Moderator Pick
January 31st, 2021

Labels matter

Libraries are a binary world of fiction and non-fiction. But the real world is not so black and white. It is not always clear, sometimes the edges are blurred.

The increasing popularity of misinformation in pop culture and mainstream media may mean we need to rethink how information is labeled. Misinformation is sitting on our library shelves, undermining our efforts at bringing people the truth. For example, if a library user Ancient Alien theory in the non-fiction section of the library, they might assume it is valid information. Ancient Aliens might seem harmless, but its thinly veiled racism is culturally harmful. It also promotes the idea that experts should not be listened to and does not present both views. While libraries support questioning experts, the also promote sharing unbiased information and critical thinking.

This same scenario could easily apply to homeopathic healing information. A user might not seek medical help from a doctor if they find an untested cure for a serious issue. And do not get me started on political opinions paraded as truth and fact. If we adjust labeling to reflect the content it could help library users to make more informed choices.

I realize this is a censorship issue and does some critical thinking work for our customers, but I believe it will be helpful in helping users identify better information sources. Our minds want to organize and categorize things. If we label some materials as opinion or pseudoscience, library users will be able to connect those concepts and labels with what they really are. This allows for a shared concept of truth.

Just because something has always been done a certain way, does not always mean it is the best way.

Tags: fiction, misinformation, nonfiction, organization

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Comments (5)

Comments (5)

I think about this a lot, because such a large portion of the "nonfiction" books patrons ask for are pseudosciences. It drives me crazy how much more popular astrology, ancient aliens, etc. are than real science. I don't think those books should be shelved with books on evidence-based science and medicine, but I also don't think I would be comfortable labeling them as false or pseudoscientific (even though I think they are). For one thing, many librarians don't have the training to definitively label something as pseudoscience. Also, where do you draw the line in other sections? Many of the books in the religion section make claims about miracles and the supernatural that are not supported by science (or even believed by followers of other religions) I can only imagine the uproar if public libraries started labeling those books as pseudoscience. In the part of the rural south where I grew up, a library that did that would be a library that quickly lost all its funding. But it is something I still struggle with. One thing I like to do is emphasize whenever I can that "non-fiction" isn't the same as "true".

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Hi Ross,
I had considered that religion would likely be the first argument against labeling anything. I would really avoid touching religion materials for 2 reasons.

1. It would be construed as an attack on the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

2. Religious materials should be cataloged and located where they belong, there should be no confusion on what the material contains. Library users looking for materials on religion should be able to find them in the section for Religion using either LC or Dewey systems. They are technically already labeled.

The issue with opinion and pseudoscience and other misinformation in the library is that it is mixed in with peer reviewed research, history, or other nonfiction which gives it a sense of credibility. I think this is the same issue with cable news and the History Channel where the lines become blurred and it is difficult to know what to believe.

I do see issues because with most convincing misinformation there is a shred of truth in it. Its hard to know where the limits of labeling should be set.


Hi Jessie:

This is a fascinating idea. How could it happen? What would be the steps required to create sections called "opinion" or "pseudoscience" or other more judgmental names? How could you convince your library board and your community that you are the right arbiter of which books belong in those sections and that creating those sections is in the best interests of the community?

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This would really have to be a group or committee project. To ensure support and maintain neutrality I believe a diverse group that included stakeholders would need to come together to decide on the specific terms and guidelines for their use. I do not think any one person should hold that much control to place labels on items without a strong foundation of guidelines and agreed upon terms. As a side note, the Library of Congress does not seem to have a political opinion subject heading which might eliminate the need for this kind of consideration!

For convincing the community and board, I would need to express the value of categorizing things. Labels can be extremely important, just like asking someone the pronouns they prefer, we want to get it right. By placing certain items under certain names and making the labels visible, it can help educate the public. The community can identify better information sources and make connections between deceptive information and poor arguments. For example, in a newspaper, the opinion section is clearly labeled so it is easy to identify, but when an opinion article is shared on social media, the label may not be visible which could cause confusion. There are also many people who are unable to distinguish cable news opinion shows and journalism because these shows are not labeled as what they are.

In addition to showing value, I would need to show how it would reduce harm as well. I mentioned above the Ancient Aliens and homeopathic medical information above. Those could both cause harm, either culturally, physically, or financially. Many current events reflect an inability to distinguish bad arguments, bias, manipulative, and deceptive information.

I would not be doing my job without presenting counterpoints of possible censorship and doing the thinking for users. While we would not remove the materials, labels have implicit meaning that can change the way users think about them which is a form of censorship. I believe the benefit, that helping users identify deceptive information, would outweigh the harm. I could see a slippery slope argument about censoring religion or silencing voices, but I believe that a diverse group or committee could avoid bias in this project if following the First Amendment and ethical guidelines.


Thinking smaller scale, it would be easy to do some displays with these kind of labels that could be changed regularly. That would require less from a project planning perspective. It would be important to choose opinion items from opposing views to remain neutral.

A display maybe with a question or quiz or fact about information literacy and validating information, that library users could interact with!