It seems like often when libraries are brought up in the news, it’s someone suggesting that the library is an outdated, arcane institution. Who needs libraries when everything’s online? Librarians will surely be replaced by artificial intelligence. Blah, blah, blah. If you ask someone who works at a library whether they feel they’re being replaced by newer technologies, most of us would reply with a resounding ‘no’ (and the snarkier among us might add in an eyeroll for finesse). But asking someone who’s in a particular profession whether that profession is doomed to die out isn’t always as meaningful as hearing it from an outside perspective, so I am thrilled when libraries are recognized by non-librarians for their continued contributions to society, even if that recognition is simply a celebrity’s delight at how wonderful libraries are. It was, therefore, my pleasure last week to see an article from Forbes singing the praises of reference librarians in the fight again fake news (Kalev Leetaru, “Could Public Reference Librarians Help Us Combat Digital Falsehoods?” Forbes.com (Aug. 20, 2019)).
When I teach students about legal research, this is one of the points I like to drive home. Long before “fake news” became a household phrase, we lived in an era of information overload. It’s true that we have an inordinate amount of information at our fingertips, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to find. You still have to possess some minimum research skills to track down your data from the sea it swims in. And yes, fake news makes that dive all the harder. In librarianship (and other fields), we talk about the need to teach individuals information literacy, not only how to track down information, but how to evaluate its authoritativeness (another facet of this is digital literacy, which brings with it its own problems, but we’ll save that for another post). This is a recurring theme in my legal research classroom, comparing free and low-cost resources, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and gaining the skills to know where to go first to find the answers to a variety of research questions. This helps students understand, for instance, why Lexis and Westlaw are such expensive products in the “real world” — they’re reputable, they’re reliable, and they combine the best parts of both smart search algorithms and editorial teams to create their product. It’s also wonderful to surprise students by showing them that the best place to find particular types of legal documents may not be Lexis or Westlaw; that, for instance, congress.gov and govinfo.gov provide authenticated versions of federal government documents, authentication that Lexis and Westlaw do not provide (bonus: both sites are free!).
I also make it a point to dispel any rumors that a course about research is naturally anti-Google. We are not. Google is an excellent research tool — I use it in a large percentage of the reference questions I’m asked — we simply stress that you don’t end there. You have to evaluate the resources you uncover before you decide to rely on them. And to be an efficient researcher, you have to know the best resources to go to for particular research questions. Both of these requisites go toward your competency and trustworthiness as a budding lawyer.
But Mr. Leetaru’s article, rightly, isn’t talking about a classroom. Reference librarians have the ability to teach these skills to patrons at the point of need as well (which is arguably far more memorable than in a classroom). Public libraries, whether we’re talking about a city or county public library or an academic library at a public college or university, see patrons from all walks of life, from the highly educated to those without a high school diploma. All seeking information. I work reference at a law school library, but because I’m at a public university, we are still open to patrons of all types, not just law students and faculty, and we receive questions from self-represented litigants, local attorneys, faculty and students from other parts of the university, and people from other parts of the state, the country, and the world. Libraries are community-driven, and we’re here to serve all. But no matter how educated you are, no matter your background, if you haven’t taken a class that specifically dealt with the evaluation of information, you may still struggle with information overload and information reliability. As Leetaru points out, there are a number of tools out there to ferret out fake news, but one of the best is still indisputably the reference librarian.