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Cardboard sign at a rally reading "The free exchange of information and ideas is crucial to a free society. Stop the thought police."

 

Over the past several days, a lot of librarians have contacted me regarding the post I wrote on white supremacists in libraries. While the overwhelming majority of the feedback has been positive, there has also been a distinct contingent of librarians who all agree that I am a BAD LIBRARIAN. Libraries are supposed to be neutral and we’re supposed to provide access to ALL sides of controversial issues. Well, let me tell you, I was hesitant at first, but thanks to the dogged persistence of some of my interlocutors and their impeccable logic, I hereby renounce everything I previously wrote. From here on out, I am going to be the most neutral librarian you’ve ever met. I now completely agree that the ALA Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights are perfect documents and that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech is unassailable. I want to express my sincere thanks to everyone who pointed out how wrong I was in believing that libraries shouldn’t facilitate white supremacy.

Now, since I’m new to this whole “both-sidesism,” I’m obviously going to have some questions.

First, I notice that The Turner Diaries by William Pierce is only held by one library, according to Worldcat. Since it’s been hailed as “the Bible of the racist right” I’m deeply troubled that no libraries carry this obviously important text. Obviously, I’m going to buy it now that I’m committed to representing “both sides.” Should I spring for the print or the ebook?

Also, I’ve heard we’re in a “war with Islam.” Sadly, I haven’t added any ISIS propaganda to our library collection (like I said, I’ve been a bad librarian for not representing both sides). So, should my library link out to ISIS beheading videos or host them on our own servers? Again, just trying to be neutral.

Oh, and does it have to be a 1:1 ratio? For example, one holocaust denial book for every history of the holocaust? I’m thinking we may have to weed about 99% of our collection in the D800s to get a fair ratio. But, happy to do it to stay neutral.

And, could you please recommend some publishers in the following areas: alchemy, phrenology, flat earth theory, hollow earth theory, homeopathy, chemtrails, astrology, psychic surgery, and perpetual motion. I’ve noticed that our collections in the sciences are incredibly biased and fail to present both sides of understanding our natural world. (I can’t believe I used to think that truth should be a criterion for collection development.)

And, as an academic librarian, I’m curious how to handle faculty complaints. I’ve already sent out an email letting them know that from here on out we’re committed to presenting both sides of everything. How silly it was for me in the past to select materials based on the needs of my community, rather than the far more noble commitment to neutrality. So, now that faculty are angrily emailing me about spending their department allocations on “stupid shit” (LOL), how do I respond to their obvious biases? The Women’s Studies faculty are especially upset that I devoted half of their allocation to Mens Rights Activist books. I sent a copy of the Library Bill of Rights to them, but they don’t seem to get it. Any pointers?

Also, I have a research consultation Tuesday morning. The student is writing a paper about how “black people were better off during slavery.”* What resources would you recommend to help this student out?

Oh, and I forgot to tell you, a Mexican-American student emailed me earlier today with a question about her paper on DACA. Of course, I sent her both pro-Dreamer articles as well as articles from Breitbart and Infowars that show how illegal immigrants are mostly rapists and drug-addicts. For some reason, she got mad at me. Any suggestions on how to make her see the importance of considering multiple perspectives? (Scholarship is a Conversation, right?!)

And, the university film club has expressed an interest in screening Whose Streets?, the documentary about the Ferguson protests, in the library. Do I need to put together an anti-Black Lives Matter documentary screening in response?

As I pointed out in my previous post, we’ve never actually had a neo-Nazi or alt-right group ask to use our library for anything. Should I be doing outreach to these groups or should I just wait for them to initiate a request?

Thanks in advance for all your help!

Oh, and if you think that these questions are straw-men or pure hyperbole, then, please, let me know which white supremacist books and videos you’ve been buying.** Let me know which alt-right event you’ve sanctioned. Let me know on which issues you’ve nobly affirmed your neutrality. Thanks. Just trying to be the best librarian I can be.

 

* This was an actual consultation I had a few years ago.

** A quick note: I understand that massive research libraries with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars can collect almost everything and that they do probably collect some racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. materials. Likewise, if the library at, for example, a Holocaust memorial collects Holocaust-denial literature, there is a certain logic to that decision that I won’t deny. But, put yourself in the shoes of a small or mid-sized university library like mine; a small or mid-sized public. When you’re strapped for cash, how do you justify providing “both sides?”

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Charlottesville Public Library. Wikimedia Commons.

 

Let me tell you about Walter. You know, the 68-year-old retiree that volunteers at your library. The older white gentleman who’s been faithfully reading to the kids at Saturday Story-Time every week for six years. Kids love Walter. The way he makes silly voices. The knowing grin when the pigeon can’t find his shoe or the mouse somehow gets into the bear’s house for the umpteenth time. The way he reminds them of Santa Claus, maybe. Walter is a great volunteer. He also happens to be a Klan member.

Or, let me tell you about Tyler. The junior political science major that reserves a large study room every Wednesday night from 5:00 to 7:00 for his study group. Always turns the key in on time. Never bothers other patrons. This week, Tyler and his friends are meeting to plan for a road-trip to join a neo-Nazi protest against the planned removal of a Confederate monument.

What about Kelly? She’s the week-end part-timer that covers the reference desk on Sunday afternoons. She’s always there with a smile on her face and an eagerness to help whoever comes to the desk. After her shift, she heads home to write her weekly post for a white nationalist blog.

See, here’s the thing. Librarians are arguing over whether or not to let white supremacists and Nazis and other hate groups into the library. About the library, they say, “you can’t invite into it people who want to publicly announce that they want to drive away some of them with torches and threats.” And, sure, when the alt-right shows up to the circulation desk with their tiki torches, you should absolutely kick their hateful asses out. If a neo-Nazi group wants to rent space for a public memorial service for a Holocaust denier, you ought to push back. If white supremacists are marching down your Main Street, by all means, resist them. Chris Bourg is right: “As an organization, we must condemn white supremacy in all its manifestations.” And we should call out tone-deaf arguments from white guys who think this is all some sort of abstraction about freedom of speech and who want to recite the ALA Code of Ethics as some sort of gospel.

But, odds are, at your library, you’re not going to have to deal with these sorts of things. You won’t have tiki torches at your circulation desk or neo-Nazis rallying by your makerspace. No, you’re just going to have Walter and Tyler and Kelly.

White supremacy is endemic. It’s part of the fabric of this country. And it’s good at hiding in plain sight. For every fascist wearing a Pepe shirt, there are a thousand more who aren’t. And the more we focus on the most egregious displays of hate coming from the alt-right, the more we risk overlooking the hidden hatred that lives right next door. The hate that perpetuates discrimination and inequality. Redlining loan officers don’t carry torches. The high-income hipsters whitewashing Harlem aren’t carrying Confederate flags. George Zimmerman wasn’t wearing a white hood when he shot Trayvon Martin. Remember, after the white supremacists rally, they go home, take off their silly costumes, and blend back into white, suburban banality. And how do the Walters and Tylers and Kellys blend in? Because we let them. We nice white folks let them. To me, that’s more frightening than any rally.

So, while librarians argue on the Internet about whether to punch a Nazi or let the Klan hold a rally in the library, kids are listening to Walter the casual Klansman read about an owl who can’t fall asleep…and they’re loving it.

photo of Rachel Dolezal at a Spokane rally

Wikimedia Commons. CC SA 4.0

I don’t know how many librarians followed the recent drama swirling around feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, but I think it serves as a valuable object lesson in the complexity of contemporary research into identity. In brief, Hypatia published an article by Dr. Rebecca Tuvel (Philosophy, Rhodes College) entitled “In Defense of Transracialism” (paywalled) in which Tuvel argues that there are logical equivalences between arguments surrounding transgender identities and arguments surrounding transracial identities (e.g., Rachel Dolezal). Tuvel argues that many of the common arguments for accepting transgender identities can be applied mutatis mutandis to accepting transracial identities. What would otherwise be a fairly dry paper on the logic of identity claims set off a firestorm of outrage. An open letter accusing the article of causing harm received hundreds of signatories, the editorial board of Hypatia apologized, the board of directors for Hypatia disavowed that apology, the open letter was rebutted, social media erupted, the paper was called a “discursive transmisogynistic” act of “epistemic violence,”and there have been dozens of think-pieces on the state of feminist philosophy, on “call-out culture,” on the ethics of scholarly communication, on privilege, and so on, and so on. Read the Wikipedia article if you must. (No, really, it’s an academic scandal worth knowing about.)

I’m not going to weigh in with my thoughts on the affair–who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, I want to look narrowly at one aspect of the scandal that seems to speak to information literacy: the role of identity in information evaluation practices.

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I just realized that I haven’t shared my slides from LOEX a few weeks ago. So, scroll to the bottom for the complete slidedeck. Of course, it would help to have some context to understand what was going on. So here are my presentation notes, slightly reworked for this post. Also, there were a couple of caveats I made during the presentation:

  1. I’m focusing on teaching information evaluation during a one-shot library session in a first-year course. The English 101 writing courses that dominate library instruction. Higher-level classes in other subjects get treated differently.
  2. The pedagogical tactics I’m recommending have been thoroughly researched and shown to be effective…just not by librarians. This is stuff coming out of cognitive psychology, education, political science, and other fields. So, while I’m not going to include assessment data, please know that there is a ton of assessment data out there from earlier studies.

Anyways. Let’s begin…

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Hi. This is not an important blog post. It’s really more of a “I’m writing a paper and I think I’ll post notes here for public comment” post. You can skip it if you aren’t interested in philosophical criticism of a ten year old library science article.

You see, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an article related to some things I wrote back in December on post-truth and librarianship, specifically as the concept of truth relates to information literacy. My basic argument is along the lines that the concept of truth has been increasingly devalued or marginalized in our information literacy initiatives, which in turn has lead to problems understanding and articulating the value of libraries in combating so-called “post-truth.”

Put another way: if librarianship is going to take a stand against “post-truth,” then librarianship needs to take a stand on truth.

Anyway, I’m reading what few articles there are on the role of truth in librarianship and I thought I’d quickly address one of the more prominent articles: “The Philosophical Problem of Truth in Librarianship” by Robert Labaree and Ross Scimeca. (JSTOR). Let me briefly try to address their argument and where it goes wrong. Again, this is really just me annotating an article and copy-pasting from Word. It’s fleshed out a bit more than a simple outline, because that’s just how I write. But it seemed bloggable enough.

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Graffiti of the work propaganda written in Greek

by
Konstantinos Koukopoulos on FLickr, CC BY

I’ve seen a lot of comments saying something to the effect of, “post-truth isn’t anything new; call it what it is: propaganda!” Or, “post-truth is just a bullshit buzzword for disinformation!” While I understand the impetus behind the “post-truth = propaganda” line of thought, as a librarian interested in how people interact with information, I think it’s important to clarify that they do not actually describe the same phenomena.

As a point of reference for future writing on the topic (and to kill a few hours on the reference desk), consider what follows a helpful glossary on post-truth, propaganda, bullshit, and other contemporary terms of art. Some commentary follows.

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Newspaper folded to highlight the word 'truth'

CC0, Public Domain

So there’s this phrase being bandied about: “post-truth.” As in, we live in a “post-truth era.” Popular use of the phrase is over a decade old, but its recent ascendancy lead The Oxford English Dictionary to name it Word of the Year for 2016; here’s the OED definition: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. I mean, we’re at the point where Trump supporters racists are literally saying that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Armchair political scientists and ersatz media commentators are having a field day using post-truth politics to explain everything from contemporary political discourse to Brexit to identity politics to the rise of neo-Nazism to the presidential election and everything in between. “We’ve let sentimentality take precedence over facts and look where that got us!” seems to be the rallying cry.

As you’ve probably noticed, librarians are all over post-truth. Librarians are adamant that information literacy can help combat the post-truth world of fake news. School librarians have been singled out as key players in combating post-truth. School Library Journal is advocating for news literacy toolkits. The Annoyed Librarian wrote something or other. And the hot-takes on Twitter are all over the place. “The post-truth era needs information literacy and that means librarians need to step up!” seems to be the rallying cry.

There’s only one problem with that: information literacy has never been about truth.

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