a reference librarian, but the same sort of fact-checking Snopes engages in is what reference librarians excel at, or at least used to until people stopped asking them reference questions and started asking them to clear the printer jams.

Public libraries sometimes tout themselves as educational institutions, even if they also tout themselves as places where 3D printers have replaced all the books. They’re funny that way. Still, the goal has been there.

Heck, at one point the ALA wanted to “make the public library the University of the People,” but even that goal was taken over by a group other than librarians.

Regardless, all the skills were there. Finding the right information and the sources to back it up is what reference librarians are trained to do.

For twenty years, there was even an online reference service provided by librarians and library school students, the now defunct Internet Public Library. It started in 1995, the year after Snopes, and closed last year.

Why didn’t the IPL or something like it become as successful as Snopes? Why did a small commercial entity that relies upon a few staff become the go-to place to check facts instead of libraries?

One reason is benign and understandable. Libraries have a broad mission, and active fact-checking has never been part of that mission. Unlike Snopes, librarians have more to do than look for ridiculous claims on the Internet and respond to them.

The also understandable but perhaps less benign reason is that librarians are passive, very very passive, when it comes to providing information. Librarians check facts when they’re asked to check facts, and not before.

But librarians aren’t passive, you might protest! We provide information all the time! We have lists of books and resources on topics of interest that some people might actually use at some point!

Perhaps, but even those lists are the result of what librarians think people want. Librarians get lots of questions about what to read next, so they make lists of books for reader’s advisory. That’s not active, it’s reactive.

So are librarians at least reactive? Only sometimes. They react to a pretty limited range of things: books people want to read, sources for children’s homework questions, etc..

That stuff is all great, but it ignores the burning questions of the day, such as whether Khizr Khan is a Muslim Brotherhood agent or whether a Black Lives Matter co-founder pooped on an ice rink because “only white people” ice skate.

You might be thinking what I first thought when seeing this stuff: what bunch of idiots cares about any of this stuff?

The answer is, Americans. America contains a bunch of idiots who spread this stuff on social media because they live in a post-truth era.

While Snopes and the like are fighting a losing battle against bogus information from “Legitimate satire sites such as the Onion, which dupe the truly credulous,” “Legitimate news organisations that regurgitate stories without checking,” “Political sites that distort,” “Fake news sites fabricating click-bait stories,” librarians are talking about how libraries are makerspaces and community centers instead of repositories for books and information.

Just as misinformation is increasing exponentially, librarians, always passive information providers anyway, have begun retreating from that image entirely, leaving sites like Snopes to pick up the slack as providers of information.

Maybe it’s the drive to be “relevant.” After all, if we live in a post-truth era, staking the library’s reputation on evidence to support factual information isn’t exactly a winning brand. The idiots Snopes and company debunk ask who checks the fact checkers, and they don’t stay for an answer because they don’t care. Maybe they’ll care about 3D printers instead.


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  1. anonymous coward says:

    I have another thought as to why it is how it is (and why that’s changing). The profession is ideologically monolithic and the members are, themselves, horrible about discerning truth from what they wish was true.

    Take to twitter and follow librarians and ask yourself if these people should be responsible for sifting the truth from the lies.

  2. The Librarian With No Name says:

    Everyone is horrible about discerning truth from what they wish was true. It’s one of the more annoying features of the human brain. A scientist can’t eliminate selection bias in an experiment just by thinking really hard about selection bias and deciding not to engage in it. They’ve got to use techniques like double-blind studies and masked data to prevent their brain from realizing that it’s proving itself wrong until it’s too late. And that’s science, which is one of the most objective tools we have for discerning truth.

    That’s why it’s not a librarian’s job to protect people from falsehood, and never has been. If someone comes in wanting to find a book on homeopathic remedies, it can’t be my job to give them a book claiming that homeopathy is magical thinking quackery instead, even though I’m pretty positive it is. Because my mental model of the world, like everyone’s, is a kludged-together mess of biases, source blindness, faulty reasoning, unexamined assumptions, and wild-ass guesses.

    There are plenty of professions whose purpose is to overcome all that and try to discern truth from falsehood. Librarians aren’t one of them.

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