The role of libraries in an age of disinformation

Mount Royal University Library helps steer through the haze

A student reading a book in the Mount Royal University Library.

The Library’s primary role is to support teaching, learning and research at MRU.

In an age of information overload, where much of what we see and read is biased or lacks credibility, how does Mount Royal University Library help the campus community navigate the tensions between denialism, truth-seeking and freedom of information and inquiry?

The Library takes a two-part approach to this role: selecting, assessing, organizing and making information sources accessible, while also educating users on how to critically engage with that information.

“Our professional ethics have for a long time focused on freedom of expression and freedom of information,” says Sara Sharun, associate professor in the Library. “Libraries value intellectual freedom and provide access to materials that may be considered false, misleading or biased by some people. Our role as an academic library is to educate users how to engage critically with those materials.”

Information 'gatekeeping'

There has recently been a shift in how libraries talk about their fundamental values.

“Libraries have sometimes been imagined to be neutral spaces, where all viewpoints and ideas are reflected and all people are served,” says Meagan Bowler, dean of the MRU Library.

“This is absolutely a myth, and it’s important that we acknowledge it as such. We make decisions about what goes in our collections and how we describe those items, about the way we arrange spaces and supports, and about the curriculum we teach. In all of those decisions, there are values and perspectives that are inherently applied and reflected. A component of truth-seeking is to acknowledge those values exist.”

Librarians are having conversations about the ethics of information “gatekeeping,” about biases and blindspots in existing collections and how they can bring to light marginalized and underrepresented voices previously excluded from academic library collections, Sharun says.

These important discussions by librarians are happening in a time when students have instant access to information from mobile devices that are always nearby, while the ability to self-publish and share is only a tap and click away through countless apps and browsers. Mount Royal Library keeps up by constantly updating their collections and teaching students how to evaluate and select reliable sources.

“As we move towards recognizing a broader and more inclusive truth by expanding the kinds of information sources in our collections, we also focus the Library’s teaching efforts on developing students’ critical information literacy skills and knowledge so that they are able to identify, contextualize and evaluate the information they find both at MRU Library and in the wider world,” Sharun says.

Supporting teaching and learning

Students studying in the Mount Royal University Library.

Libraries in the future will need to keep helping people access, use, share and deploy information effectively.

So how does the library decide what books, journals, videos and other sources of information it will hold in its collections?

The Library’s primary role is to support teaching, learning and research at MRU. Librarians work in close partnership with departments and faculties across the University and are responsible for acquiring materials that support each program. The decision about which materials to purchase is based on many factors, including course content or assignment-specific needs, gaps in the existing collection, new directions for learning and research, levels of use of similar materials, cost and availability.

“The growth of open-access publishing, including journals, textbooks and other open educational resources, has allowed the Library to connect students and faculty with a greater number of high-quality resources, while focusing spending on gaps and emerging areas of the collection,” says Brian Jackson, associate professor in the MRU Library.

As an academic library at a teaching-focused university, Library faculty provide in-class instruction and work closely with course instructors to teach students to find and use information effectively. Faculty members work with students in and out of the library as they conduct research, and provide formative feedback to help them navigate the information environment specific to their disciplines and in the context of assignments.

“Because the information landscape changes so rapidly and persistently, ensuring that students are able to use information effectively really takes a community effort,” Jackson says.

Championing information literacy

A group of students in the MRU Library smiling and collaborating on a task.

As an academic library at a teaching-focused university, Library faculty provide in-class instruction and work closely with course instructors to teach students to find and use information effectively.

Project Information Literacy (PIL) is a non-profit research institute that conducts national, ongoing scholarly studies on how early adults find and use information at university and beyond. The MRU Library has recently become a part of the PIL community.

During the past decade, PIL surveyed and interviewed 21,000 U.S. college students and released research reports that examine how they interact with information resources for school, for life, for work, and most recently, for engaging with the news.

“Project Information Literacy’s research reports have informed our information literacy instruction program at MRU. The insights and evidence provided by their large-scale studies of the information practices of post-secondary students and faculty are really useful for librarians and faculty across disciplines as we arrange our teaching, services, collections and supports to help people navigate the information environment effectively,” Sharun says.

As a PIL champion, MRU Library is sharing research with a broader audience outside the library world and supporting efforts to engage the higher education community in discussions of information and media literacy issues, ideas and directions.

A recent online conversation sponsored by PIL and the MRU Library featured U.S. author and librarian Barbara Fister and Jackson discussing “What's Wrong with Research Assignments,” and looking at alternative ways today’s students are exposed to and absorb information (social media algorithms for example).

Looking ahead, Bowler says collecting a broad range of materials that support learning, and scholarship will be a crucial component of the work, along with providing support for technology and teaching students how to engage effectively with information in all formats, within and across disciplines.

Libraries in the future will need to keep helping people access, use, share and deploy information effectively. This mission becomes even more important when the volume of information generated and shared every day has become overwhelming, and sometimes rife with content that is misleading or false.

“Libraries will always be adjusting collections, technologies and instructional programs as curriculum and areas of research focus evolve on campus, as the publishing and information environment changes, and as the teaching and learning needs of students and faculty change,” Bowler says.

“University libraries are doing really important work right now. As the world around us changes, we really are in a state of constant evolution. This kind of environment can be both frustrating and exhilarating to work in at times, but it’s work that is so necessary in order to make sure our students and our campus are equipped to succeed as they navigate the complicated reality of the modern information landscape. Libraries play such a central role in fostering an informed society.”

Mount Royal’s Riddell Library and Learning Centre provides comprehensive online and physical collections, loanable equipment, production spaces, learning rooms, MRU’s Archives and Special Collections and much more.

June 28, 2021 — Peter Glenn

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