In this post-truth age of fake news and filter bubbles, what is the role of public libraries in helping community members become more discerning users of news and information? That was the burning question that prompted me to complete my MLIS after twelve years working in public libraries. In order to address that question, it was first necessary to ask: What are we already doing? Which of those efforts are most effective? Of libraries not initiating in this area, what are reasons for not doing so, and how can those be mitigated? These questions resulted in a research project which included a survey of public library systems across the United States, the results of which have since been published in Public Library Quarterly1.
During that project, I received input from public library staff across all regions of the country, from small rural libraries to multi-branch urban systems. Many of their specific ideas didn’t wind up in the final report on the broader findings of the research, but I believe they will be of interest to fellow public library practitioners. Below are direct quotes from the survey in which librarians share some of their most successful initiatives aimed at facilitating media literacy.
- “We held a ‘What is Fake News?’ program that brought in 170 attendees. We live streamed the event and had more tune in online. The event was a panel of 4 local journalists and professors and was co-sponsored by the local Press Club.”
- “We hold a series of “Community Conversations” where we discuss topics of importance to the community. A few recent programs have been on interpreting the Constitution, the Electoral College, and mental health. We work with local experts on the subject and have a dialog after an overview of the topic.”
- “Hosting a meet & greet with opposing candidates running for the same office with the ground rules that only position statements and proposed action would be accepted (NO attacks on opposing candidate tolerated). Worked GREAT!”
- “We worked in community colleges to show how databases provide accurate curated information… We have also had school groups and homeschool groups in the library and taught students how to critique websites for reliability. We also show them how to access databases that contain a variety of resources curated in one place such as Opposing Viewpoints.”
- “Our library has partnered with the League of Women Voters’ to offer forums discerning information source reliability, and we have offered in-house workshops on the topic.”
- “Panel discussion with two prominent local journalists (an investigative reporter and a columnist) about news literacy and what goes into making the news.”
- “Social media classes that help those unfamiliar learn about how to use them, what happens to their information on different platforms, how to use privacy features, etc.”
- “Series of fake news programs… included Fake News and the Free Press. Reporters and journalists talk about the impact of misinformation on the public’s perception of current events and the responsibilities of media organizations when reporting the news.”
- “A recent presentation on the history of Mexican immigration had high attendance with the level of discussion during the presentation being civil and open. We’ve also done similar programs on effective/compassionate police procedures with the same results.”
- “We are working with a number of local groups to increase the conversation in our city relative to persons living in poverty, homelessness, or joblessness. We are also expanding our staff presence in such groups as the local military partnership – to support local active duty and veterans.”
Great Decisions, a discussion program offered by the Foreign Policy Association, https://www.fpa.org/news/ and Conversation Café http://www.conversationcafe.org/ were mentioned by multiple libraries as well-received programs to engage productive dialog around important issues. Some large library systems described partnerships with local universities, news outlets, and other nonprofits to create unique series promoting democratic discourse and debate. FRANK TALKS is a great example of this: https://azhumanities.org/programs/frank-talks/.
Of those libraries not currently involved in media literacy initiatives, the reason most often cited was lack of staff time. Below are some ideas that maximize public exposure to media literacy concepts while minimizing staff time investment.
- “We have hung posters defining ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news.”
- “I established a Citizen Empowerment Station, a constantly-evolving display of resources and activities designed to help patrons better engage with the big issues of the day and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship… in the month of September, the display was all about the media, including methods to identify and avoid propaganda, the history of journalism, and the role of media in our democracy, with an activity urging patrons to submit a letter to the editor of one of our local papers.”
- “The LibGuide on Fake News had a very high number of visits and still does.”
For this study, media literacy was defined as discerning the accuracy and reliability of news sources and stories; developing more productive dialog around important topics; and understanding the use and design of digital platforms. Survey quotes are anonymous to protect the privacy of participants.
- Lapierre, Suzanne S., and Vanessa Kitzie. ““Lots of Questions about ‘Fake News’”: How Public Libraries Have Addressed Media Literacy, 2016–2018.” Public Library Quarterly, 2019, 1-25. doi:10.1080/01616846.2019.1600391.