An iSchool student teaches a Girl Scout at the iSchool's "Girls Are I.T.!" event.

Social Justice and Librarianship

Many librarians (myself included), believe that libraries are inherently tied to issues of social justice.

How so? In a world of increasing inequality, they provide free and unlimited access to information and technology. They open their doors to all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, political party, economic status, religion, ability, or age. In order to best serve the information needs of their respective communities, librarians must be aware and engaged in their community’s social issues. Here at the iSchool, two MSLIS students, Nicole Potter and Jill Scarson, are focusing on one these issues in particular: information literacy.

According to the American Library Association, information literacy is defined as the ability to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” This has proven to be difficult in our technologically-advanced, information-laden world.

In November 2016, Stanford University found that less than 20% of high school students are able to identify legitimate news sources over fake news sources. In response to this crisis, librarians (and library students!) around the country have stepped up, creating detailed libguides and workshops to help improve information literacy in their communities.

Jill and Nicole decided to raise awareness in the Syracuse area through a series of presentations on information literacy and fake news. I was able to attend their first presentation back in February at Day of FiTS (Filling in the Spaces) an ‘unconference’ run by Syracuse’s Library and Information Student Association (LISSA).

Shortly thereafter, they presented their research to a local community organization at the Fayetteville Free Library. I had the opportunity to talk to them about their experience and the importance of their work.

Jill Scarson and Nicole Potter after presenting on fake news and information literacy at Fayetteville Free Library.
Jill Scarson and Nicole Potter after presenting on fake news and information literacy at Fayetteville Free Library.

Why do you see social justice as part of our roles as librarians?

Jill: I think it started back in IST 511 (Introduction to the Library and Information Profession) with former iSchool professor David Lankes. Part of the mission of “New Librarianship” is to improve society. I think it can be done through social justice. I also think that librarians, at their core, are helpers. They are trying to meet the needs of their communities, whatever those things may be. Sometimes that means being a more vocal advocate for your community and getting actively involved in local politics, community events, and things of that sort – especially in disadvantaged and underprivileged communities.

Nicole: For me, it goes back to the American Library Association’s current slogan: “Libraries are for Everyone.” If we’re going to serve everyone in our communities, the only way to do it is to get political on some level. I’m not talking political parties or leaning one way or the other, but I mean advocating and upholding certain moral values for our public. It comes down to educating people about their rights and making sure that we have the funding and the power to educate them better.

What inspired you to work on issues surrounding information literacy and fighting fake news?

Jill: I think it really goes back to the election. We were at NYLA (New York State Library Association’s Annual Conference) right around the time leading up to the election. I remember having a conversation with two librarians from the Southern Tier, Margo Gustina and Eli Guinnee. In our discussion of current events, Margo said something poignant that stuck with me. She said that we have been failing our constituents. We have been failing our communities. We’re not giving enough education, we’re not giving them enough tools to understand how to they are a part of their community.

Civic education is not what it was, and probably won’t be what it was. So libraries have to take on this catch-all role of trying to let people know that they are a vital part of their community, a vital part of this country. This directly ties into my interest in policy, how policy affects communities and libraries, and the role of libraries in helping communities understand how policy influences them.

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After that conversation, Nicole and I decided that it was an issue we were interested in exploring further. We were starting to hear about the fake news phenomena a little bit at that time, but by the time we were preparing for our presentation at Day of FiTS in February it was everywhere. People were starting to co-opt the term to mean something else.

There needed to be a discussion about what the term means for information professionals. While information literacy is something librarians have been working on for decades, it’s more prominent in academic communities and writing. It is important to address this issue in the public sector too- especially today.

Nicole: I see information literacy at the root of librarianship and civic engagement. If you don’t understand the information that you’re receiving or reading, how can you make informed, clear choices? If you can’t identify reliable and accurate news, you may continue to spread information that’s falsified.

What was the biggest difference between presenting to an audience of librarians and presenting to the public?

Jill: In my mind, information professionals are really concerned with the phenomena of it. They want to know what information literacy means to information professionals, academia, and things of the sort. The public is more worried about how information literacy affects them, and how they should or should not disseminate information. It’s more about analysis versus implementation.

I’m interested in what’s next. While we’ve done these two events, other campuses are offering classes, MOOCs (massive open online courses), and more. My question is in the grander scheme of the information profession. Is there something we should standardize? Should we get together as a group and say: these are our standards for assessing information literacy, etc.? If so who should be the organization(s) to do this?

How do both of you plan to continue to stay involved in these issues?

Jill: We are looking to continue to speak with more groups and ask them: what do we do next? We also help to do the presentation at other conferences.

Nicole: I’m interested in archives and special collections. There’s not a lot conversation happening surrounding social justice in that area right now. That’s frustrating for me. I want to start conversations in my own field, but I also want to talk about them in librarianship overall. It’s something that I educate myself about and feel comfortable talking about. If I can help others by going out and talking about information literacy, then that’s what I’m going to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kara Conley

Kara Conley

Kara is a first year MSLIS student at the iSchool. She is the graduate assistant to the MSLIS Program Manager and works part-time at Dewitt Community Library. Kara is passionate about public librarianship, urban design, and Recess coffee.

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