Reference as Resistance | Reference 2018

Libraries have always engaged in activism, but today the fight is more relevant than ever, with publishers offering relevant titles and librarians stepping up to vet fake news.

How librarians and publishers are using facts to fight back against the flood of misinformation

These days, just being a reader, let alone working in libraries, can feel radical. Lies from the Trump administration are so routine ( that librarians’ habit of insisting upon sourced facts and providing them for free to the public can seem revolutionary.

Politics has always been part of library work. Recently, librarians nationwide rallied behind the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) when its budget was slated for obliteration. These national-level actions are necessary and affect the millions of Americans who depend upon library services and whose tax dollars pay for them. But librarians are also going the extra mile in their local systems and branches, aiding and becoming activists and combating the problem of “fake news” by creating and curating reference materials and programs. Publishers and vendors, too, are stepping up with works that help patrons oppose the forces that keep them misinformed and economically disadvantaged.

Librarian Activists for Immigrants

Libraries Serve Refugees (LSR) emerged as a result of the Trump administration’s policies ( The volunteer group, which was formed by Urban Librarians Unite, helps asylum seekers and other immigrants in addition to refugees. Lauren Comito, chair of Urban Librarians Unite and a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker, says that LSR began after the inauguration when “the travel ban [on citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries] seemed to move a lot faster than we were expecting. Libraries have been serving immigrants and refugees for a long time, but people wanted to do something, and what librarians do best is researching and collating information.”

The group set up a database on a work-sharing site called Airtable, and the members also communicate on the chat app Slack. Resources that LSR’s volunteers list on Airtable feed the group’s website, which Comito notes gets around 150 visits per month. The site offers resources, articles, and materials such as “ICE Raids Toolkit—Defend Against ICE Raids & Community Arrests.” LSR provides organizations doing similar work, such as the American Library Association (ALA), with access to the database.

The members of the group aren’t experts in library services to refugees, says Comito, and their resources are for reference librarians worldwide in the same situation. After starting its work, LSR found the information needed was broader than the group first imagined—in September, for example, the group launched a submission form for suggestions, particularly around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) resources. “There are a lot of wrap-around services for refugees,” Comito notes. “There are refugee resettlement agencies that help you find housing and help sign you up for services, whereas if you come as an immigrant, you’re kind of on your own. There’s not someone waiting for you at the airport, necessarily. And if you’re an asylum seeker, there’s nobody waiting for you, and you have to prove that you need to be here. So we were initially aiming at refugee services, but we quickly found that there’s a need for information for other kinds of immigrant services, too.”

Protest books

With American society so economically polarized, books that describe social conditions can be powerful calls to activism. For those who wish to act upon that call, some new reference-friendly books fit the bill: Amanda Litman’s Run for Something: A Real-Talk Guide to Fixing the System Yourself (Atria, 2017), written by the email marketing director of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Cass R. Sunstein’s Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide (Harvard Univ., 2017). Melville House, an independent publisher known for socially aware books, has just released Barbara A. Radnofsky’s A Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment, and after the Charlottesville, VA, murder of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist, Melville moved the publication date of Antifa member Mark Bray’s Antifa (a guide to the movement’s philosophies, strategies, and organizations) from mid-September to mid-August. Earlier this year, Melville released What We Do Now, a collection of essays about grappling with Trump’s election.

LJ spoke to Melville House cofounder and copublisher Dennis Johnson about the publisher’s aims for these books and how Melville developed and released a book about Trump’s November 2016 election in January 2017. (A book usually takes about 18 months, minimum, from start to ­finish.) “The day after the election, when we came into work,” explains Johnson, “people were sitting at their desks staring vacantly, and some people were crying.... I told every­body that after the reappointment of George W. Bush as president, we did a book called What We Do Now in about a month. We called prominent progressives and asked for 2,000 words on their area of expertise, saying where we go from here, and that’s what we did again.”

The house also quickly published a collection of U.S. Department of Justice reports on police shootings of civilians—Federal Reports on Police Killings—because, Johnson explains, “it looks like the Trump administration is trying to kill those reports.” Asked about any opposition the company has encountered, Johnson says, “This is what we do. We’re in it to see if we can change the world. If people don’t like it, let them get their own publishing company.”

Since rapidly produced books like these, known as “crashed” titles in the publishing industry, can’t be promoted to booksellers, review outlets, and librarians months ahead of time, publisher newsletters and other social media are the best ways to find out about them. Melville House takes advantage of a monthly librarian newsletter ( and other means—Impeachment, for example, will be the subject of a mailer to members of Congress.


The proliferation of “fake news” is a hot topic lately, and many reference librarians’ activism involves promoting their services, including information literacy training, to help the public keep the administration on its toes. (LJ is lending a hand, too; see our related course at For examples, see the in-person and live-streamed program offered by Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, IL (, and a series of workshops by Cornell University Libraries, NY, as well as Cornell’s resources on “Defining Fake News” and “Evaluating News Sources,” ).

The vendors that provide vetted information—real news—to public and academic libraries have taken note of the need, too, and are offering related services. Libraries and vendors are careful to promote fake-news detection help without disparaging one political group or another. In a recent EBSCO webinar (, for example, Richard Bleiler, special collections librarian at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, discussed sources to use in the fight against misinformation, how to work with the university administration to promote information literacy, and how to help instructors educate students on library resources. Gale, as well as providing books such as Stephen Currie’s Sharing Posts: The Spread of Fake News (ReferencePoint, 2017), includes on its site a handy checklist to help students and public library patrons make discerning news-consumption decisions. Credo, a company known for its information literacy instruction, encourages patrons to watch the video “How To Identify and Debunk Fake News” and to take its “Fake News Quiz” to become more aware of bias and quality. According to Ian Singer, GM at Credo Reference, “The ‘fake news’ phenomena brings to light one of the many 21st-century skill needs that information-literacy programs must address. Issues relating to valid resources are but one component of well-rounded instruction. At Credo, what we are focused on and most concerned with is developing courseware to help build deeper information skills to support lifelong learners, beyond simply combating fake news, which also includes critical thinking, logical reasoning, and communication skills.”

“It’s important for libraries to start viewing fake news in the context of our broader digital inclusion work,” says Jeff Lambert, digital literacy coordinator, Queens Library, ­Jamaica, NY. “We should be talking about this with patrons in the same breath as phishing, malware, and spam...with the same focus on skills and tactics for avoiding those threats.... Identifying and evaluating malicious disinformation are now essential skills for anyone who wants to get online, and librarians need to incorporate those learning outcomes into their classes.”

Kristen Droesch, formerly adjunct assistant curator, UX Department, New York University Libraries, and now content curator at Audible, says fake news “discourages one of the core things librarians work toward on a daily basis, which is promoting substantiated facts. It also devalues intellectual curiosity and integrity. Fake news…encourages people to take things at face value, based on what they want.... A great many people are less inclined than ever to dig for the truth, because their emotional sides are being satisfied by fake news.”

Adam Blackwell, lead product manager, platform, at ProQuest, agrees that rather than make people believe something they wouldn’t otherwise believe, “it is hardening their beliefs in an unhelpful way. If they see a fake-news story that allows them to believe with more conviction, they’re more susceptible to accepting that story,” he says. “If they see a fake-news story that challenges what they want to believe, they’re much more likely to dismiss [it].” He points out that it doesn’t help that real news is messy and complicated, whereas since fake news is “unmoored from reality,” it can be presented in simple terms. Blackwell is also concerned that some sources present information that exaggerates or twists facts slightly, making deceit harder to detect than wholesale fabrications.

ProQuest’s Research Companion database is taking steps to help users identify reliable sources. ProQuest offers a tool for assessing the validity of a website. After typing the site’s URL into a search box, students are presented with information on the site’s top-level domain (.com, .org, etc.), its ownership, and how the resource describes itself. These features were part of the original database release in 2013, but recent additions to ­Research Companion’s suite of tools address websites associated with hate groups or fake news.

There’s no consensus on how to define fake news and hate groups, explains Blackwell, “so I made a decision early on that it wouldn’t be ProQuest making that call.” Instead, the company spoke to librarians and instructors and chose two sources that list hate groups and fake news sites, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and “Zimdars’s List,” respectively. The latter is a new resource produced by Professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College, Andover, MA, for use with students of mass communication (­GJJR30eU5NO). When users of Research Companion type the URL of a site that is on the SPLC and/or the portion of Zimdars’s list that ProQuest uses (the sites that are “easily demonstrably fake”), it is flagged.


Librarians need guidance on these issues, too, and that’s what was on offer at the Central Georgia Libraries Un­conference “Grow Local: Cultivating a Culture of Professional Development in Central Georgia Libraries,” held July 28 in the Russell Library at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. (See above for an interview with conference organizer Jolene Cole.) Tim Wojcik, formerly with Mercer University Libraries in Atlanta, attended the un­conference and tells LJ that its conversational format was a good match for the tricky topics addressed. The librarians, he says, expressed the realization that “historically trusted repositories of information, specifically the New York Times or the Washington Post, that even ten years ago weren’t viewed as sources of content with a slant, have now been cast as producers with an agenda. If today I were working with a student and pulled up an article,” continues Wojcik, “they might have a problem with the article just because it came from the New York Times.”

Librarians mentioned that patrons generally find wire services such as the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters more reliable, says Wojcik. However, he notes that lately he has heard the AP tagged as a liberal-slanting source. “It was a real dilemma for the librarians present to come up with a source that was viewed as trustworthy across the board.” LJ spoke to Wojcik between Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and he mentions that even traditional venues for weather forecasts are now viewed as questionable—an attitude that represents a shift in the last few years. “So many people are disaffected by big government that any .gov site is today considered tainted. Could the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] have a bias? Is the [Environmental Protection Agency] more suspect now than before?”

At the unconference, Brandy Horne, a librarian at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, introduced one possible solution to the polarization of opinion on college campuses. Students at her school are required to take “Inter-Curricular Enrichment” courses, which teach them how to disagree respectfully and make fact-based arguments. “If you don’t speak to the person opposite you on an opinion, it’s so much easier to hold on to your own,” Wojcik observes. “[It’s about] experiencing your opponent as a fellow human being; these kinds of courses leaven and ease polarized positions.”

Whether their activism involves helping refugees, producing literature that informs readers about civil rights and processes, or assists patrons and fellow librarians in finding accurate news, librarians, publishers, and vendors are discovering many different ways to be active during this trying time for information professionals. As Comito says, “A lot of people are starting to find where their activism ‘lane’ is. Libraries are my lane.”

Real Talk on Fake News: Q&A with Jolene Cole

Librarians tackle the proliferation of misinformation

Jolene Cole, one of the organizers of the Central Georgia Libraries Un­conference “Grow Local: Cultivating a Culture of Professional Development in Central Georgia Libraries,” held July 28, spoke to LJ recently about what librarians can do to combat fake news.

Can you give our readers an overview of the unconference’s fake-news session?

The initial prompt for our session on information literacy was “How to build collaboration between academic, school, and public librarians” in regard to improving news and digital literacy. Most of us didn’t like the term fake news, as it was considered polarizing. We noted that we had all seen an uptick in faculty requesting sessions. Georgia College shared information on its “Times Talk” sessions, at which faculty lead weekly discussions on popular issues, [including] fake news. Various libraries have started related research guides or planned sessions. Georgia College Library is offering a workshop entitled “Fake News and the ‘Post-Truth’ Era.”

In general, academic libraries seemed to be at the front of the conversations, whereas public libraries (at least those represented at the unconference) are fighting to keep their heads above water and haven’t ventured much into the conversation. We discussed the importance of news literacy for an engaged citizenship, but much work remains to be done to develop actionable items.

How is this work different from what librarians have been doing all along?

Librarians have always worked tirelessly to address these issues...the work is now getting rebranded. In the past, our work within this area hasn’t necessarily been so obvious. I’ve always pushed for students to have conversations on fact-checking, being aware of their bias, and evaluating information. I started a for-credit course in 2012 entitled “Research in the Age of Google.” This was tackling fake news long before our current political situation. However, as social media has taken over as our leading source for news, information literacy instruction is more important than ever.

What sources of information are recognized as objective by student and faculty of competing political backgrounds?

Few sources are considered completely objective by students, faculty, etc., from across the political spectrum. In general, if the information doesn’t fit the individual’s viewpoint, the resource is typically excluded rather than evaluated appropriately. This is due to a lack in proper information literacy training. However, I hesitate to mark any resource completely neutral, except strictly data-driven resources. I want students to think critically [about] all resources, whether they be NPR, Fox News, or material located within our databases. Some librarians prefer a chart of unbiased resources, but others believe that we should teach our patrons about tools for evaluation of information.

Are librarians bias neutral?

The general consensus [at our session] was that librarians do a solid job [of] being there for all patrons without having to advertise their neutrality. Librarians practice this daily, helping individuals with wide ranges of research topics, many of which go against our personal beliefs. Our duty is to provide access, not judgment, especially bearing in mind ALA’s Code of Ethics, which asks us to “distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties” and offer unbiased responses to requests. We recognized that “bias neutral” isn’t a black-and-white issue.

How do you tell a patron that A source of information is unreliable?

Some at the unconference suggested that you don’t have to come out and inform patron[s] that their information is completely unreliable but rather use the interaction as a teaching opportunity. Ask patron[s] questions that can assist them in evaluating any source, and use their current information as an example. You could also offer some counterpoint literature and remind them that it is always best to see both sides of the situation. Or simply suggest some vetted reference material that could be used by either side of an issue.

A lot of our discussion centered on [how] some users are content in their personal social media–filter bubbles. I’ve met many students who care about getting to the truth. If anything, the conversations on fake news have forced people to examine their beliefs and ask more questions, even if only to confirm [that] their beliefs are based in reality.


Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore

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Wow, what a well-researched a dninfornative article about how libraries serve the function of servicing citizens with facts, knowledge and procedure in the current political climate. Thank you for your insightful article.

Posted : Oct 29, 2017 06:24



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