Democracy is one of the core values of the American Library Association, and, as such, is one of the major values that underlies the contemporary practice of librarianship. I have had issues with democracy being included as one of the core values of the library profession. Not because I don’t believe or support democracy—I do. The issue I have is not with the idea of democracy, but with the idea of presupposes.
Presuppose means to require as a precondition. Therefore, an informed citizenry is a prerequisite for democracy. Although many have falsely attributed this exact language to Thomas Jefferson, the idea can be traced back to his ideas about supporting education: that people cannot safely enjoy liberty and freedom without information.
Presuppose also means to assume, presume, or take for granted. We have, until now, existed on the assumption that our educations have prepared us as citizens to participate in a democracy. But relying on such an assumption has become increasingly problematic. Current research shows that middle school students are unable to discern between ads and news stories, and that high school and college students take evidence presented on the web at face value, without further investigation into authority and credibility of sources.
“Informancy” and information literacy
In a talk by Dan Russell at the Syracuse University iSchool, he spoke about the need for what he calls “informancy,” or the ability to navigate and use digital and online resources in efficient, effective ways. Although the concept of informancy is broader than what I can relate here (I recommend his talks if you ever have the opportunity to see one), it includes some of what we in librarianship traditionally call “information literacy.” According to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), an information literate individual is able to:
An information literate individual is able to:
- Determine the extent of information needed
- Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
- Evaluate information and its sources critically
- Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base
- Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
- Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally
ACRL states that information literacy is a key outcome for college students across America. But Russell notes that in his research and interactions, a majority of librarians state that they teach information literacy skills, yet a majority of students report that they were never taught or exposed to this kind of education.
Every person, regardless of political or social views, can benefit from the ability to not just find information on the web, but to critically evaluate it.
How can we bridge this disconnect? Some might look at this kind of discrepancy and say, “well, librarians aren’t successful at this work, so let’s cut this service back.” But now more than ever we need this kind of education: every person, regardless of political or social views, can benefit from the ability to not just find information on the web, but to critically evaluate it.
Librarianship is needed for democracy
To ensure every person is information literate, we need MORE librarians, not less. The information field is growing in new ways, bringing forth new roles like information analysts and data scientists, and we increasingly see the “library” aspects of “library and information science” subsumed into these new framings. But these new information professions, while valuable, do not share the same core values of librarianship. The support of information literacy that underscores the core value of democracy is not what information analysts or data scientists do. It takes all kinds to make the world go round, but this area of information literacy has long been the purview of librarians and is one of the things that delineates librarians from other information professionals.
We need more resources allotted to those librarians and projects. And we really need librarians with new ideas and enthusiasm to design approaches that will bridge that gap between teaching and learning. For example, I saw a group of librarians online kicking around the idea of a “Librarian News Network” that would incorporate fact-checking into news reporting. These are the kinds of new and innovative ideas we need in librarianship if we are to support an informed citizenry.
We can no longer presuppose that an informed citizenry will magically occur. Do you have ideas for new, innovative approaches to creating an informed citizenry? Perhaps a librarian career is right for you. I won’t lie to you: it will not be any easy task. Librarians often for much lower pay than similar work in other fields. Libraries face funding barriers and resource cuts. Librarianship has always faced challenges and may face more in the future, but now is the time for new ideas and innovation, from both experienced librarians and new recruits. Yes, it will be hard work, but isn’t an informed citizenry to support true democracy worth our time and efforts?
 Jefferson to Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816, in Ford, 10: 4. Polygraph copy at the Library of Congress.