Conflicted Thoughts about a presentation that was “Mostly True”

Remember the last time that you heard a speaker who challenged your thinking and perhaps made you question your role in your profession? Sometimes, like with professor Eric Mazur who keynoted FCIS a few years ago, I didn’t even realize I was paying attention until I noticed how often I was changing my lessons to match his ideals. Recently, the county library system sponsored David Lankes, Director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science. His talk was “Mostly True: A Knowledge Organization in an Age of Alternative Facts.”

Abstract: Communities need the public library now more than ever. In an era when neighbors are more divided than ever, and even the nature of truth and facts are in question, how do librarians best serve their community? This presentation makes the argument that our communities do not need more information literacy, a greater emphasis on quality information, or a neutral institution. Rather our communities need trusted partners helping weave together common understandings of events and priorities.

You can watch the entire presentation here with audio and slides at

Lankes believes that public libraries are safe places to explore dangerous ideas and that librarians must change their mindset from serving the community to being part of the community. We should work off of emotional intelligence (EQ) and not just facts.

He talked about the difference in the statements “How can I help you?” and “What are you interested in today?” The first implies that we are serving patrons, and the second gives them ownership over their interests. Get out from behind the reference desk.

Basically, the setup of the talk was that our field’s response to the current news situation has been three-fold: information literacy, promotion of quality, and neutrality. He disputed that this was the best response and asked listeners to instead worry less about “truth.” All information is contextual. Instead of thinking about information, we should think about knowledge. Knowledge is social. It’s about trust. “Trust doesn’t come from neutrality but from consistency.” Lankes believes that there has been a rise in credibility by reliability rather than authority. This makes sense to me as so-called experts are called into question by those in authority, and people find sources that confirm their own biases. There isn’t always an objective “truth.”

In particular, in relation to school libraries, he questioned the information literacy courses that we teach and value. This is difficult for me. I love teaching information literacy skills, and I think that they are valuable for our students. In fact, I’m still not sure that I buy his argument. Lankes said that some of the fake news controversy that we’ve been confronting over the last year is a result of such courses. Information literacy training leads to greater confidence in one’s ability to evaluate information, but not necessarily greater ability. This struck a chord with me. I’ve seen it with my own students. His other reason is that “every tool we give to evaluate is one people can use to manipulate.” There are marketers and political analysts who will utilize what information literacy courses teach to make their sites seem more legitimate or more neutral. When making websites, these individuals will make sure that it appears to pass the CRAP test or whatever checklist your school uses. This is true, but there has to be an answer in how to teach students to be more effective information consumers who can interact critically with sources across the ideological spectrum.

Librarians should:

This is a paradigm shift for librarians. Even if we don’t agree wholeheartedly, it’s important to have conversations about information literacy and librarian neutrality. Thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Conflicted Thoughts about a presentation that was “Mostly True”

  1. I agree with you, Christina. There has to be a set of skills that will help students evaluate any source of information. Does this expert think that nothing can be done to help students in this area? I wasn’t clear on his suggestion for how to better help our students. I think that it is difficult, tricky, and messy, but IMPORTANT to try to assess parts of an article to decide how much to accept.

    Hmmm. Food for thought, indeed.

    • That’s where I’m torn. I see my students’ confidence in their abilities increase after web evaluation lessons.
      “I know this is legit because it has an author.”
      “Look this was just updated today.”
      And while I’m confident that their abilities are increasing, the students don’t always show the discernment I would hope to see when evaluating sources.
      That doesn’t mean we should, as they say, “Throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I think it’s helpful to teach them to question what they’re finding. But I agree with Lankes that influencers can manipulate results based on what we teach to better look like more legitimate or neutral sources.
      So we need to keep learning and adapting…

  2. Thanks for sharing his talk! I think the latest iteration of the link has a full video of him speaking so you can view his slides as he’s speaking.

    I liked the talk, actually. I think I agree with his his big assertions–mainly, for me, that information is contextual and that knowledge is socially constructed. I did find his definition of information “literacy” to be too narrow. If, as I believe, to be “information literate” is to recognize the need for information, then to locate, access, evaluate and EFFECTIVELY USE information. He dismisses “information literacy” because it doesn’t get people to the point of synthesizing new knowledge–that they just feel better about their skills. I’d say he’s talking about information literacy INSTRUCTION that leaves people with emerging information literacy, but not actual information literacy. It’s a semantic difference, but semantics matter in how I understand things.

    I’ve tried and abandoned checklist-like “information literacy” frameworks like CRAAP and RADCAB, etc. I think, in many cases they’re useful scaffolds for teaching kids what to what you look at in evaluating a source, but in terms of source evaluation we’ve taken to using citation format as the scaffold. Author–Who is this from? What are his/her qualifications? Title–Does the language in the title give us clues to a point of view? etc. then asking students to put those sources in context to one another.

    Based on his talk, I’m realizing that what we’re beginning to ask kids to do is “source contextualization” which is BASED on their “source evaluation.” Hmmm… “This article from the CDC is biased in favor of vaccinations… Is that bad?” This article from the American College of Pediatricians questions the safety of the HPV vaccine. How is this related to the CDC piece?”

    Anyway, this is a WAY long comment, but I LOVE that you have started this conversation! Thanks for a sharing a great think piece!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think the length lets you delve into a bit more nuance, and since I attended the presentation solo, I didn’t have anyone to process the information with afterwards.
      I really enjoyed his speech, and his part on contextualization is the part that has most stuck with me. The information literacy lesson on Irma with our science classes was all about how we decide what to trust. This is incredibly important, and I address it in my own life each day as an information consumer. Your semantic distinction makes sense, and makes me feel more positively about the message as a whole.
      Information literacy isn’t easy, and it’s an evolving field. While part of me wants to know the lessons that “work,” that’s not something that exists. And what it looks like to teach my students may be slightly different than in other schools. Independent schools have so much freedom in developing targeted lessons, and as we know from the Spiderman universe, “With great freedom comes great responsibility.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *