Fake News is out, Post-Truth is in: Can Academic Libraries Keep Up? By Kimberlee Roberts

Lurking behind every research paper assignment is a librarian and a professor waiting to jump at the opportunity to teach information literacy. Sure enough, if you assign a research paper, the fake news articles and sensationalist web clickbait will come. At this point, Instruction Librarians lug around metaphorical toolkits with an unimaginable surplus of acronyms (CRAAP, Big6, Super3) created to help combat the fake news phenomenon and facilitate critical analysis of media news providers. It’s the quick-fix Band-Aid for teaching information literacy on the surface level but, when bots and algorithms can generate sensationalist news intelligently, those acronyms fall SHORT (Should Help Out but Really cause Trouble).

The intersection of media and libraries is well defined in the American Library Association’s core value of social responsibility last adopted in 2004. “The broad social responsibilities of the American Library Association are defined in terms of the contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem” (2004). Essentially, the ALA is calling to arms the literacy information instructors in academic institutions to uphold and teach information social justice. Given that information inundates our lives, information should also be perceived as a tool that can work for or against a democratic society and, because the ALA serves the ideals of a democratic and informed society, Instruction Librarians are bound by their obligation to learn from and teach fake news.

The current complication we are all subtly facing is the quiet slow death of fake news.

When we call something news, we assign a level of validity that the information we are being presented with can convincingly hold some points of truth that, overall, feed a larger mission of misleading the reader. However, as fake news becomes less fake and more sensational, it is no longer fake or false facts that are responsible for the negative persuasion on the reader but rather it is the affect of the information. We consume information from a perspective of how it makes us feel.

That’s why there is a movement to drop fake news and understand it as rebranded propaganda in the post-truth world.

However, academic Librarians have been teaching with their handy acronyms (I’m guilty of this, too) as a remedy for understanding the misinformation crisis on a superficial level. In order to attack the influx of sensationalist information, libraries need to embrace the world as being in post-truth. Mr. Library Dude (Joe Hardenbrook, 2017) said it best, “it takes time to critically evaluate and a checklist approach won’t suffice. You need to think, analyze, question motives, and question your own assumptions too.”

“Now is not the time for information professionals to be neutral about fake news, half truths, alternative facts and those that perpetuate them and allow them to flourish, it is the time to be proactive, noisy and passionate” (Kylie Burgess, 2017). Kylie’s right. Academic libraries need to throw their acronyms aside, push up the sleeves of their cardigans, and fall deeply and maddeningly into an understanding of post-truth ideology.

As librarians across the Nation begin to use their voices with more confidence and assurance about social justice issues, the library as an institution will continually develop its reputation as a social justice beacon for the Nation. In this regard, academic Instruction Librarians must learn to adopt information social justice. Laura Saunders (2017) articulately points out that “for the most part librarians and library professional associations have embraced information social justice as a natural fit for their education and outreach missions, as well as the core value of social responsibility”.

We know we need to do something, but first we need to re-teach ourselves a better avenue of approach.

Post-truth, declared as Dictionary.com’s word of the year in 2016, is the idea that information is judged, not on objective fact, but from the consumer’s biases and beliefs. Emotional responses to information are more powerful a tool for rationalizing than the objective process of weighing the facts. Truth, therefore, that feels no longer relevant is no longer relevant.

An idea proposed at a conference held by the Phillips Academy (2017) suggests to academic Librarians to reduce the power of the conglomerate that is Fake News by reframing the information as propaganda when teaching their students. Propaganda has historically been difficult for information consumers to understand. Take, for example, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” as the epitome of propaganda’s power. Mix in some well written satire, snap your fingers, and suddenly Europe thinks people are actually going to eat their progeny. Fake News seems like a new and dangerous thing but, when you re-contextualize it, it’s actually just a historical battle against propaganda and emotions.

With some historical context, the overwhelming task of deconstructing Fake News in a Post-Truth world seems increasing plausible and it’s easy enough to go into that Librarian tool-box, too. And, if I’m being realistic, the deconstruction has got to start in libraries. Barbara Fister (2017) makes the observation that “governments [cannot] pass laws that will fix the problem (though some are trying.) And teaching students the art of fact-checking won’t solve the problem, either. It goes deeper than that.” Though Barbara didn’t describe just how deep fighting misinformation goes, we know that it includes libraries.

The American Library Association established their five Key Action Areas in 1998 as guiding principles for themselves and libraries nationally. Most relevant to my argument is the focus on Intellectual Freedom and Education and Continuous Learning. Libraries are expected to provide all information without biases and objection—to foster Intellectual Freedom and continuous learning—but how can libraries carefully navigate that obligation if the information is falsified; skewed; misleading?

Libraries being examples of thoughtful and analytical information stewardship is one answer, and the only answer that I can justifiably present at this moment. The truth is that libraries can only educated insofar as they can afford to reach, and our resources only allow for so much prosperity. Ben Johnson (2017) justifies our failure with this thought: “And if false information wins the day, we can take comfort in knowing that we kept the option of truth available.”




Burgess, K. (1970, February 06). Librarianship in a post-truth world: An information science student’s perspective. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from https://librarywhisperers.space/home/2017/2/5/librarianship-in-a-post-truth-world-an-information-science-students-perspective

Fister, B. (n.d.). Post-Post Truth | Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/post-post-truth-0

Hardenbrook, J. (2017, April 04). Post-Truth and Fake News. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from https://mrlibrarydude.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/post-truth-and-fake-news/

Johnson, B. (2017, March). Information Literacy is Dead: The Role of Libraries in a Post-Truth World. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/mar17/Johnson–Information-Literacy-Is-Dead–The-Role-of-Libraries-in-a-Post-Truth-World.shtml

P. (n.d.). Libraries in a Post-Truth World by Phillips Academy Andover. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from https://livestream.com/phillipsacademy/owhl

Saunders, L. (2017). Connecting information literacy and social justice: Why and how. Communications in Information Literacy, 11(1), 55-75.


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