These photographs illustrate what many imagine when they think of "libraries:" stacks of books, quiet study spaces, even an old card catalog. In part because truth is obscured by a cloud of "alternative facts," libraries are transforming their spaces, their services, and their resources.
Libraries are a great equalizer: they are home to readers, to learners, to children, to businessmen, to the unemployed, to the wealthy, to the homeless. Because libraries serve such a varied population, they experience post-truth life not just in one way, but in many. This brave new world hits some harder than most. It is the difference between understanding a court order or not, between obtaining benefits or not, between accessing healthcare or not.
In 1939, the American Library Association adopted its Bill of Rights, a short, six-point commitment to intellectual freedom. Libraries do not exist to censor; they exist to inform. If a patron asks for materials which affirm his particular worldview, the librarian will assist him, even if she disagrees. If a patron wants to learn more about a topic, she’ll help him locate quality materials that provide a robust analysis.
Just because more than one side to a story exists does not mean that each is equally valid. So, librarians help patrons distinguish between fact, fiction, and fiction cleverly disguised beneath a veneer of factual generalities. The post-truth world is, at least in part, a byproduct of content marketing done well. Even our young digital natives struggle to differentiate between content written to inform from content written to persuade.
Where do we draw the line between our commitment to a patron’s right to access the information they seek, and the preservation of the truth? For many, the answer lies in teaching patrons how to evaluate sources, to read critically. The post-truth desert is a life-or-death environment for those living in the greatest precarity: low-literacy adults who often lack the formal education that provides a framework for critical thinking. We may have a fake news crisis, but we also face an illiteracy crisis. Fortunately, Americans not only trust librarians, but think librarians can help them decide what information to trust.
Perhaps it’s that commitment to serving patrons without judgment that makes libraries so trusted. After all, equity of access to information is not just the product of our democracy, but absolutely essential to its continuation.