Racism as Malinformation

I am sorry for the long absence. Going back to in person work and then starting the semester with mostly in person classes, helping a lot of people who haven’t been on campus before, adjusting to a number of changes on campus in leadership, staff, etc. has been a time. I am seeing some glimpses now, not of “a new normal” — I don’t think I believe in normal anymore — but of a less frenetic pace.

So in the last day or so I was able to revisit an article I read in August in the relative calm just before the pre-semester rush on campus: “Tell Me Sweet Little Lies: Racism as a Form of Persistent Malinformation” by Nicole A. Cooke, a librarian whose work I very much admire. Cooke’s article is part of the Project Information Literacy Provocation series. You may recall I shared in earlier posts Barbara Fister’s essay on information literacy in a time of QAnon, and Alison J. Head’s essay on critical reading in college. I can’t say enough good things about the series and how it’s influenced my own work this year. In fact, an English professor colleague and I are working closely with one of her classes this fall on critical reading as a result of these essays so far.

Cooke reminds readers that approaching information critically is not enough; she came to see that the racial malinformation our culture is steeped in, “the phenomenon of how we are conditioned, socialized, and repeatedly bombarded with racist and negative images and stereotypes,” requires a different kind of literacy that considers not only what is untrue, but how. She says it so brilliantly, I will quote her:

“Critical information and media literacies address relational structures and power dynamics, which is crucial, but that wasn’t enough. Even more context and a holistic lens was needed in order to truly understand the convergences that create racial malinformation. We need to understand history, politics, design, emotional intelligence, cultural competence, and racial dynamics. We need critical cultural literacy.”

Cooke gives examples of this kind of literacy in her essay. I’ve been trying to practice it more intentionally — emphasis on practice. Here is a very recent example of this practice: reports of the protests outside the Met gala a few nights ago in New York City. First, I hadn’t heard about the protests until my daughter mentioned them this evening. I get my news primarily from headlines from the local paper my college library subscribes to (I rarely have time at work to go beyond the headlines), and the New York Times app on my phone, and had not noticed this story ineither place.

When I searched online, I initially only found reports on the protest and arrests from Fox News, email providers (MSN, Yahoo, AOL) whose stories came from various news services that relied heavily on social media accounts, and British papers. Digging deeper, I found the New York Times‘ mention — buried in an article that focuses on other details about the gala — and then an article on The Advocate‘s website by Mikelle Street, and another on The Root by Maiysha Kai. If you aren’t familiar with these, the first is an LGBTQ magazine and the second is a media website whose tagline is “The Blacker the Content the Sweeter the Truth.”

Quick aside: Kai’s story is also the only place I saw Jeremy Pope’s ensemble, and two of us in this house stayed up way too late on the 13th dissecting the gala ensembles — mainly on Vogue‘s website. Pope is black, and his”all-white ensemble was a tribute to the legacy of enslaved and exploited African Americans and the ever-lucrative cultivation of cotton on the country’s soil—the foundation of the same fashion industry being celebrated on Monday night,” writes Kai, who also notes Pope’s ensemble was “largely overlooked” in reporting. Sit with that understatement. Even the fashion press did not note what was clearly a very aesthetically interesting and thematically spot-on outfit, worn by a black man, that included a cotton picking sack that looked a little like a train.

Back to the protest coverage. In reading these accounts here is what critical cultural literacy tells me: only Fox and the British papers ran stories entirely about the protest and arrests, while other sources mentioned the protests within articles about the gala. Both The Advocate and The Root commented on the injustice of the protests. The others either reported what the police said the protestors did wrong (disorderly conduct, according to the Fox story — which by the looks of the eyewitness videos, is an apt description of the police themselves, who tackled people), or what bystanders posted on social media. So most major news outlets did not really cover the protests as a news story. They covered the wealthy attending the gala. And as noted by Kai’s article in The Root, only the wealthy who did not remind them too blatantly of America’s slaveholding past.

That’s what I noticed about the press coverage. As for the event itself: one report noted this was a peaceful protest, that protestors were speaking out about police brutality and promoting abolitionist views such as using what protest fliers claimed is an $11 billion New York police budget to care for people who need housing and other basic needs. I live in a white town, and a few years ago, when I worked close to the state capitol, I attended some rallies and protests to support an end to homelessness, a more just budget, etc. Never was a single (almost all white — I live in NH) peaceful protester arrested let alone wrestled to the ground. Also, as Cooke herself notes in the beginning of “Tell Me Sweet Little Lies,” about the summer 2020 protests, “Despite the fact that 93% of these Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were peaceful, they were labeled as violent, destructive, unnecessary, and unproductive.”

I see this reproduced in both the assertion that the Met gala protestors were “disorderly” and the lack of attention that most of the media gave the protest or its causes. This was according to many reports on social media (mentioned in the news reports) a large crowd outside an event that was widely covered, and the protest was aimed at drawing attention to that eye-popping police budget in a city where the police have a long track record of discrimination, abuse, and murder. The same city where police used violent tactics to disperse protests in summer 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. Why? Because in America’s dominant culture, Black lives don’t matter as much as money. The major media companies’ context is that dominant culture, and they told the story of the gala, from that context.

So what do I do with this information? Talk about it with the same people I talked about the gala fashion with, seek what’s missing from stories I see in the future, try to understand whose stories aren’t being told (arguably harder than skimming headlines), find alternative sources of news that do tell those stories. Remember, as I learned in my science communication studies, that all information is mediated through various lenses, and in many cases, it’s the dominant (or hegemonic, to use the more academic term) culture’s lens. And, heed Cooke’s very wise conclusion:

“CCL requires critical self-reflection and the desire for equitable information and non-racist perceptions of others. We have to reexamine and reimagine everything we’ve been taught and ask ourselves “What perspectives and voices are missing from what I think I know? How can I do better and learn more?” When we examine our own identities, privileges, and disadvantages, we are better positioned to have empathy for others and do the work of dismantling racist malinformation with CCL. Part of this work involves pushing back against the media, publishing, and other entities that produce racist malinformation and are chronically resistant to change (because change typically involves a loss of revenue and power). But if we are diligent and take the time to explode siloed echo chambers of racist malinformation, we can slow and maybe even reverse this crisis.”

I will end on that hopeful note, and Cooke’s words. Go read the rest here.

Neutrality is a privileged illusion

Recently I saw a blog post called Free Speech on the Clock: A Case Study From Chattanooga – Intellectual Freedom Blog shared on a librarians’ email list. It’s about this: “a public library worker was fired for posting a video on social media of himself pouring lighter fluid on two Chattanooga Public Library books” which he had weeded and which were books of political punditry (the sort where a prominent commentator or politician rehashes what they’ve said in every possible way on every possible communication channel already).

This is my response to that:

I get the gist of this, but the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom case study blog post seems problematic — a public librarian can’t burn weeded books, sure, but this point I’m not so sure about: “You cannot remove books you disagree with or believe to be inaccurate from a public library’s collection.”

My sense is that it’s not a library’s role to spend money on and provide access to things that are inaccurate. Librarians refer to reviews and look into authors’ credibility so that we don’t spend money on books that are poorly written or inaccurate. I don’t see how we can claim to be experts on misinformation and champion providing credible resources and then turn around and say it’s just library neutrality if we “order that stupid book that all of the people are asking for” — I’ve told patrons, “I’m sorry, but I can’t spend our limited budget on items that aren’t well reviewed, and this isn’t. Can I help you find something else on this topic?”

In the same blog post, this statement: ” A good library has books to offend everyone . . . .” is also problematic. Sure, librarians can’t just disagree with a political view to weed something, but we also don’t have an obligation to collect or retain materials with views that are harmful to human rights, promote hate speech, or describe people in ways that are outdated — which is why we weed books that refer to cognitive disability as retardation, or that praise eugenics. Or, I’d argue, the book she uses as an example that whitewashes Nazi history.

Every collection development or programming decision is a choice – the idea of being “neutral” or not thinking about materials in terms of values is an illusion. Just the idea of saying we’re “neutral” is a decision (and a privileged one at that). In reality, libraries advocate for all kinds of things, like early childhood literacy and greater access to technology and even reading itself. Those are positions we take. And one we claim pretty often but have many times not lived up to is that libraries are for everyone. If we really mean it when we say that, or if we claim that we believe in diversity, equity and inclusion, we can’t collect books that are counter to those values.

“Neutrality” is often code for “balance bias” where views that don’t deserve to be held up as equal are — like ordering a climate denial book because you have climate change books, when one is an ideological (and at this point fringe) view and the other is settled science. They aren’t equal, and it confuses people to act like they are.

If we create antiracism displays but then in the name of upholding some kind of false notion of neutrality in our profession, retain books by Nazi apologists in our collections, that to me is a bigger problem than someone not ordering an Ann Coulter book, when she has advocated violence in the past (yes, I am well aware she also had to cancel a talk because she felt threatened) and also regularly shares misinformation — we ‘re not in the misinformation business. There are lines to be drawn. If you disagree with someone’s well written, well researched, evidence based book about tax policies and don’t order their book, that’s so very clearly different than refusing to buy books by people who put other people down because you believe in basic civil rights for all.

Are those decisions sometimes difficult? Sure. But a good collection development policy can help you explain why you made them, as can other legal or policy guidance that applies to your town or campus, like civil rights and anti-defamation laws or guidelines, sexual harassment policies, etc. We don’t have an obligation to collect materials that support every view, and most of us don’t have the budget to do so even if that made sense.

Libraries are not neutral. Plenty of people have written about this more eloquently than I just did.

But I chewed on this all day and decided that I value speaking up 🙂 Thanks for listening.

I am happy to report I received a number of highly supportive responses. Including an important one — a note from a librarian who is from an underrepresented group in our predominantly white profession who thanked me for speaking up and shared how hard it is to be a in a profession with privileged and false notions of neutrality, and in a world where the status quo is upheld or people are scapegoated in the name of neutrality and legality all too often.

I am deeply grateful that this is changing.

How to read if you want to connect the dots

The second essay in Project Information Literacy‘s (PIL) Provocation Series came out last week: “Reading in the Age of Distrust,” by Alison J. Head. I’ve been hearing from professors for years that students “don’t read” — by which they usually mean, don’t read well enough to do the work in a class. Although they might also mean, don’t purchase the egregiously overpriced textbooks, but that’s another topic. I even thought about working on a project to help students become better academic readers a while back, but the leadership I would have had to work with on it felt it wasn’t really the library’s role and also that it would look bad to point out that students struggled with what is considered a fundamental skill.

But to be clear, the issue isn’t often the mechanics of reading (although that can certainly make things even harder for a student). Head starts out by noting that PIL asked students themselves about their reading and found, “In their own words, students struggled with ‘connecting the dots,’ ‘figuring out the hook,’ and ‘discerning what to use’ from course readings and their own selections for writing research papers.” Head notes that recent research shows this doesn’t improve in college, and that these days, reading is made even more complicated by the complex and overwhelming deluge of information and misinformation that people are faced with today. The kind of deeper reading needed to “connect the dots,” and even to discern whether information is worth reading further or is, for example, political or corporate propaganda, is really a form of studying or analyzing, not just reading.

A good bit of the essay then turns to the arguments over who should teach students how to read in the ways necessary to succeed in this world. Professors, she notes, often feel they don’t have time in their syllabi to teach something as basic as reading, and if they talk about reading in their fields, they don’t usually go beyond the kind of reading that is “a performance of a role: How well can you take a seat at this or that disciplinary table and hold a conversation in its language?” Writing and tutoring centers don’t usually teach critical analysis. Librarians often get very little time beyond the information literacy “one shot” visit to a class over the course of a semester is standard on many campuses.

So what can be done? Head has four very concrete and practical suggestions, starting with,”First, educators and instruction librarians must make the invisible activity of reading more visible.” By this she means do what we want students to do, in front of our classes, so they see it in action. Read in class, and comment as you go. For me that would look like saying, “There is a word I want to look up to make sure I get what it means,” or “I wonder why the author isn’t clearer here?” Head also suggests engaging students in asking questions themselves, or even providing questions with assigned reading. Questions that help them examine how well they understand the reading as it fits into what they are reading and learning in class or with their other interests and areas of study. Questions that help them suss out what else they want to know, and what seems unclear or unanswered.

Second, Head suggests situating reading as part of research, a strategy I suggest when I work with students. Reading something a professor provides on your topic, or reading some news or background articles, helps clarify what terms are used to discuss a topic. I also talk with my classes about how background reading can help them relate a topic to the people involved — who is included or left out of what they are reading, and why? Head suggests talking about who are viewed as experts and who are impacted; I’d ask explicitly, are those the same people, and if not, why not? She also recommends research begin with “reading titles and abstracts,” another good way to get a quick overview of how the topic is covered and what is being discussed. I would also add, read works cited lists, not only to trace the claims an author is making, but also to look for authors who write frequently on a topic and read their work.

Head’s third and fourth suggestions are a balm. Third is the notion that less is more: assign less reading, spend more time on it, and create space to really dive into it. She suggests that this pandemic lesson — don’t overwhelm students — should become a new norm, because people in academia have seen that going deeper is just as good, and maybe more engaging, than trying to cover everything.

And fourth, teach empathy as part of reading. Head writes, “Empathy — seeing through the eyes of another — is an outcome of college-level reading, but it usually gets little attention in class discussions.” Wittily and resoundingly shredding an opposing view seems to be our cultural norm, or at least what we’re exposed to across media platforms. Learning to be genuinely curious and open to understanding how and why an opposing view was formed is less valued. But this curiosity, and the effort to look at an issue through someone else’s eyes, can be helpful in determining what’s important.

Head wraps up this thoughtful and provocative essay by concluding that “connecting the dots” requires understanding the information ecosystem as well as the material you are reading. She explains, “In our contentious times, students must learn to critically analyze what topics and voices are amplified and which ones are not. Literacy should not only include analyzing a single assigned reading but a deeper understanding of the technological and social forces shaping the circulation of information in society today.” 

Indeed.

Conspiracy theories, info lit, the fairness doctrine, and SIFT

Project Information Literacy launched a new series of essays a couple of weeks ago with a piece by Barbara Fister, Lizard People in the Library. An adapted version of this appeared on the Atlantic site today as The Librarian War Against QAnon. Fister makes a similar point to danah boyd’s (I’ve written about her work here before): information literacy is no panacea, and can even cement conspiracy theorists’ belief that if they “researched” something and found evidence, they are right. Since there is “evidence” aplenty for nearly any view online, this is dangerous.

Fister notes that the role of information literacy, and the librarians who teach it, should ideally be to help people learn about the way information is created and spreads, and to restore faith in expertise. She notes that the distrust of media and science fanned in recent times by people in power could be countered if people learned that there are professional standards and systems of fact checking and review in media and science and that legitimate experts rely on these standards and systems.

Which is great, except that there are plenty of “news” and “science” organizations that seem legitimate and actually are nothing more than propaganda machines. This week I learned an excellent lesson in this: a database my library subscribes to that is designed to present “sides” of an issue to students, CQ Researcher, has an essay by the president of the National Vaccine Information Center as the “con” argument on the “Vaccine Controversies” page. First of all, the title of the page is clickbaity. There is no controversy: the scientific evidence that vaccines save lives and prevent suffering is well established. As is the evidence that vaccines are incredibly safe. Far fewer people are harmed by vaccines every year than say, guns.

Even more troubling, to me, than the headline, is that the National Vaccine Information Center is a misinformation machine that accepts millions of dollars in antivaxxer donations. Their propaganda ads have raised the ire of several medical and public health associations. Their misleading information is counter to any scientific evidence. And yet there they are, in a database in my library (don’t worry, I am not renewing).

Do you know how many times I have heard faculty say or have seen in assignments “use library materials, not the internet?” People get uncomfortable when I say to a class that it’s not that simple. As recent events have shown, there are media outlets whose entire reason for being is to present a particular set of alternative facts that support the basest false narratives — if you think I’m being cagey it’s because I refuse to include the actual lies here in this post that recently threatened the democratic process in America. And yes you can find these news outlets indexed in databases and find the full text of these counterfactual “reports” at your library. Which is part of Fister’s argument . . . look hard enough (or even not very hard at all, depending on the topic) and you’ll find evidence for whatever you want to find it for.

Today I learned in Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent newsletter that there is a historical reason for this. We had a “Fairness Doctrine” in America, which “required any outlet that held a federal broadcast license to present issues honestly, equitably, and with balance.” During the Reagan administration, the FCC decided this doctrine was not in the public interest.

So, if anyone can pretend to be a source of “information” and send out press releases and ads that masquerade as facts, and if the internet makes the reach of this kind of nonsense endless, and if this problem is magnified by being repeated not only in social media but in other media for reasons we’ll get into in a minute, or in a misguided attempt to present “both sides,” so that people can find evidence for anything, what can be done?

Fister has a few suggestions, starting with “being willing to take a strong stand on behalf of ethical research practices, the voices of qualified experts, and the value of information systems that judiciously vet and validate information, along with a willingness to clearly reject the notion that truth is simply a matter of political allegiance or personal choice.” She also advocates for teaching people about “ethical frameworks and daily practices of truth-seeking institutions such as science, scholarship, and journalism” as opposed to those “firmly grounded in beliefs about individualism, capitalism, and consumerism.”

For Fister that second category is social media companies, but I’d say the problem is more extensive. Any media companies, even those that try to adhere to standards and principles to seek truth, are part of our socioeconomic system, so they are also grounded in capitalism and consumerism. On any given day, the challenge for the average information consumer is figuring out which content at any one company was created with ethical frameworks of truth seeking in mind and which were created with an eye to keeping paying customers (subscribers, viewers, listeners, watchers, advertisers) satisfied. I’ll grant that there are patterns and trends to spot — outlets that are more (or less) dedicated to truth than others. But the information ecosystem is incredibly complicated, and even experienced researchers and journalists have to watch out for bullshit.

Which is why I like Mike Caulfield’s work. On his Infodemic blog, he explains his SIFT method:

“Over the past four years, I have worked with students and faculty to identify the core skills and habits that students and citizens are missing that leave them vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation on the web. We have organized them into a model called SIFT: Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context. We call these “moves” and we tie each one to a couple simple skills you can usually execute in 30 seconds or less. You can learn all the moves and associated skills in less than an hour, and our work with students indicates that these skills will make a dramatic difference in your ability to sort fact from fiction on the web (and everything in between).”

He starts with Stop. Why? Because media of all kinds, even media created by organizations that claim to adhere to the principles Fister champions, is designed to grab our attention, to elicit an emotional response. If we use the SIFT method, we can check our emotions, consider not only the source, but the competing coverage of the topic at hand, and try to find out more about the claims. It works.

That said it takes time, effort, and as Fister notes, a belief that there is a truth, or, as Fister says (and I know I’m repeating this, but it bears repeating) “a willingness to clearly reject the notion that truth is simply a matter of political allegiance or personal choice.”

The question is do enough people have that? And even if they do, can they resist the powerful psychological manipulation technology companies employ to hook us on online content that is then designed to play on our emotions?

It’s easier if you stop reading this and turn off your device.

What do we do?

I got into a discussion with a friend who knows I left Facebook last summer because of their abysmal response to the civil rights audit that indicates they uphold white supremacy through their inability or unwillingness to stop hate groups and misinformation. She shared a post our mutual friend wrote the day after the domestic terrorist/white supremacist attack on the Capitol this week. She wanted to talk about several things, but one of them was what I thought we should do.

Well, for one, we have to all face what so many commentators noted this week: this IS America. We are a country where black and brown people earn less, where white privilege is encoded in our laws and policies, and where law enforcement supports white supremacy either tacitly or actively, as broadcast around the world on January 6.

We also have to face the fact that as I saw in a Twitter post this weekend, people who embrace untruths in spite of overwhelming evidence are no longer the fringe and seem to be incapable of examining information to discern truth. For example, people who believe Coronavirus conspiracy theories even though millions of people are sick and have died. Or believe election results are inaccurate, even though election officials, judges, and Justice Department personnel (including many, many conservatives) have confirmed that the election was conducted and results tallied fairly and accurately. While some news outlets are quick to point out that a majority of Americans DO trust the election results (around 60% depending on where you look) it’s very important not to overlook that 40% do not.

I’ve written about information pollution, filter bubbles, and information literacy here before. The idea that information literacy can backfire is not new. But we have millions of people who not only can’t seem to evaluate information critically enough to discover untruths, but also embrace misinformation. I strongly believe that some do so knowing they are spreading misinformation — not just foreign actors, but many politicians, public officials, and corporations who callously manipulate public opinion for their own benefit.

But in addition to these bad actors (who have always existed), there are also millions of people who feel confident that the untruths they embrace are true. They believe in their own ability to find truth — mostly online — in the sources they trust. And they believe others’ sources are not trustworthy — as evidenced by the anger, mistrust, and violence directed at the press during the insurrection this week and during the last four years in particular, but more generally over my lifetime as conservatives worked hard to convince their adherents that the media is too biased to believe. Progressives too believe the media is biased, for different reasons, and although that has not manifested in as much vitriol, it’s still undermining our ability as a society to find common ground, because we don’t begin with any sort of shared understanding. Let me be clear: I don’t think people shouldn’t question or hold the media accountable, but I do think wholesale mistrust of the media is unhelpful.

What should we do, my friend asked.

Talk about it, is one thing. And continue to try to teach information literacy carefully, including how information is created as well as how to evaluate it. Call on the government to direct resources towards stopping the state sponsored misinformation that sows discontent and mistrust, and disrupting hate groups’ (including white nationalists’) communications.

For me, there are two more things: I’ll try to continue to write to and call local, state, and federal officials to ask them to work on mitigating inequalities, large and small. And to actively seek to dismantle white supremacy. Neither of these is easy or straightforward. Both are pretty tedious and will involve making mistakes and having to apologize and try again. Both require a lens through which everything — including being a librarian — are viewed, to reveal injustices and opportunities to correct them. The justice lens gets dirty sometimes, or slips, or cracks, and has to be cleaned or replaced.

None of us can do this alone. And those of us who are privileged — because of our whiteness or our socioeconomic status or our gender in particular — have to listen to and learn from those whose privilege has been systematically diminished. And then we have to act. As I prepare my library’s budget and consider my database renewals, I want to be sure we are spending our money on sources that not only support teaching and learning, but do so while making an effort to center Black experience and Black voices. For example, I’ve been discussing replacing CQ Researcher with my colleagues, in part because it is not making that effort.

I have no delusions that these actions are enough. But that’s my answer right now to “what should we do?”

Zooma zooma zooma zoom

If you grew up in the 70s you might recognize that back then, Zoom was a PBS show for tweens/teens. Strange that today it is the way many of us work, learn, meet, and even socialize. It’s been a while since I’ve posted because it felt like I had nothing to say about COVID-19 librarianship that wasn’t being said elsewhere. And I was busy zooming, like many of you.

It was a strange summer, and much like other summers in an academic library, many of the projects I hoped to get to did not come to fruition. I wonder if we’ll ever finish weeding? But I did spend a lot of time thinking about how to approach information literacy instruction this fall.

For one thing, I want to be more collaborative, allowing students to co-create sessions with me by sharing their experiences and what they are interested in learning. I’ve worked on this to some extent in person, but man professors expect us to “teach the databases.” On Zoom, no one knows what to expect, so I feel this is chance to experiment more.

Which is great, but, I get “one shot” classes with students, where they may have met me in similar one shots but they know they’re not going to see me again this semester. It’s hard to feel invested quickly in collaborating with a near stranger. To build a little comradery in advance, I tried sending a link to a Padlet yesterday ahead of a class I had today, letting them know it was low stakes – no need to sign their post, no right or wrong answers, ok to say “I’m not sure.” One person responded to my prompt in advance.

If you’re curious, the prompt was, roughly, “Think of a time when you needed information outside of classes. How did you decide where to look for the info? How did you know whether it was accurate? How is your experience different when you have to find info for class?” I answered, so they’d have an example. I looked up when to get a flu shot. I was starting from a New York Times article, I took a link to the CDC, which is our national public health agency and is tasked with overseeing flu shots, so I knew the information between these two sources was a) as official as it comes in our “every man for himself” country and b) edited and fact checked by professional journalists. When I do an assignment, I check first to see what kind of sources are required.

In class I gave them five minutes to answer the prompt, since most people hadn’t yet, and realized many of them didn’t know how to add to a Padlet. I let there be an uncomfortable silence with very little typing. Finally I asked if anyone was wondering how to add to the Padlet. No one spoke. I said into the silence: “In case you ARE wondering, click the plus sign.” And repeated the low stakes spiel I’d put in my announcement ahead of class.

Some responses! Not much discussion. A little, and then I caught myself filling the silence, so I moved on to asking what they’d done so far with the assignment. The professor, likely sensing that Zoom seems to be an unlikely place for people who don’t know a guest speaker to open up, called on a student who she knew had found something interesting. She shared her screen. We talked about why it was interesting — a lobbyist wrote an article for a peer reviewed journal. It passed through peer review, with a conflict of interest statement. Cool — something to talk about!

This gave me an opening to work in another thing I vowed I will bring up in every instruction session this fall: equity. Who controls academic research and publishing? Whose voices are included? Whose are left out? Where is the power (which translates to authority in information literacy terms)? What groups are not studied? I was happy to see many heads nodding when I pointed out the equity issues in research.

So, that’s one class down. Not counting four nursing orientations I did with my coworker the last week. Which were little more than “we’re here for you, get in touch, here’s our website.” Where, by the way, we post photos of our pets.

Which got some smiles, and a tiny glimpse of human connection – the nursing students were on campus and we were off, so we couldn’t see them very well, since they were in a classroom and we were on . . . Zoom. They could see us, projected onto a big screen. I will hang onto those glimpses of eye contact and enthusiasm and try not to sweat the silence and the fear of admitting uncertainty and the worry about whether people are getting what I’m saying or wondering when I’m going to shut up.

Because really, Zoom is not that different than in person “one shot” sessions. It’s not a great way to teach, nor a great way to learn, having an hour or 90 minutes with a group, one time during the semester. I’d like to build relationships, get to know my students, even over technology. Over the summer, one student responded to a post I put in her course, inviting students to ask me for help with their research assignment. We “met” several times over the next two months, and I helped with each paper. I learned, over chat, and one attempt at Zoom, that she is a mom of three young kids, trying to get her associate’s degree while caring for them. By the end of the term, it felt like in some small way, we’d made a connection. I had glimpses of what she was juggling, how hard she was working to keep it all going. And what kind of help was most helpful.

So, can I keep co-creating learning with my students over Zoom, or in person, if I only get one shot at working with them? I can try. Being in their courses as Librarian helps, because I can post announcements with tips and a little bit of humor if possible, a little personality. So they know there is a person beyond the screen, someone who cares about their research success. Who really wants to hear about their experiences finding information — which I hope helps them see they are already competent researchers outside of class, and can easily be in class as well. And who is aware of racism and gender bias in research.

This year will be memorable, I am sure. I’m not going to predict which changes will last and which will be forgotten post COVID. But I’m trying to make the best of things, as we all are, and I think there is always room to learn from my students, even in Zoom, even “one shot” at a time.

Digital equity & digital redlining

Like many of you, I’ve been online a fair bit lately. This is week six of working from home as a community college librarian. We’ve been able to run the library remotely, because we already had services in place to make it easy for students reach out for assistance online, and to use our website as a virtual branch of the library. Yes, we’ve closed off access to our print collections right now, but we are able to help students complete research assignments via our online resources. They can get what they need to succeed.

Right?

Well, that is the theory. And to my college’s credit, our leadership polled students about their technology and internet needs as soon as they decided to make the switch to online only classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, before students had returned from spring break. They are actively working to ensure everyone taking classes can complete their work online. But around the country and the world, COVID-19 is revealing the open secret our society has not faced: digital equity is a long way off. As with so many other kinds of inequity, people who could most benefit from digital inclusion already face other systemic barriers to opportunity. Something I’ve written about before.

I’m sure you’ve read about K-12 students facing technology challenges as their schools have closed; if you haven’t, Klint Finley’s Wired article provides insight into the current problem as well as a thorough look at how we’ve ignored or even, in the past three and a half years, openly undermined, the question of equitable access to broadband. Even as it has become almost impossible to get an education, find a job, access government documents (including benefits and court documents), etc. without internet. (If you’ve been reading Nocturnal Librarian for a long time you know this is one reason public libraries are so important, because they help close the digital divide). Last week I also read a very thought provoking piece by Georgia university system students who highlighted the equity issues of their online-only courses, including the challenges rural students in particular have with internet access.

I have also given what I now see is cursory attention to the problem of algorithms — by which I mean, I’ve read  (and written) about them in terms of teaching information literacy, and worried about them as a social justice issue. But recently, I read an article about digital redlining in the newsletter of the Library Instruction Round Table. I took some of the links in the article and fell into a world of eye-opening ways that housing discrimination, banking, hiring, and other everyday life activities are impacted by the ways that algorithms use data that is informed by already institutionalized racism, xenophobia, and gender inequality and perpetuates it.

And yes, how higher ed is not without its own digital redlining, even, and perhaps especially, according to professors Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik, at community colleges. As they put it, when explaining what digital redlining is, “It may have to do with the growing sense that digital justice isn’t only about who has access but also about what kind of access they have, how it’s regulated, and how good it is.”

I am not entirely empowered to solve digital equity issues like broadband access and redlining. None of us are, single-handedly. And I am fortunate to work somewhere where diversity, equity, and inclusion are values we aspire to live by, not just talk about, so I know we are working on some of these issues. That said, I feel a renewed sense of responsibility to make sure my elected officials know we need a better national solution to broadband inequality. And I am going to try to use what I’ve learned to reconsider the student experience at our library from a digital equity perspective, especially now as our we live through COVID-19 physical distancing.

Libraries, books & hope

While Americans squabble about whether drag queen story time promotes self-love and affirmation or is evidence of our country’s depravity and legislatures propose various laws meant to discourage or ban such events, people around the world just want to read. A story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago that highlighted efforts by young people in Somalia to make civil society work in their country led me to read about several book fairs, notably in Mogadishu, Hargeisa, and Kismayo.

In  Afghanistan, another country wracked by decades of war and civil strife, university students founded a nonprofit, Read Books, that takes books into rural areas and distributes them to children. I’ve written before about library services for refugees in Greece. Another story caught my eye this weekend about an Afghan man who is opening a library at the Moria refugee camp, also in Greece, originally built for 3,000 people and now housing 20,000.  In Syria, a group of friends saved books and kept a volunteer library running through years of that country’s devastating civil war; one volunteer went on to run a bookmobile.

The most important thing to note about this last story, by Guardian reporter Sam Wollaston, is that “Moria is hell, a stain on 21st-century Europe, where bureaucracy, politics and simply not caring enough have left tens of thousands in limbo – people fleeing war and danger, looking for a future for themselves and their children and not finding it. Moria’s existence is a disgrace, a failure of morality.”

And yet, people make sure that “humanity survives in hell” as Wollaston writes. And wherever hell on earth exists, in war zones, in terrorized places, in corners of the world that many of us manage not to think about on a daily basis, people keep reading, and sharing books, and helping children learn, and promoting the values that libraries stand for: education and literacy for all.

These stories for me put into perspective how incredibly privileged it is for people in America to argue over what’s on our libraries’ shelves and who reads stories to our kids. I just finished reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and this sentence, published in 1951, seems incredibly prescient as I consider the world today: ” Yet to have more does not mean to be more.”

We have so much. We could be more.  The incredibly brave and selfless people who make these libraries and schools and book fairs happen in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and overcrowded refugee camps in Greece are.

Another reason libraries are vital

I finished reading one of my Christmas gifts, Educated, on Friday evening. You can read my thoughts on this memoir by Tara Westover over at bookconscious. This morning I read Michiko Kakutani’s essay “The 2010s Were the End of Normal” and it got me thinking about why Educated has resonated so strongly with readers of all kinds (I’ve had more people recommend this book to me than any other I can think of). And why Educated illustrates the importance of libraries, even though Westover doesn’t necessarily say so (although she mentions several libraries in the book).

I watched a brief interview Westover did with Bill Gates, where she talks a little bit about divisions in our world and describes the potential of education as “this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.” She also describes the way some schools become “an instrument of that division” because of the way “we self-segregate, and schools become reflections of people’s homogeneity.” In other words, depending on where a child grows up, they may or may not learn the same history as a child who grows up somewhere else, even in the same city or town.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should learn one official version of history. We need what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “narrative plenitude” — where the many threads of being human in America and the world are included in the overall fabric of the history we learn, instead of the majority controlling the narrative. And education, ideally, should present that plenitude, instead of whatever the dominant narrative is. And what Westover was discussing with Gates is that if we really meant what we say about providing a good education for all, we might actually have less division. Because if you know someone’s stories, they become familiar, and you begin to see how they are also like your stories, and how they are different, and since we are born curious, you also start to wonder why.

This morning, I read Michiko Kakutani’s essay “The 2010s Were the End Of Normal” and I think one reason Educated is so powerful is that Westover’s experience, while extreme, explains the divisions we currently face. Knowing only one version of the story of humanity, particularly one that justifies fears in the face of a changing world, leads to what Kakutani quotes Richard Hofstadter as calling “the paranoid style” that Westover’s father embodies. If people then reinforce their views by limiting the scope of information they take in to what they agree with, as Kakutani notes that many people whose world views rely on “alternative facts” do, you can end up with extremes.

Westover provides some hope that anyone who can read and think (potentially, most people) can discover for themselves what has happened in human history and is happening in the world now. So people who are insulated from reality can potentially learn that their “truth” has been mediated and their accepted narrative controlled – but the scary flip side is that if enough people don’t ever learn that we end up where we are now with nationalism on the rise all over.  You probably know where I’m going with this if you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian before: libraries and librarians can help counter division because we help make it possible for people to expand their views and embrace narrative plenitude.

Information literacy, the skills and habits that allow people to find, evaluate, and use information to answer a question or solve a problem, is at the core of what academic libraries do. We teach students to consider the ways information is mediated, what mechanisms are in place to safeguard facts while still presenting persuasive arguments in journalism and academic writing, and how to recognize and critically assess those. Public libraries also foster information literacy, and they act (when they are at their best) as some of the last egalitarian public spaces, where all citizens regardless of where they live or go to school have access to the same resources. Libraries of all kinds support lifelong learning, and collect and preserve all kinds of narratives that are part of our shared human story. They can also promote civil discourse either explicitly through programming or implicitly through their collections.

So, if you want to live in a less divided, more civil world where people know how to recognize and counter “alternative facts,” support your library!