The President of the American Library Association, Julius Jefferson, and the director of the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, Dr. John Haskell, invited librarians to respond to the following prompt: In a world of disinformation, social media, and “alternative facts,” how do you identify and vet credible information sources? How do you share those credible sources with students and public library users? What is a librarian’s role in helping the greater community find common ground in shared facts?
Here is my response, which you can also see in the forum:
In addition to being a librarian, I’m also a science communicator. SciComm and public engagement literature on misinformation draws on behavioral and cognitive science to examine how people make decisions about what information and information sources they trust.
The good news is that libraries and librarians enjoy a good deal of trust (see Pew research, for example). So we definitely can use that trust, and our ability to have relational, rather than just transactional, engagement with our patrons, to contribute to public understanding of misinformation. I recently put together communication tips and resources for Long term care facility administrators and supervisors in my state to help them respond to vaccine hesitancy — a dangerous outcome of misinformation around the COVID vaccines (link at the end of this post). Trust is the first thing I talked about.
So step one is understanding the dynamics of publics’ trust (which obviously vary depending on which communities you are engaging with). I also advised engaging without trying to change someone’s mind. A contributor here, Fabio, mentioned just such a strategy in speaking with a patron — being curious and asking questions about their information need when they ask about misinformation can lead to opportunities to provide sources which open the patron’s eyes to another perspective. But even more fundamentally, this type of mindful customer service (nonjudgmental, focused on the present moment with the patron), helps establish or affirm trust. During the engagement, as Fabio noted, offering to collaborate can put the other person at ease more than directly challenging the misinformation.
Which is important, because this is emotional stuff. Several contributors have mentioned being aware of emotional responses to misinformation — which is often shared in ways that provoke such responses — as a key information literacy skill. I’d add that validating these very real emotions, while not validating the misinformation itself, can help establish trust. For example, “I can see you are really worried about this” or “I can hear how much this topic means to you” and then “Let’s see what we can find out together that might be helpful.” This kind of validation also acknowledges that we see the person in front of us as a fellow human being. That helps people feel they belong, not only in our library but also in our community. Belonging also helps build trust.
So for me, the soft skills (familiar to those who have been facilitators, coaches, etc.) of establishing or building trust, being mindfully present to the person and their emotions as well as your own, seeing each interaction with patrons as relational rather than transactional, and working to understand where the person is coming from rather than trying to change their mind are as important in librarians’ work to counter misinformation and help patrons find credible sources as the information skills we have. Undertaking this work as relationship and trust building also builds community. Patrons who see us as among the people and institutions they trust, and as key contributors to their sense of belonging and community, are more likely to be open to finding common ground in shared facts.
I’d also like to name that this is challenging work that requires reflection, practice, and willingness to be wrong and to set aside our own biases. It also requires reflecting on how we – as librarians, as workers in community institutions, and as individuals, have not been trustworthy or helpful, or have even caused harm. In particular, we need to acknowledge the ways libraries have contributed to upholding white supremacy but also to maintaining other forms of privilege, in our collection development and services. That work of reflecting, acknowledging, apologizing if need be, holding ourselves accountable, and doing better for the people we’ve hurt must be a part of everything else that we do.
Here is a link to the vaccine hesitancy resource I mentioned: