What #journalists can learn from #librarians by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson


I have written about the connections between journalism and libraries previously on this blog (see “The Relationship Model: What Journalism Can Teach Us“). The ways that society is interfacing with and consuming information are shaping both professions in parallel ways. This week I have stumbled upon two pieces that pull together journalism and librarianship and help orient both for the future.

First amendment protections are one area where the journalism and librarianship have long shared philosophical connections. This is why when I read Barbara Fister’s brilliant insights on the PEN America report on free speech on college campuses I quickly shared her post (see “A Library for All” on Inside Higher Ed) with colleagues within journalism.  She notes that the idea of a “neutral” library is erroneous. Libraries and librarians need to stand up for the values as the foundation of learning:

Ensuring that we have multiple voices on subjects in the library is a conscious choice to promote access to a diversity of thought, something that gets librarians in trouble from time to time (though far more often in school and public libraries than in academia). Encouraging students to value evidence-based thinking is a cause we advance in our instruction, but it’s not universally embraced. Taking social responsibility and the public good seriously – that’s not a neutral stance. It’s even a little radical these days.

Freedom of speech is not valuable just so that we can say whatever we want to say (although that is ok). It is valuable because the diversity of thought is important for learning and for a functioning democracy. As scholars and as citizens, we should function with the understanding that the person who disagrees with us may actually be correct (or at least may have valuable insights to share).

These understandings seem to have been lost in some of our public discourse this summer and fall, which is why I was happy to see Louise Lief’s piece “What the news media can learn from librarians” from the Columbia Journalism Review. As a librairan, I can’t help being flatters by Lief’s piece:

Why librarians? Their job is to navigate the world of information, help scholars and students get what they need, and distinguish good information from bad. They’ve faced their own technological disruptions, and have responded by developing a set of principles to help their public assess the credibility of information and use it ethically. They call this framework “information literacy.”

But, putting flattery aside, Lief outlines issues where journalists and librarians can stand together. Diversity of thought and freedom of speech matter, but information sharing must still connect with actual reality.  As she notes,

Seen on their mobile devices, snippets of life—tragic, joyful, heroic, unjust—scroll by on a screen, accompanied by personalized ads. Opinion and sentiment outweigh facts. It’s difficult to place information in context or understand underlying causes, let alone feel empowered to seek solutions.

Journalists and librarians have a shared mission in upholding and promoting the value of discourse and, importantly, connecting discourse to evidence. Knowledge cannot be equated to opinion alone.  We can measure the world. Sure, we can debate the causes and meanings of measurement (i.e. construct meaning), but we do not get to make up our own empirical knowledge.

The evolving nature of the information world connects librarians and journalists. Clearly, we have much to learn from each other.

Author’s Note: For a nice philosophical discussion on how librarians understand knowledge/information, see Lane Wilkinson’s chapter “Theories of Knowledge in Library and Information Science” in the book I co-edited with Heather Jagman, Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information from ACRL.

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Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.