Libraries in a democratic society

Every morning a number of scenarios for letters to the editor or to the state legislators run through my head on the way to work, hoping to explain, convince, chide, persuade, and inform about the woes facing Texas schools and the impact on our students and on the profession of teaching as a whole.

In researching where some of the negative messaging is coming from, I’ve been disheartened to realize that much of it has been fomented behind the scenes by powerful political organizations like Americans for Prosperity, but unfortunately rather than seeking out information for themselves, too many of  our legislatures are taking in their figures and talking points hook, line, and sinker.

Which brings me to a point about one thing our schools need to be doing better (since obviously the legislators are products of our public schools in this state–albeit decades ago).   And that is teaching a strong array of information literacy skills, particularly in relation to the internet, but also in relation to evaluating the sources of information received.  But part of information literacy is also teaching us to think for ourselves–to research, gather evidence on both sides, and form an opinion, make a recommendation, etc.

According to Wikipedia(and one of the more interesting definitions I have found),

“Jeremy Shapiro & Shelley Hughes (1996) define information literacy as ‘A new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself, its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural, and philosophical context and impact.'”

It seems that the apparent lack of desire or ability for many (not all) legislators to “critically reflect” on the “nature of the information itself” has become a real problem in our political climate.

One thing we have recently been working with  students on during their sophomore research project on emerging technologies/privacy issues  is how to look for the bias inherent in any foundation/organizational website, to search the “about” page, and to consider what point of view that foundation’s work might has that might permeate through the website.   We teach them to Google authors of blogs or websites when they are uncertain of their credibility or point of view.   We engage them in an exercise where they have to practice these discerning steps themselves by asking them to annotate their sources for their paper with a summary and a discussion of any possible bias.   While this whole assignment is certainly just a beginning, it is an effort to develop more critical thinking.

Why is this important, and why is this sort of instruction in libraries important?

As the number of websites continues to explode, one fact-challenged “storyline” can easily get picked up and be repeated across thousands of politically focused websites.   It’s hard when trying to dispute a story or research the actual data that is presented misleadingly to even wade past the thousands of sites that have reiterated the false information.   Sometimes it takes a combination of determination, perseverance, search abilities, critical thinking skills, mathematical and statistical skills and logic to detect bias, dig to find primary source material to double check information being disseminated, etc.    One thing the web has afforded is the power to do this more easily, and the power of citizen journalists to highlight misleading information more easily–but again, researchers and students need the ability to evaluate these sites critically.

President Obama explained this well in his Presidential Proclamation for Information Literacy Month in 2009:

“Though we may know how to find the information we need, we must also know how to evaluate it. Over the past decade, we have seen a crisis of authenticity emerge. We now live in a world where anyone can publish an opinion or perspective, whether true or not, and have that opinion amplified within the information marketplace. At the same time, Americans have unprecedented access to the diverse and independent sources of information, as well as institutions such as libraries and universities, that can help separate truth from fiction and signal from noise.”

When I hear legislators in my own state and others this biennium repeating verbatim information fed to them by  websites that are funded by large corporate donors or think tanks, I see the impact of this dearth of “original” thinking, of critical ability to analyze the information, and of a desire to dig past the platitudes.    I don’t care if someone disagrees with my viewpoints if they have some original information to share, can listen to opposing viewpoints, question the source of information they are being handed, and bother to Google or analyze statistics they are espousing.

When states and school districts wonder why librarians are an important part of a democratic society, these are exactly the reasons.  They can help us have a more civil discourse.  They can teach our students(and future leaders) to be more critical in their thinking, to employ their research skills to dig deeper, to scope out distortion or misinformation and by doing so, to protect our democratic values as a nation.

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