June 2017 | Volume XXXV. Issue 3 »

Fake News: An Opportunity for Real Librarianship

May 17, 2017
Wayne Finley and Beth McGowan, Northern Illinois University Libraries, and Joanna Kluever, Julia Hull District Library

If there is any good news about the rise of fake news, it’s that more people are becoming aware of the issue, thanks to extensive coverage in the media. But even as journalists question, report, and fact check, politicians, and pundits muddy the waters by using the term often casually, even inaccurately. Throw into the mix terms like “biased,” “main stream media,” and “alternative facts,” and we have an even larger mess on our collective hands. As it so often does, it falls to librarians to accurately inform the general public about fake news, and equip them with tools to navigate information sources. While that task may seem daunting, we can approach the subject by using the same educational tools public, school, and academic librarians have used for years: collection development, programming and instruction, and advocacy.


As librarians know, what separates “fake news” from traditional news is how it is produced. While traditional journalism outlets subject news articles to a rigorous editorial process based upon evidence, requiring fact checking and a verification of sources, fake news does not rely upon these time-tested processes. But the editorial process may not be well-known to the general public. Once upon a time—when media was limited to print, radio, and television—perhaps the hidden nature of the intellectual labor that produced knowledge did not matter much. But now that so much available information has not undergone these vetting processes, we need to draw attention to the value of the effort involved. Some may argue that these processes were elitist. Perhaps they were, but they were and are about quality control. Because the Internet does not require them, there is much less quality control of material today. This forces librarians to serve as gatekeepers.

Although librarians of different library types will find practical applications a bit different, their work in developing collections to combat fake news is similar: librarians must provide patrons with a variety of trusted news sources by supporting traditional forms of journalism and selecting books that have stood the test of a rigorous editorial process. For all library types, this means purchasing more news subscriptions—preferably print—so they can be displayed, promoted, and used as programming tools, rather than languishing in the cloud or in a database. Further, providing print resources ensures access to all library patrons, including those who may not have personal access to the tools required to read digital collections. Balancing political viewpoints is a straightforward task when selecting national newspapers: libraries must subscribe to multiple newspapers with editorial boards at both ends of the spectrum. These might include, for example, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. For school and academic libraries, tried and trusted databases, such as CQ Researcher and Opposing Viewpoints, are great ways to support media literacy for younger patrons.

Depending on the type of library, book selection may be a more difficult endeavor. Academic librarians, as their selection process naturally gravitates toward academic texts from academic publishers, can manage book selection with some ease. Public libraries, on the other hand, are faced with the challenge of censorship vs. selection, since the publishing industry has seen an explosion of politically charged, poorly researched, nonfiction marketed to readers at the extremes of the political scales. Promoted by their recognizable authors who either host shows on cable news networks or sit in on panel discussions, these books are in high demand by public library patrons.
As librarians, we know such books are often rushed to publication, and are short on research (often lacking basic citations or including a bibliography that wouldn’t suffice in a freshman comp class). Yet, we run the risk of censorship if we don’t purchase such politically imbalanced titles. As always, we must navigate the metaphorical line between censorship and selection, and revisit our collection development policies to ensure we’re best serving the interests of our patrons.

We can do this—we’ve done this in the past. Throughout the history of the printed word, there have been materials printed that were ridiculous, conspiracy-ridden, and false. And librarians, in particular, have often struggled with this question: How much of this popular, often false material, do we include in our collections? Librarians have decided to leave the issue almost completely to the user. Rather than leave the dieting book that had no basis in science out of the collection, librarians bought it and put it on the shelf. We will continue to do this—provide materials that we ourselves know to be in some ways fallacious—but through programming and advocacy, we will
combat the fake news epidemic.


No matter the library type, the general aim of programming and instruction regarding fake news is the same: help patrons learn to identify fake news; clarify the social, political, and economic implications of fake news; and guide patrons in making informed decisions regarding their own news consumption.

For school and academic libraries, this will usually take the form of classroom instruction. Academic and high school librarians, for example, can easily incorporate a discussion of fake news into their regular bibliographic instruction sessions. More progressively, these same librarians would provide informational workshops for teachers, professors, and administrators; help them incorporate media literacy into their curriculum; and collaborate to develop supporting materials, assignments, and activities for students.

Similarly, public libraries can offer programming to educate public patrons. Straightforward lectures and workshops addressing the issues of fake news and media literacy are a good start. But public librarians must also think creatively, even tangentially, when it comes to presenting programs that address matters of accuracy in reporting and truth-in-information. For example, the Julia Hull District Library (Stillman Valley) recently held a community reading and discussion of George Orwell’s 1984, and, separately, provided a presentation and Q&A on the basics of constitutional law. As always, when the depth of a subject requires, public libraries (and school and academic, for that matter) can turn to guest experts, local news affiliates, and universities with which to partner.


Debunking fake news—running the gamut as it does from the denial of accepted science to conspiracy theories to twisting facts—is enormously time-consuming. It can also feel like a fool’s errand, as we have learned that arguing against a lie can actually cement the false idea in the brain. Rather, advocacy is neither defensive, nor oppositional, because those stances allow false narratives to frame the debate. What we need is a more proactive stance against fake news—what we need is true advocacy that promotes real information. But how do we advocate for real news against fake news?

Programming must center the educational function of our institutions. We need programming and exhibits that teach the public about the process of research, of journalism, of vetting of sources. We need to remind people again and again to CONSIDER THE SOURCE. We need to help people be critical readers and consumers of news. This must be more in our mouths than ever. We must never miss a chance to discuss it. We must create programming that provides real information.

Beyond programming and discussion with our patrons, however, we need to advocate as experts about information in the larger public field. Rather than merely a service to the public, the library must assert to those with political power, whether politicians, business leaders, or leading citizens, that the role of the library and librarians is to help create an informed citizenry through a broad definition of literacy—one that includes basic literacy, information literacy, health literacy, and numeracy. For public libraries, this is a role that must be made clear to library boards and local politicians. Within the school library setting, librarians must advocate to school boards, school administrators, school faculty, and parents that the librarian is the expert in teaching the community to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, the real from the fake, so to speak, in the media world. Fake news can serve as a wake-up call to the vital importance of our role within the field of public education. It should be highlighted in mission statements, press releases, and letters to the editor.

“Fake news can serve as a wake-up call to the vital importance of our role within the field of public education.”

For academic libraries, the concept of what makes a good citizen, i.e., the ability to understand and evaluate intellectual positions, is indistinguishable from educational goals in general. Again, the mission statement of the academic library should emphasize the library’s essential contribution to higher education’s core goal to instill critical thinking. What sets the library apart, what is central to its value, is that while specific disciplines focus on particular research methods, the library emphasizes the general concept of research. Research, or more concretely, the production of knowledge coupled with a critical appraisal of knowledge, is the common goal of all higher education. And education is the fundamental antidote to fake news. As librarians, we need to emphasize the library’s role as facilitator of both processes, research and evaluating—because fundamentally the production of knowledge and its appraisal are two sides of the same coin. If we are clear that these lie at the core of our mission, then we will be trusted by faculty to support them as they instruct students. If we are clear that these twin processes are our core goals, then the administration will understand that the library matters and why it must be funded.

These are not new goals. These are the goals all libraries have always striven to meet. However, as librarians, we sometimes lose sight of the big picture in our day-to-day decisions about what to buy and in what format, how to catalog, where to place materials, how to maintain our relevance in the era of the Internet. But the desire that motivated the creation of libraries in the first place was not to be merely warehouses of random stuff. We are the repository of humankind’s best efforts at knowledge and wisdom in art and in science. We are the fake news nemesis!

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