What About Truth?
In times of social distress—either localized or widespread—it seems librarians are so focused on service to their communities that they have trouble looking beyond whatever instrumental, technological, or administrative solutions they bring to bear on the immediate situation. For at least the last five years, librarians have been in a state of perplexing triage in the face of an epistemic crisis that has become a matter of life and death with the pandemic. This crisis has also severely exacerbated community divisions along political and cultural lines, and threatens to undermine free democracies in favor of authoritarianism around the globe. It is understandable that we have chosen to play to our strengths and throw our energy behind the creation and adoption of new services, programs, resources, tools, and approaches to combat the negative impact of misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news. This sustained intensity has left little time for the profession to look inward and evaluate some of the fundamental things that we believe to be true about our profession. One area in particular with both practical and ethical implications is the very notion of truth, or what the librarian’s role is in supporting truth(s) for a fair, equitable, and well-functioning society. We have become acutely aware of the damage that untruths that can do on a very massive level; my contention is that before we can effectively develop strategies to push outward onto our various publics, we first need to re-evaluate the ethical foundations of our profession and its institutions on where we stand on truth.
The ALA’s Code of Ethics does not expressly mention truth, although one might infer that it assumes a general adherence to principles like honesty, integrity, reliability, and objective, provable reality that traditionally inform the broad understanding of truth. However, for a statement that delineates “the values to which we are committed, and embodies the ethical responsibilities of the profession in this changing information environment,” the absence of an explicit reference to some notion of the truth is noteworthy. One may reflexively associate truth with other values in the Code that receive a full-throated endorsement like intellectual freedom, intellectual property, personal privacy, free and equitable access, workers rights, professional development, etc., and truth does not, theoretically, conflict with these. Except for when it does. Of course, the Code of Ethics hedges against itself; it is at once a statement of principles and responsibilities, but also just an optional guideline that may or may not be relevant depending on the situational context. Part of the problem is that the Code still largely adheres to the idea of professional and institutional neutrality, even if the terminology used attempts to avoid this connotation and even if for all operational intents and purposes the ALA has rejected it.
What’s interesting to me is that the last update of the Code was in early 2008, arguably the headwaters for the current wave of the infodemic. That year saw the biggest financial meltdown and initiated the deepest economic recession in generations—from which many still have not recovered—while income inequality and consolidation soared to new heights; it saw the election of the first black American to the U.S presidency, which re-ignited long-standing cultural grievances, racist backlash, and institutional mistrust; it was also banner year for social media, which is now a pervasive feature of everyday life and the most consequential form of personal communication, information consumption, and political expression. The wave built over several years and came crashing down in 2016 with the election of a con artist whose entire approach and appeal were based on open hostility to truth, or rather, anything that did not comport with he and his supporters’ version of truth. Now we’re all trying not to drown. Given how monumentally things have changed since 2008, it seems that a re-consideration of the library profession’s ethical basis is crucial, especially if we believe it is our role to contribute to a common base of information, knowledge, facts, and evidence required to sustain free, prosperous, and progressive communities.
This is not to suggest that librarians are qualified or should be responsible to set standards for universal, categorical truth (no one is, really). However, what we can do is take a close look at how truth factors into the values and principles that we claim to uphold and take a clear position on the truth(s) we will support. This has happened to some degree, but it is largely reactionary and instrumental—the profession attempting to play catch-up through information literacy, fact-checking, resource creation, and so on—which is understandable given how quickly things move. However, these efforts—the efficacy of which are questionable—cannot even begin to address the underlying social forces that create the conditions librarians are reacting to, unless and until there is a larger deliberation and ethical reckoning with the truth and what it means to our work, our institutions, and our communities. The principles and values embedded in our ethical codes offer a good place to start this deliberation and it is overdue.