Libraries and Information Literacy

I have a friend who’s currently in school to earn an MLIS. They asked me recently if my library offers “information literacy guidance to your patrons? Like any sort of program to help gauge legit info from ‘fake news?'”

My answer turned out to be a bit more involved than I expected. Turns out, I have thoughts about this. I can’t say my thoughts are particularly well sorted at this point but I think they’re worth sharing. Here’s a slightly edited and expanded version of the answer I sent my friend:

My library doesn’t currently do any dedicated programming on this kind of information literacy, although we help guide people when they come to us with questions. We provide access to resources that teach information literacy skills and direct patrons to these resources when we see a need. I know a lot of libraries are exploring different ways to handle this issue and some are offering programming. My library is talking about the idea.

My personal perspective on it: It’s turning out to be more complex than I thought upon first glance.

Libraries can’t tell people what to think. We provide our communities with access to resources and information of all kinds but it’s up to each patron to make up their own mind. We provide access to information and resources for self-directed learning but librarians aren’t credentialed educators. It’s arguably not our role to teach our patrons critical thinking skills—that’s what school is for and we’re not a school. We need to be careful about keeping that line intact.

I agree with that statement. But I also worry it’s a rationale for avoiding responsibility. Like I said: it’s complicated.

My library offers tech classes and some one-on-one tech instruction: teaching people how to use their devices, software, etc., and we address online safety. We offer some online safety guidance for kids and teens. A lot of those basic principles and practices translate to information literacy, too: caution, researching what you’re getting into before you jump into it, questioning the legitimacy of what you see and read, etc.

But at a certain point, this ties into larger, more systemic issues which require broader solutions.

Our country has spent the past several decades reducing or eliminating social support programs. We’ve spent the past several decades decimating liberal arts and vocational education. But there’s still a need for these things and libraries have done what we can to step in to try to fill those gaps: STEM programming, functioning as de facto homeless shelters, mental health first aid and Narcan training, etc. But there’s a limit to what we can do and, frankly, things have reached a point where it can’t work for society to continue to assume that libraries will pick up the all the slack. We’re not the people who should be doing a lot of these tasks. We’re not teachers, we’re not social workers, we legally can’t diagnose health issues, we can’t be anything more than a band-aid for problems which require much broader structural solutions.

And, frankly, given reduced budgets and chronic under-staffing, libraries don’t have the capacity to continue to take on all these additional social support roles.

To an extent, information illiteracy is a symptom of this larger issue—the devaluing of liberal arts education, the idealizing of job-oriented education, the rise of standardized testing at the cost of deeper thinking. Libraries clearly have an active role in teaching information literacy—we’re information professionals and the library is an institution that people trust to provide reliable information. But it also reinforces the belief that society can continue to dump every social issue on our laps. We’re not the ultimate solution to this problem: information literacy requires a return of general liberal arts education, it requires the removal of bloviating talking heads from the airwaves, it requires massive regulation of social media.

On the other hand: I want badly to help and help is needed. Librarians in general like being helpful (that’s why we’re librarians). There’s an urgent need for information literacy which can’t wait for society to shift its paradigm. But even so: the best libraries can offer is a patchwork of guidance. The correction of information illiteracy depends on teaching deep critical thinking skills which ultimately requires our full formal education apparatus. Libraries can help but we’re not the ones who can fix it.

So… it’s complicated.

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