Moderator Pick
February 2nd, 2021

Information belief systems, information emotionalism, information empathy

A librarian's role must shift to acknowledge how belief systems shape information seeking and information retention.

A librarian's role must aim to help people acknowledge the beliefs that they bring to the table, and how those beliefs shape the information that they seek and therefore the information that they find.

A librarian's role must be skeptical and question what "common ground in shared facts" means or even looks like for the most disenfranchised people, as "common ground" that benefits "most" might harm people.

The question prompt states that our world is shaped by disinformation, social media, and "alternative facts." It stands out to me that these are three different things that point to how belief systems and emotions shape information behaviors.

Disinformation: While this term should describe information that is wrong and can be proven wrong by solid, indisputable evidence-- that is not how the term is always used. The term is sometimes politicized to prove the other side wrong, and is sometimes used to describe information that a person does not like or want to believe is true.

Social media: A platform for sharing information; where most people see headlines (sensationalistic as they may be). A platform built on algorithms that learn our behaviors and play to them. Will sometimes show us what we want to see, and sometimes intentionally show us things to make us emotional and make us react.

"Alternative facts": Similar to "disinformation" this term is used to discredit based on dislike. In my opinion, this term is less centered on facts (ironically) and more representative of a belief system. "You can believe your facts, I'll believe mine." I believe this word is used to try to prop up a belief system to the same caliber as "facts."

These three concepts demonstrate how information is being filtered through belief systems and emotional systems. To change someone's mind on a topic is to change their belief system-- and sometimes, if a lie supports their beliefs, they will still choose the lie because it supports a core value in themselves.

If it is true that information behaviors are driven by and shaped by emotion, then it has to be part of our library ethos to acknowledge this and to help others identify their own belief systems in order for them to understand how their preconceptions shape their understanding of information. But how do we do this as individuals not trained in therapy, psychology, or mental health?

If it is true that information consumption is shaped by preconceptions and belief systems, then our information literacy frameworks are missing a way to understand and make room for the emotions that arise when people encounter information. Therefore we need a foundation for informational empathy. But how do we create informational empathy, when some of the informational beliefs are harmful to persons and communities?

If people have been harmed continuously by misinformation and disinformation, then what does information justice look like, for the people who have been harmed to be able to participate safely in democracy?

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Comments (4)

Comments (4)

This is a great analysis. Love the framing of Information Justice and Empathy, really powerful ideas.

This line also stood out to me: "But how do we do this as individuals not trained in therapy, psychology, or mental health?" Working in public libraries means fielding a surprising (to the uninitiated) breadth of requests. We help people apply for jobs, colleges, citizenship, unemployment, and health care, we teach patrons how to use Word and Excel and computers/internet in general, we provide homework help for students, on more than one occasion I’ve helped young people recently kicked out of their homes find emergency housing and get connected with proper social workers. We have to ask patrons touching themselves inappropriately to leave, we have to deal with fights breaking out, and drug overdoses in our bathrooms. And promote literacy.

Because we are so often expected to be a little bit of a social worker, a little bit educator, a little bit child and vulnerable adult caretaker, and a little bit IT support, a part of me wishes that we could be trained in therapy, psychology, or mental health (and a lot of other stuff too). But between that and the NARCAN and all the “other duties as assigned,” it feels like too big an ask for us.

I’ve worked at a large urban library that had a social worker come in regularly to help patrons with situations that us book jockeys were particularly unqualified to tackle. She was an invaluable resource for us and our community. I can’t remember if she worked as part of a partnership the library had with her organization or if she was technically a library employee, but either way I think more libraries should have these experts available.

We could work with these people to craft a holistic approach to information literacy grounded in empathy as you describe.

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Wow. You raise some tough questions. When you think about how to create "informational empathy" and address "information justice," what does that look like to you?

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I totally agree that we need to acknowledge and deal with the huge role belief systems, emotion, and confirmation bias all play in how people choose which sources to trust and what set of "facts" to accept. Also, I love the terms "information empathy" and "information justice," which are new to me. It's relatively simple to teach people skills like lateral reading, tracing back to an original source, etc.--but people who are determined to believe only what they want to believe have no motivation to use these skills. Unfortunately, there's no shortcut to teaching others (and ourselves!) how to interrogate their/our own ideologies. We need to embed critical literacy practices across everything we do.

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If our belief systems are shaped by our community and social groups, can we leverage our position as trusted community information sources to change beliefs? We don't have the same forces of conformity and social pressure that social groups tend to hold over members.

More importantly, how can we get new groups and communities to trust and use library resources who may not feel the need to use libraries.