6 Apr 2017

Invisible librarians have contributed to the post-truth era: a debate

Below is a verbatim account of one side of a debate which proposed that 'This house believes that invisible librarians have contributed to the post-truth era'.

Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow debater, moderator and distinguished guests I am here to convince the house that invisible librarians have contributed to the post-truth era.

When it comes to invisible librarians, I can literally say ‘I wrote the book’ which is on sale tonight at a bargain price, come and talk to me later – sales pitch over!

I feel I need to clear up a few concepts here.  Invisible meaning ‘not seen’.  Post-truth era meaning circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.  The president of Harvard University Drew Faust described it just last month as an era when “evidence, critical thinking, and analysis are pushed aside in favour of emotion and intuition as bases for action and judgment”.  Much talk of fake news has amplified the fear around a post-truth era. We are living in unprecedented times where there have been significant social and political upsets, in the USA a president was elected with no previous political experience or political position.  He is, in the words of Noam Chomsky “a showman”.  In the UK the people voted to leave the European Union.

Both upsets are linked to fake news, where the ultimate headline ‘We send the EU £350m-a-week let’s fund our NHS instead, vote leave’ was everywhere and was believed to be true.  Such headlines gave people hope and people vote for hope.  Some people and some politicians are opportunists and they have always lied and will continue to lie.  Post-truth, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda have fuelled many political campaigns, however the difference today is that the Digital Age we are living in has allowed the news and the story to be amplified.  Fake news is churned out as fast as it is retracted, but nobody reads the retractions.  One exception to this is a French newspaper, Le Canard Enchaine, whose editor refuses to make the paper digitally accessible.

The editor argued that when the Internet came along other newspapers made content available online and pushed out alternative facts only to retract them later.  They found that it was the only way to keep sales figures up, by selling fake news.  Le Canard continues to be only available in print. This is in a country which values freedom, equality and democracy.  A country which brought us the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, a fundamental document in the history of human and civil rights with a major impact on freedom and democracy.

Last year at a health conference I heard a professor of organisational behaviour and a leadership thinker (Gianpiero Petriglieri) state the following: “Whoever controls the story, controls the people”. If we take democracy to be an acceptable and equitable way that people have a say in how they are controlled, by casting their vote and by electing a government to represent them, then what we all need to ask is “who is controlling the story?"

The story is largely controlled by the press, the media, journalists.  Who controls them?  Big business and government.  According to Forbes 15 billionaires own American's news media companies.  According to the EU Commission, Ireland is exposed to a "high risk" over its concentration of media ownership.

Professions in academia and in the press are exercised about the post-truth era.  Why?  Because it is touches our values.  What has any of this got to do with librarians?  We share values with scholarship and the press – the value of intellectual honesty – in other words - truthfulness and we have a social responsibility to uphold our values. 

“We are living in a time of universal defeat when telling the truth is a revolutionary act” (G. Orwell).  Librarians have largely been invisible and apart from the fact that it is leading to the demise of the profession, it is also leading to the distortion of the truth.  The truth is something that cuts to the core of our profession. Veritas is our raison d’ĂȘtre. Librarians are defenders of intellectual freedom, of rational decision making and of democratic values.  We are defenders of the truth. If we remain invisible, and if we remain neutral, arguably so will the truth.

We are invisible in the following ways: by remaining neutral, through staffless libraries, by having low social media presence and by continuing to market the ‘library’ over the ‘librarian’.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT… NEUTRALITY. There is nothing neutral about librarianship, as Wendy Newman a Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto has said ‘Librarians are anchored in values’ and our values are democratic, not neutral. She says librarians are rooted in timeless values. I agree with David Lankes, Director of the School of Library and Information Science at University of South Carolina when he says "Good librarians aren't neutral: they are principled".  The underlying principles of both journalism and librarianship are to be truthful.  According to the IFLA Code of Ethics, we have a social responsibility to society and to individuals to assist people in finding information, factual information, peer-reviewed research.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT… SOCIAL MEDIA. Many Librarians in Ireland are invisible on social media. I can count on one hand how many health librarians are on Twitter. My esteemed colleague and immediate past president of the LAI is equally invisible on Twitter. I found a Philip Cohen intern but I don’t think that was you. There is no excuse left in the book for librarians to remain invisible on Twitter, believe me I have heard them all.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT… STAFFLESS LIBRARIES. Let’s be clear that a library without any visible staff is a reading room. Equally a digital library without any visible librarians is just a gateway. The link is not being made in the general public or among the majority of library users/non-users about what it is that librarians do and the library – be it physical or digital. Our skills are largely un-communicated, misunderstood and invisible. We need new service models where the visibility of staff and staff skills are clear for all to see and to understand. It is not just our skills but our values and we need a revolutionary act to start communicating what these are.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT... MARKETING. Why we continue to market the library over the librarian is beyond me.  Certainly in the case of public libraries I can see a rationale, but not for other types of libraries. Yes I’m talking about academic libraries, yes I’m talking about special libraries, yes I’m talking about health libraries. The shift in emphasis needs to move from ‘library’ to ‘librarian’ otherwise our profession and the values that we hold high will remain invisible. We need to guide people to the truth through education and empowerment. Information literacy is one of our core skills, we need to start telling people this is what we are about. The ALA defines IL as “The ability to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." This is where we add value, this is part of our social responsibility, this is most likely one of the reasons we became librarians in the first place. If people don’t know about what it is that we do, if they can’t see it, they won’t value it. And we want people to value the truth don’t we? And we want people to value librarians, don’t we? 

Michael Moore who brought us the film ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ said ‘I didn’t realize librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. They are subversive.  You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything.  They’re like plotting the revolution, man”.

Our revolution is to hold our values high, to take part in revolutionary acts, in this time of deceit and to rebel against untruths and most important of all, to be visible. 

We need to market our skills, talk about our value, become highly visible and defend the truth.  We must empower people with the skills to critically appraise information and give them the confidence not to believe everything that they read.

We have heard about grey areas, but the truth is not grey.  It can be ugly and it can be beautiful, but it is never grey.  The truth illuminates, the truth is worth defending and upholding.  As librarians we have a unique position in society to speak the truth, to uphold the truth, to defend the truth and ultimately to control the story.

1 comment:

  1. Well written piece, surprised that there are no comments to date. Don't fully agree with the Social Media comment, most librarians I know (including those at the top) are regular twitter contributors. Everyone has the right to exercise in abstaining from social media (even for work purposes) this does not necessarily mean they are not visible in their institutions, but I get your point.