@JCLS_Tweets and I have been having fun with the whole “birds aren’t real” thing… and last week they sent me a graphic making the point that birds also clearly must be murderers, given the murder rates on various planets (zero everywhere but Earth) and the numbers of birds present on each planet (also zero everywhere but earth), and my adamant stance that #evenspybirdsarereal… so now also #birdsaremurderers. All of which is clearly ridiculous. Birds aren’t murderers, nor are they spy drones. They just aren’t. This is an easy topic to come together on, but I’m fairly certain the folks at birdsarentreal.com would fight me on it, just for the joy of fighting and because that’s kind of their thing. All of which is not to say that this is all meaningless and we should rely on whatever facts reaffirm our beliefs and just live in a world where one of our next-door neighbors thinks birds are murderers, the one on the other side thinks they are spy drones, and I think they are just biological birds that neither murder nor spy without having a chat about just how weird that is. But we’ve reached a point that when those differences are political (or politicized), and we can’t even have that conversation without the dreaded fisticuffs conundrum raising its head.
I recently went back to my early college philosophy training and thought about Plato’s Apology (which, to give a quick history of philosophy summary for those who never studied it, is a Socratic Dialog written by Plato, but purporting to be the words of Socrates, ‘cause Socrates really didn’t write stuff down). To paraphrase, the Apology puts forth the premise that the difference between wisdom and lack thereof is the ability to identify when one doesn’t have all the information and might therefore be best served seeking out the knowledge of someone who is more expert about whatever the topic at hand is. Of course, Socrates did not face the current wave of YouTube videos purporting to be from those who claim to have special, secret knowledge they say is not being presented by public health agencies, and he might have put a caveat in about that if he did. For my Shakespeare scholar friends, this is the origin story of the “heathen philosopher” in Touchstone’s speech in As You Like It: I do now remember a saying, ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man, knows himself to be a fool.’ The heathen, philosopher, when he had a desire to eat a grape, would open his lips when he put it into his mouth; meaning thereby that grapes were made to eat and lips to open. (Can you tell we miss OSF over here at Library Connect Blog? Because we do. Also, go see Fannie!) At any rate, Socrates made it clear that knowing when you don’t know and then asking an expert is what wisdom is. Which is great, except we don’t even agree about who the expert is now. We live in a world where “fake news” and “media narrative” have become code for dis- and misinformation and are used by folks who disagree to discredit the sources they are respectively using for their information-seeking needs.
And really, that is the point we’ve been trying to get to all along with this series… because we started with the fact that librarians themselves are the experts we are looking for in this particular case. And to be clear, librarians aren’t experts on everything under the sun. What we are experts in is understanding information sources and being able to guide information seekers on their journeys. We’re good at it, and we like doing it. It doesn’t mean there aren’t sometimes conundrums we encounter from which it is difficult to extricate ourselves: To wit, when a person comes to a librarian asking for high-quality sources that affirm a specific belief, we do find ourselves in a bit of a bind. For the record, I, personally, was asked to do this just yesterday, twice. It isn’t an uncommon occurrence, and it’s not new. Several years ago, before I moved to Jackson County, a patron at another library system asked me to find information about all the amazing things they’d been hearing about goji berries as a super food. This patron really wanted to read more about all the stuff that the people who were trying to sell her foods infused with goji berries were telling her about the product that they were actively trying to sell her. In situations like this, I tend to use a source called MedlinePlus. Nothing there was as compelling as the marketing copy written by people trying to sell stuff. It wasn’t, because it shouldn’t have been. The marketing language in this case was more likely more hyperbolic than disinformation… but hyperbole is bright, shiny stuff that makes us want more of whatever we’re already being oversold on, which was the case in this specific instance. In these situations, we do our best to provide accurate information, but we do also support the information-seeking needs of the person to whom we are speaking. And, yes, I did find information that I do not believe to be factual to help the patron in question. And that is the neutrality we are talking about when we talk about libraries being neutral. If you want an answer to a question, we will get it for you. If you want to conclusion shop your closely-held belief, we will also help you, but we will probably tell you that the source isn’t reputable. At the end of the day, we want to get the best information out there into the hands of a curious public, but we want that information to be credible as long as that is possible to do. My favorite interactions are the ones where I can learn, side-by-side, with library patrons, which is where we started this series. My favorite phrase to use when I’m working continues to be: I’m not sure, let’s figure this out together.
I’ve got one more post coming, this time about how this relates to the idea of neutrality in libraries, because unsurprisingly that conversation has gotten quite fraught as well. Then I’ll go back to quirky booklists, I promise. In the meantime, if you’d like to read some of the books I’ve consulted while writing these posts, click here.