Sacramento Public Library

Ask a librarian: How do I find the facts?

11/17/2017
Misinformation is as old as the written word, remaining a crucial mission for librarians
 
Librarians have long been engaged with educating patrons and students about how to sift fact from fiction when evaluating online and media content. Establishing the difference between a website and a database, an opinion piece and a real news story, and Wikipedia versus a peer-reviewed article are all key components of this.
 
A website’s domain, as well as who hosts it, can be revealing. Websites ending in .edu, .gov or .org are generally more reliable for scholarly research than anything ending with .com or .net. Librarians educate students and researchers about the difference between a primary source and a secondary source, how to properly cite articles, and how to think critically about what they read and encounter online.
 
In this 24 hour news cycle culture that has become so prevalent in the last decade, it can be overwhelming to try and ascertain what is real and what is fabricated, especially when a story goes viral. The necessity for a healthy skepticism and discernment are now more important than ever, since media outlets are often overtly biased. Especially when stories are shared via social media, and shared again, it can be hard to determine its origin.
 
A good rule of thumb is to try and establish the original source and then evaluate its veracity. We believe in intellectual freedom in libraries and hearing differing opinions can create a more balanced perspective. Librarians are here to help separate the wheat from the chaff, as we have been for well over a century.

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Librarian Barrie Olmstead

 

“Fake news” is a relatively new term in cable news broadcasts and political blog posts, having entered the general public conversation during the social media blitz leading up to last year’s national election and currently undergoing multiple shifts in definition as political partisans argue over what is supposedly true and false. Lost in the clamor, however, is the fact that the fight against misinformation is as old as the written word, and remains a crucial mission for librarians and educators.
 
For younger children, some of whom are just beginning to realize the power of language and are not readily able to distinguish fantasy from reality, the “fake news” of a playground rumor or a misunderstood but eagerly shared fragment of conversation can have consequences beyond their ability to comprehend or deal with. While it seems a bit silly to apply punditry phrases to kindergartners, the ability to recognize and synthesize trustworthy information begins with childhood lessons about gossip, lying, and coping with negative feelings, which are as readily found in engaging picture books that can be read together as they are in focused works of nonfiction.
 
Meanwhile, information literacy is a core skill for older kids and teenagers making their way through school and preparing for increasing independence. The lightning-quick availability of information (good and bad) available on the internet, combined with advertising that is increasingly customized and targeted, make for an environment that could easily turn a young researcher credulous and easy to manipulate. Students learn much of what they need to know through focused work in school, but can also build a healthy sense of skepticism by searching for multiple sources to verify a supposed fact, reading widely from varying perspectives and opinions with an open mind, and even consuming fiction featuring dystopias that tightly control and distort information, wherein the heroes work to discover and spread the truth.
 
“Fake news” may be a new and occasionally confusing term, but the library has always been a resource to immunize oneself from it, by offering a broad collection representing the varied experiences of the community, and a dedicated staff willing to both help a researcher navigate that collection and to support methods of self-discovery and lifelong learning.

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Librarian Justin AzEvedo

 

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