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New Research Explores How Public Libraries Can Best Combat Misinformation

by on November 23, 2020

New research published in the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science adds pieces to the puzzle of how public libraries can best address rising tides of misinformation within their communities. Most recently, misinformation surrounding COVID-19 has demonstrated how complex the issue can be and how serious- even lethal- the consequences.

“The Role of Libraries in Misinformation Programming: A Research Agenda,” by Jason C. Young, Brandyn Boyd, Katya Yefimova, Stacey Wedlake, Chris Coward and Rolf Hapel, outlines three areas in which academic partners can assist public libraries in the goal of achieving more effective methods for addressing misinformation: design of effective programming, development of tools to keep librarians informed, and empowering librarians to engage in controversial topics.

Researchers met with library staff from throughout the state of Washington to brainstorm on the topic. Participants discussed which approaches to misinformation were more likely to be successful, taking into consideration issues such as psychological barriers, the self-selecting nature of programs, and hardships faced by community members, including limited digital access.

Some ideas included integrating media literacy concepts within popular programming, as opposed to stand-alone programing on the topic (humorously described by one participant as “hiding the broccoli in the brownies”); capitalizing on trends such as virtual reality to garner interest; and strengthening community ties through dialog to combat the divisiveness exploited by misinformation campaigns. Participants emphasized the need for programming that was highly responsive, timely, and relevant to the daily lives of their community members. 

Staff also discussed challenges including perceived political connotations around terms such as “fake news” and “misinformation” causing some to resist those topics or even take offense. Challenges also include lack of staff time and other resources (funding, expertise, technology) – even a lack of confidence in tackling the issue. 

Another difficulty discussed was the lack of rigorous evaluation of public library programs and resulting data that would help in designing effective initiatives. The authors suggest that LIS and education scholars could help by developing and testing curriculum tools in public libraries. Another idea was for researchers to assist librarians by providing a portal to “fact cards” on current misinformation across a range of subjects. This could help librarians keep up with the constantly shifting barrage.

Libraries enjoy a trusted role in their communities and are also dependent upon local funding and support. These factors can make it more difficult for library staff to tackle potentially controversial issues, even problems that should be neutral and within their wheelhouse such as media literacy. Unfortunately, perpetrators of misinformation often malign those best positioned to counteract the misinformation (I think of this as “meta-misinformation”- turning people away not only from a particular set of facts but also from more reliable sources in general).

The authors acknowledge that many library core missions contribute to counteracting misinformation, including the psychological roots of it. They write: “Misinformation is most dangerous when it is able to exploit the fears and needs of communities. If librarians are able to bring communities together to solve problems before they become the target of a disinformation campaign, then this is a valuable contribution even if the library never directly addresses the topic…” Technology and literacy training are among services libraries provide that impact the “complex information ecosystem that supports misinformation.” 

Overall, the findings align with my own research on several points, including staff concern over the self-selecting nature of programs, lack of staff time as a primary barrier to more proactive responses, and the importance of staff training and community partnerships. However, this article does much more to address how academic partners can take a more active role in supporting public libraries in combatting misinformation.

Ironically, the article itself, while illuminating, also represents some of the difficulties faced by public library staff in accessing resources that could aid our mission. Empirical research on how best to implement media literacy initiatives in public libraries is uncommon to begin with, but what exists is often behind a paywall. Academics, including academic librarians, have professional incentives to produce research that public librarians do not. Academic professionals are naturally more likely to focus on the topic from the perspective of academic libraries rather than public ones. Academic research published behind a paywall further isolates it from use by public librarians. All this circles back to the suggestion by the authors that it would be helpful for academic researchers to partner with public libraries in training, programming, assessment, and access to research and expertise.

As the information- and misinformation- landscape continues to become more complex, librarians will need the support of colleagues, community members, and partners in combatting the misinformation that threatens our communities. It is heartening to know that we have allies.

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