Information professionals face challenges that seem to have caught us completely unawares. The impact of the fast-moving political and technological changes on libraries and other democratic (small ‘d’) institutions such as schools, independent researchers, and journalism—the First Amendment agencies in our democracy—is immense. Certainly, the election of Donald Trump has accelerated these trends. However, many of these changes—such as the corporatization of higher education, rifts between publishers and libraries, and proposals to end public funding to institutions and funding agencies supporting First Amendment institutions and initiatives—predate the Trump election. We are clearly in an extremely critical era of disruption, massive changes, and new roles.
As they face the future, library-related collaboratives and major libraries are working to create new roles and, in effect, to discard many traditional services and programs. Libraries increasingly focus on independent fund-raising to supplement institutional or governmental sup port, turning into scholarly publishers in efforts to upend the commercial academic presses—the list goes on and on.
What is the future for libraries in a democracy? What happens to the free flow of information? Can we still support the availability of “all sides of all issues to all people”? For years our profession touted the 21st century as the Information Age. Is this still an apt description of what is evolving? Are we discarding irrelevant “baggage” of the past for a new future? Or are we losing our way amidst the political and economic upheaval of our times? Are we facing a dystopic future? Fighting irrelevance? Or is something else going on? Does anyone have answers or perspectives that can help us deal with these fast-moving currents of change? I consulted several experts to gain perspective on these questions.
FAKE NEWS CHALLENGES
Every day we see what many have called a crisis of anti-intellectualism, with phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” being bantered about any time some report or comment is made that someone else finds unpleasant or believes (with or without justification) to be untrue. It appears that nothing, from politics to scientific research, is unassailable. Fake news challenges exist for both journalists and information professionals.
In the recent book Anti-Intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education (Palgrave, 2017), various authors examine popular media depictions of higher education. Co-editor Barbara Tobolowsky, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, reminds readers:
[T]his is not new. These views date back to the founding of the country. Nevertheless, there is much that is alarming about the current situation. I hold out hope that the number of folks with these views are still small in number even if they are louder than ever. Anti-intellectualism feeds upon itself and damages things in its path. It is much like the termite that destroys the house. To mix my metaphors, I see faculty as the bull’s-eye of the target. This makes libraries, at the very least, collateral damage, if not a central target.
In the article “Anti-Intellectualism Among US Students in Journalism and Mass Communication: A Cultural Perspective,” authors Michael McDevitt, Perry Parks, Jordan Stalker, Kevin Lerner, Jesse Benn, and Taisik Hwang (Journalism, 2017; doi.org/10.1177/1464884917710395) see the field of journalism going through a “crisis of confidence” at the moment.
Large swaths of the American public don’t trust their reporting. [We] believe that a confluence of factors— some historical, some cultural, some psychological, some political, and some institutional—–has led us to this moment. Since the 1970s in particular, when American journalism suffered its last real crisis of this sort, elite journalists have shot themselves in the foot by claiming to maintain something called objectivity, which they truly believe they engage in, but which the public understands to be something entirely different. Journalists read objectivity as Enlightenment rationalism; as empiricism. But they have sold it to the public as ‘balance’ or ‘unbiased news.’ It has created an epistemic break between the way journalists understand the world and the way that their publics understand how journalists understand the world.
I followed up with Lerner, who is assistant professor of journalism at Marist College and editor of the Journal of Magazine Media (aejmcmagazine.arizona.edu/journal.html), for more clarification. He believes we are in the midst of a maelstrom of cultural changes and challenges. “I’m afraid that the questions you ask are both incredibly important, but also so big and so unknowable as to be virtually unanswerable. So I hope you keep in mind that my answers here are speculative.”
In Lerner’s opinion, “Journalists have largely abdicated the role of explaining their own journalism, since they assume that their processes are self-evident. To some extent, this is what I and my co-authors argue in our paper on anti-intellectualism. As focused as journalists are on insisting upon the transparency of other institutions, they often leave their own unexamined.”
In this light, Lerner sees both a role and a responsibility for information professionals: “From the point of view of the sector of society that values empirical thinking, libraries and librarians can do some of their most important work in validating certain sources of information, and in educating the public (particularly the youngest members of that ever-evolving public) to make the same sorts of determinations for themselves. I’ve never had a better judge of the reliability of information sources than the best reference librarians I’ve worked with. And I think that there can and should be a role for librarians to bring that sort of expertise to a larger public, through media literacy training. I do think we are in some thing of an information age.”
ET TU, LIBRARIES?
“But it’s an age of hyperinformation, and libraries can be a part of the filter that helps ground people as they sort through all of these sources,” Lerner continues. “I don’t think that libraries should abandon their own commitment to represent the broadest possible range of points of view on topics of public discourse … in gathering these points of view, libraries should continue to pay particular attention to the reliability of the underlying facts behind an argument. For example,” Lerner posits, “let’s assume for the sake of this argument that The Wall Street Journal is a conservative news source, as is Breitbart. Just the fact that they share many political views doesn’t put them in the same category. One is a newspaper, based on empirical fact, which comes to its conclusions about policy after the fact gathering (with some blatant exceptions in the editorial page). Breitbart cherry-picks its facts or touts unsupportable facts as real in order to bolster preordained conclusions about policy matters. Libraries can help the public to understand these differences in epistemology.”
University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication’s Nora Paul and I had an email ex change. She told me she views the current situation this way: “A whole category of newsroom employees, news research ers/archivists, essentially disappeared because of an inability to articulate and, I guess, demonstrate their critical role in the news organization. The profession of library science/information science did not traditionally attract those who were particularly vocal. It is a helping profession and not as activist as we need.” The main issue, as Paul sees it, is that the more readily available anything is, the less valuable it is deemed. She believes this is the case with information, too. “When you needed the assistance of a skilled information intermediary to find that magazine article, fact, or reference—the information retrieved was more valuable, and the person that helped you was valued, too. Now,” she says, we can “just Google it.”
University of Utah’s Rick Anderson shares a deep concern for “fake news, “fake science,” and “alternative facts.” In a recent article for UKSG Insights (insights.uksg.org/articles/10.1629/uksg.356) he notes:
[I]t seems clear that libraries are needed more than ever to combat a rising tide of fake news and public lies, and to help their patrons discriminate between truth, error and propaganda. In order to do so, how ever, libraries will have to decide where they stand on crucial questions about the social construction of reality; the politics of selection; the privileging of interpretations; the academic necessity of research access to false claims; and the meaning of ‘alternative.’ A library that fails to address these questions carefully, and in advance, is doomed to incoherence in its response to fake news and ‘alternative facts.’