Equipping Discerning Information Consumers

Social media via the Internet has brought us incredible capabilities to connect with and maintain our social networks across space and time. Never before in the history of humankind have we had the ability to communicate so quickly or so broadly. We have been very quick to realize the convenience and capability of these technologies. We, on the whole, have been very slow to fully understand the responsibility and the dangers of these information systems and the damage that they can cause us.

When information is expensive to produce, there are natural governors on the rate at which that information is produced. It is not that it is impossible to spread rumor, falsehoods, or lies. However it does cost money to do so, which limits both the number of people who may want to spread information as well as the reach that that dubious information may have. End-users of information therefore placed some measure of trust in their sources, whether it be a newspaper, television news program, or library. The information they were providing cost money – and those institutions had business and ethical reasons to ensure that the information they delivered was accurate and truthful.

When information is cheap (or free) to produce, there are no natural mechanisms to limit any information – truthful or otherwise. And when distribution systems can reach hundreds of thousands of people instantly, the risk of damage by spreading misinformation is great. Publishers of information no longer have any business or ethical reason to produce truthful information – in fact, they may have reasons to be misleading or untruthful. In this case, trust can no longer be reliably placed in all information-producers.

Librarians have long known that the source of information matters. Library collections have long been curated to include reliable information from predominantly reputable sources. Not everything in libraries is true, nor is it reputable, however libraries and librarians had vested interests in seeking out these kinds of information sources for their collections. In an age when libraries were the predominant source for information, this system could generally work. Today, libraries are no longer the primary source for information – instead we have Facebook, Twitter, and all manner of other Internet news sources, many of which have no reason to tell the truth.

We as a society have not yet fully understood that the responsibility for determining truth in the information we consume now falls squarely on the end-user. Whereas other institutions used to fill this role for users, they by-and-large can no longer do so. Libraries stand at a critical place with the ability to help give our users the skills and tools to operate in an information-rich and often misleading world, if we stand up to the task and make it a core part of our mission.

At the U.S. Military Academy Library, we seek to educate users in strong literacy skills to be able to understand and verify the veracity of information and to be able to apply to the work at hand. We do this through our expanding program for developing information literacy across the curriculum, through redesigning our information interfaces and access tools, and by working to maintain an unbiased approach to verifiable information.

Information Literacy – Instruction
As an educational institution, teaching is a core part of our mission. We in the Library, see one of our primary roles as the development of strong information literacy skills to ensure that our cadets, faculty, and staff can find, assess, and use information professionally and responsibly. While we have significantly expanded our programs to teach these skills, we are continuing to find new ways to integrate library instruction into the curriculum. The Dean’s new strategic plan includes a priority for work in this area, and we are now taking holistic approaches to designing information literacy instruction across core courses as well as in major areas of study. Libraries and librarians are uniquely positioned to partner with faculty to teach these skills.

Interfaces / Access Tools
Information is not hard to find. It is ubiquitous as the air around us. This puts extra responsibility on the systems and tools we use to manage, filter, and find information. Information search interfaces, websites, and other databases that are difficult to use and understand will drive away users to more useful tools – oftentimes social media or open internet search engines. Libraries have a special responsibility to ensure that the systems we use to deliver our content and our services are as easy-to-use as possible and that their content is of reasonable quality and that our users know how to access this information. We will be rethinking our website and other interfaces in 2017-18 in order to better deliver on this responsibility of libraries. We will make access to our information as easy as possible in order to ensure users have access to the quality information that we provide.

Unbiased Approach
Access to information – all information – is a priority for libraries. We do not support censorship or suppression of information. We do support the development of information literacy skills and the building of collections that contain reliable information. There is a fine line to balance at all times when building library collections. However, in developing these collections, we strive to maintain a balanced and unbiased approach to providing information, with an emphasis on ensuring access to vetted and verifiable information. Ultimately, it is the end-user who needs to always evaluate and test the information they receive.

Libraries have an opportunity to establish themselves as islands of useful information in the maelstrom of “fake news,” misleading information, and outright lies. Libraries have a responsibility to equip their users to live in today’s information-rich world. Libraries have the capability to deliver more effective tools to help users find the reliable information they need to be educated citizens and officers. Libraries, or other information providers cannot “solve” the problem of misleading or incorrect information, however we can work to ensure that those who receive information are able to quickly and effectively determine its veracity and value.

Published in USMA Library Program Review 2016-18