School Libraries and the Truth in a Era of “Fake News”

The truth is everywhere and nowhere these days. We are reminded in an increasingly partisan political climate that there are many “truths” (in quotes) floating around the universe of information, and that every story has multiple sides. Postmodern theory reminds us, quite correctly, that the truth is a social construct, contingent on its source and on the particulars of the society that spawns it. Reality itself is a construction built with language, with words that can be interpreted in infinite ways.

At the same time, for many years librarians have defended the very existence of libraries as one of the only free avenues for free reading and the freedom to pursue the truth. The power of a word like “truth” dies hard, and librarians have been wise to harness powerful language to defend an institution that must continually struggle for funding, respect, and support. However, given all its contingencies can we really use terms like truth to describe and defend our work with students? The same thing is true of the term “real”—is it even possible to find the real story in this era of ever-multiplying and always contingent narratives?

I want to share a story from my school library work at the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Many people have a 9/11 story about where they were and what they were doing when the Towers fell. Mine takes place on a Tuesday morning at the reference desk. 9/11 was one of the biggest challenges of my school library experience, but it was also the day that I fully recognized the power that school librarians have, and why I am proud to be one.

At the time that I worked at the Chicago Lab Schools, there we were—all K through 12 of us—packed into one big building. As a result, elementary school students rubbed elbows with their middle and high school siblings in the hallways and there were no secrets. Most of the time, this wasn’t a problem. However, on 9/11, the hallways buzzed with alarm, anxiety, and fear. The elementary school had decided NOT to tell their students, the high school DID tell their students, and the middle school left it up to individual teachers to decide. These decidedly different information policies fell apart as soon as students entered the corridors of the Lab School and began interacting with one another. Before long, the MS was in an uproar, having overheard the older students in panicked conversations about acts of terrorism.

In our library, as elsewhere in the U.S., it was a difficult day. As we grappled with the tragic events of 9/11 and tried to make sense of what was going on, a steady stream of middle school students came to the library all day long. What was happening? Did we know who did it? Did we know WHY they did it? How many people didn’t survive? One student whose father was a commercial airline pilot came in to use our phone to call her mom, in a panic that her dad had somehow been involved in the crashes.

It wasn’t surprising to me that information so rapidly spread, nor that students were so upset. What surprised me, however, was how many students flocked to the library, sometimes as soon as they’d heard the news. They came looking for news, for information, and even for comfort. But most strikingly, they came because they trusted us. As one 6th grader put it, “Ms. Gaffney, we know you’ll tell us the truth.” I was never as proud of my profession as I was on that day, the day that we found out exactly how much power the library had in the lives of our students.

In these days of “fake news” the truth is more elusive than ever. However, libraries have a power that other institutions might envy: that of the public’s trust. Just because finding the truth is more difficult in the current political and media climate does not mean that we should not seek it. There are multiple truths, to be sure, but this should not squelch our research nor the research of our students. As long as libraries are here–and we must continue to advocate and fight for them–they will offer far more than a collection of resources, but a space where people come together to ask the questions that will lead us to the truth.


Author: Loretta Gaffney

Loretta M. Gaffney, MLIS, MA, Ph.D., is a librarian and teacher at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. Illinois-born and Iowa-raised, she is slowly becoming an Angeleno by learning to shiver in 50-degree weather. Loretta is the author of Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. A frequent conference speaker and guest lecturer, Loretta taught YA Literature, Reading Research, Intellectual Freedom, and Youth Services Librarianship at both UCLA and the University of Illinois. She has twin 13-year-old daughters and two extremely active kittens.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics

1 reply

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Loretta. Your experience in creating and promoting the library as an information source learners can trust is a model for all of us.

    I, for one, would like to see the term “fake news” abandoned by school librarians and the library profession as a whole. Yes, all information/news is a social construct and reflects the perspective of the author/reporter.

    However, using the term “fake news” legitimizes it in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Nearly every day, the Arizona Daily Star publishes a “Fact Check” article that has taken up to two pages in our small Tucson newspaper. The constant need for fact-checking our country’s leaders and political candidates is alarming to me.

    I believe we can acknowledge that news always has a point of view and still agree that there should be “facts” to back up any information source. I also believe we should expect our leaders to get their facts straight, and we must start holding them accountable at the voting booth.

    Let’s give no more credence to “fake news.” Let’s encourage students and classroom teachers to abandon the term in favor of “news” and call the fake stuff what it is: half-truths, distortions, propaganda, outright lies…

    To my way of thinking, that would be a start at maintaining the librarian’s and the library’s reputation as a person and place of trust.

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