Moral Certainty vs. Practical Action

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s this: Moral certainty is easy. Practical action is hard and almost always requires some degree of compromise.

Here are two principles of public librarianship which underlie our work:

  • Public libraries have a mandate to provide materials that represent multiple perspectives on a range of issues and subjects, especially to reflect the various viewpoints of members of the library’s community.
  • Public libraries are trusted sources of reliable, authoritative information. We vet information sources to be sure we offer good info to our patrons.

What happens when these two principles stand in direct contradiction with each other? What do you do when you can’t fulfill both of these principles?

As Neil Gaiman said, “Google will bring you back … a hundred thousand answers. A librarian will bring you back the right one.” There’s been a great deal of talk these past few years about the role libraries can play in fighting the spread of misinformation and promoting information literacy.

But we have people in our communities who hold to ideas and perspectives that are incorrect, at least when assessed by standards of information literacy and authority. These people expect to come into their library—which their tax dollars help fund—and find materials which reflect their beliefs.

How do you balance that?

When I was in graduate school, we wrestled with this issue through the lens of climate change. There are people who do not believe that global climate change is real, and some who believe it’s real but not driven by human actions. There’s plenty of published material which argues such.

However, basically none of the available climate change denial material is from verifiable authoritative sources. None of that material passes our reliable information standard. Pretty much all verifiable authoritative sources on climate change agree that it’s real and driven by human actions.

If we insist on meeting our reliable information standards, then we’ll only collect material from one side of the issue and violate our multiple perspectives mandate. If we uphold our multiple perspectives mandate, we’ll need to collect material that’s demonstrably false and we’ll perpetuate misinformation.

We can’t meet both principles.

There are a number of issues and subjects which fall into this contradiction, where the overwhelming majority of verifiable, authoritative sources of information prove one side of an issue with little or no reliable information to uphold other sides.

How do we resolve this? Which principle is more important?

The answer is going to be political, to a large degree. That’s the reality of being a tax funded organization that depends on popular support. We need voters to say yes when we ask for funding initiatives. We need our elected leaders to support us, which means we have to meet them in the political arena.

We can turn to another principle of librarianship for some guidance: We can’t tell people what they should think. We provide resources for folk to explore an issue and let them make up their own mind. I hope the verifiable authoritative information will win the argument for most people but that’s naïve.

We can teach information literacy skills, but people need to ask us for that kind of guidance. It won’t work to force it on anyone.

I wonder if this contradiction is the library equivalent of the “both sides”-ism that’s plagued news media for the past few decades. A structure of false equivalences. There’s a famous response to this cult of “both sides”:

If some people say it’s raining and some people say it’s not, the responsibility of the journalist isn’t just to report what people are saying. It’s their job to look out the window and see if it’s raining.

I wonder if there’s wisdom for libraries in this.

Ultimately, to discuss these challenges in terms of information and information literacy is reductive. Libraries aren’t only, or even primarily, about access to information. We share stories. We create space for people to experience stories. Storytelling is the fundamental way people learn to understand each other. Exposure to multiple perspectives isn’t just, or even primarily, about deciding what you believe. It’s about understanding what other people believe and why.

Libraries aren’t just encyclopedias of information. We’re spaces of exchange. We’re communal spaces. We’re temples to stories. We seek beyond literacy, to foster empathy and understanding.

Now we’re once again in the realm of moral certainty. Practical action remains messy, difficult, political, and compromised. But I believe in the transformative power of sharing our stories. I believe that matters.

And stories are what libraries do.

Realistically, many of the conflicts which plague our society are beyond the ability of libraries to solve. We can exchange our stories, build community and consensus at the local level, even change some people’s minds. This work is important but it’s not enough. It’s necessary but not all that’s required. It’s transformative but only the beginning of a solution. We need systemic solutions, structural overhaul, and legislative action at a national level.

To paraphrase a former coworker of mine: If our solution to intolerance is to change the minds of intolerant people, then we’re never going to solve intolerance.

This wisdom applies to many of our society’s most intractable challenges. This is bigger than us. Libraries can only do so much on our own.

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