Meeting Patrons Where They Are: Teaching skills through reference desk interactions and programming
It is paramount to teach patrons media literacy skills in order to give them the tools they need to discern credibility in sources. And to do this and to get these skills across, we have to meet people where they are. They aren’t going to come to us ask us for training; we need to incorporate it into what we’re already doing.
As information professionals, we must connect with our customers and fight the battle against misinformation and disinformation. That means having skills ourselves, and it means using our trusted position in society to help people understand where their information is coming from and why that’s important. As library workers, we are trusted by those on either side of the political spectrum. We are used by people from all different walks of life, including those who believe in conspiracy theories and that mainstream media is fake. I think it’s essential for us to use this trusted role and set ourselves up as purveyors of sound information.
Since customers are not likely to think their media literacy skills are lacking, we must find ways to work media literacy into reference desk interactions, ongoing programs and displays. When a customer shares fake news with you in the form of a reference question, instead of just offering them resources on that subject, ask them where they got the information and strike up a conversation about reliable media outlets.
Yes, it’s possible the customer may think you’re a part of the conspiracy or a member of the fake news media, but we must continually and repeatedly both offer accurate information and explain why it’s accurate. Remind patrons that libraries are here to provide trusted and sound information and that you have no reason to provide misinformation. I often fall back on PEW research about trusted sources of information and media outlet funding to try and get this message across. Having information like this ready and printed, along with tools like those from NAMLE and The Center for Media Literacy ready will give patrons the opportunity to learn and explore on their own.
It is also possible to teach these skills through programming. Programming creates an environment for sharing ideas and learning. Have a book club? Discuss how the book would be portrayed in the media or if social media were a part of the plot. If you’re teaching basic computer skills, it is essential that you share media literacy skills. You’re giving patrons the whole world at their fingertips. Incorporate local journalists into bigger programs so that customers can meet and conversate with the media in an informal setting.
Yes, combatting disinformation and misinformation is challenging. Yes, it is extra work. But now more than ever, as information professionals, it is our work.
Kristen, this is a great post. I wholeheartedly agree with you that "it is our work" to counter dis/misinformation and especially right now, I think it requires an all-hands-on-deck effort.
I think the "fine line" that both you and Ross raised deserves more attention and consideration. Where librarians are seeing more questions about conspiracy theories, etc., this can be a really tricky reference interview and goes beyond what we were taught in library school about providing reference services. To your point, some of it really does depend on an individual librarian's comfort level. And yet, librarians can't avoid these conversations when they come up. What then, is the "best" approach that allows librarians to fully meet their professional responsibilities while respecting the "fine line"? Having clarity on that "fine line"--from our profession--would, I believe, be an especially valuable contribution to the conversation. Perhaps that is another idea for the Forum: develop formalized guidelines (in the vein of RUSA's guidelines/competencies) that can be endorsed by the ALA/RUSA, for reference interviews in which the patron's query is principally dis/misinformation.
I really agree with imbedding media literacy into reference interactions, at least for libraries that have strong reference services. I work in a rural library in Washington State, and my system doesn't really have a focus on reference, which makes it challenging to teach such skills organically (although I have only started working here since the pandemic began, and perhaps once patrons can come in and linger I will get more reference questions).
I have been thinking of how to do programming around fake news and info literacy without branding it as such, or even having it be about social issues. So many people are resistant to entering such conversations, even if I am able to come to them in a safe and listening way. I fear this comes from how divisive news and social media are - people are condemned or challenged, rather than ideas. I am inspired by the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, that has spoken of virtual escape rooms placed in fictional settings where the challenges require info literacy skills. After the activity, there is a debriefing/discussion about how those skills can be applied to real life. It is an interesting way of gamifying media literacy (which creates helpful distance), and I have been pondering ways to do similar programs. Has anyone come across useful ideas, or have any of their own of how to engage people who may be turned off by "media literacy" or "fake news" branding?
I also like the imbedded approach, and I think a lot of bigger lessons can come from interactions that might seem smaller. For example, when patrons ask for help navigating to a particular website I try to make a point of highlighting that the first few Google results are usually ads and are marked as such. It's subtle but if a less savvy computer user can internalize what that means it could help them learn to be a more discerning browser.
We have also had Newsguard installed on our public PCs-- kind-of a nice passive approach!
Thanks Kristen and Ross for joining our conversation.
I admire both if these approaches. I'm curious whether either of you has ever had pushback from a library patron. What happens when the person you're trying to teach insists that the fake news is real? How far do you, or should a librarian, go to teach them?
People in a respected position providing consistently factual information over and over is an important part of helping people out of the conspiracy theory echo chamber they often find themselves in. I know there’s a fine line between engaging in an ideological conversation about conspiracy theories and helping provide sound information though. On the one hand, we need to be there to be the purveyors of sound information, but we also don’t want to overwhelm those we’re talking to until they stop listening (and we need to hang on to our own patience). It varies from library worker to library worker and the individual comfort level and with each individual customer.
And as to what happens with an individual customer, it really all depends on the customer and my relationship with them. Some just walk away, some want to discuss, but no one wants to be wrong! I find that doing a lot of listening and then a lot of showing (sites like NAMLE and the Center for Media Literacy) are the best tools. No sound logic doesn’t always work, but we have to keep trying.
I've only had serious pushback once in one of my classes, but it wasn't that he thought a particular piece of fake news was real. He though real news was fake. I was showing an image of a fake ABC News website that had some stories go viral in 2016. I asked the class to comment on what about the page seemed fishy (the big clue was the URL), and he said, "Well, that's a mainstream media site. You can't trust anything they say." So he thought a fake site was really ABC News, but that's what he considered to BE fake news. He argued with us for a while after the class along similar lines.
In terms of one-on-one contact with patrons who believe conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, or scams, before COVID (when they were face to face) that was a near-daily occurrence for me.
In that context, I didn't push back as much, unless I thought they were really going to do something harmful, like fall for a financial scam, take a quack cure for a serious disease, etc. But if they just ask where the books by David Icke are, for example, or asked who a particular guest was on Coast to Coast AM and what they believe, I don't feel like it's my role then to dispute the ideas with them. If they asked me whether those ideas where trustworthy, instead of just asking for concrete information *about* those ideas, then I would engage with them about credibility. But I do struggle with when librarians should push back, and when we should just give them the information they ask for.
One approach I think can be useful in discussing conspiracy theories is to encourage curiosity about media and stories, rather than skepticism. Those who believe conspiracy theories, or even just a general mistrust of "mainstream media" are already skeptical of many of the people and intuitions that are worthy of trust (at least most of the time). There is such a mistrust of "mainstream" media, government, etc, based on some really valid concerns (like jobs being moved overseas with no replacements for people without degrees, a poking fun at rural lifestyles, the incredible wealth of so many of our politicians on all sides, and the disconnect of politicians and academia of the lives of so many Americans) and some less valid concerns (white fragility and entitlement, sexism, white supremacy, colonialism, fear) that it can be difficult to explain to some people why they should trust them when so much of their lives and identities are at best disregarded and at worst ridiculed. Which, these are all hard lines to walk - of course we don't want to validate racism or sexism, but we also want people to feel safe to explain themselves and explore other ideas.
"We are used by people from all different walks of life, including those who believe in conspiracy theories and that mainstream media is fake. I think it’s essential for us to use this trusted role and set ourselves up as purveyors of sound information."
That is so true. As a reference librarian who has taught classes on spotting mis/disinformation for the last four years, I've been wondering how to tackle conspiracy theories more. Up to now, I've mainly focused on ways for people to evaluate information and their own biases, without bringing up conspiracy theories directly, because I'm afraid of getting dragged into a quagmire with a person in the class who believes in them. But recent events show that conspiracy theories these days are a danger not just to people, but to democracy itself.
But how do we address them without people thinking we're "sheeple" or part of the conspiracy? One thing I've done when people bring them up is to ask them to consider the plausibility of thousands of people successfully colluding in a conspiracy like, say, the moon landing. I encourage people to weigh the likelihood of people being able to pull that off (and being that dishonest) versus the likelihood of there being a simpler explanation, and no conspiracy. A new video from the News Literacy Project also points out that real, documented conspiracies tend to involve smaller numbers of people and have a short historic duration compared to false conspiracy theories. So that's another thing to discuss with patrons. But I would love to hear other people's ideas.
I really like your logical approach to disentangling conspiracy theories. I’m going to try that!
There are a couple different ways I've tried to go about helping customers ingrained in conspiracy, and none of these are perfect, but they’re a start:
1) First, do your best to level with the patron. If you’re there with them, person to person, you’re going to have a bigger impact than if you’re behind the barrier of library employee versus customer. And this just means taking the time to not judge and to let them be heard.
2) Second, remind the customer that you have no reason to lie to them. Remind them that libraries are trusted across the political spectrum and that you are a trained information professional who only wants to help them find the best information and the answers to their questions. I often fall back on PEW research about trusted sources of information and media outlet funding to try and get this message across.
3) Finally have information like I mentioned above from NAMLE and the Center for Media Literacy ready. Go through the tools with patrons. Show them that these aren’t media outlets, that they’re nonprofit tools meant to educate. Giving customers these tools will give them the opportunity to learn and explore on their own. After all, if they want to prove to you that they are right and you are wrong, they are likely the type of person to be challenged to do research.