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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Fake News and The Librarian

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, December 11, 2016


The phrase “fake news” has certainly been in the forefront of both regular media and social media in 2016.


When I first encountered the phrase, I honestly didn’t understand what was being described, or what such a term was talking about.


I find that as you get older, there seems to be more and more phrases, words, and terminology that is foreign to us; and I must admit a hesitancy to inquire only to have younger people give you “that stare” that everyone knows that!


“Fake news” is a structured effort to present to the public in published format things that are hoaxes, misleading or factually incorrect information, propaganda and just plain false stories.


The existence of the myriad of social media, email, and the Internet in general has provided the vehicle that makes “fake news” possible.


As a librarian, I have dealt with information every day for the past 40+ years, and back in the 1970s when I was in Library School, the processing of information was key to the entire study of library and information science.


That’s why I find it odd that many people can’t seem to handle “fake news” and know what is real and what isn’t real in the simplest of terms.


I can see and hear Professor Sinclair saying sternly to her future librarians, “when someone asks you a question, you must verify the answer in two, and hopefully three sources to be sure it is correct.”


We would scramble around the reference room of the I.F. Freiberger Library documenting the answers to our questions showing that, indeed, it was correct.

The government documents collection often took more time, as we sifted through information from various federal agencies for the statistics, often scurrying across the university parking lot to the Hitchcock Storage Building for older resources.


Wow, today that sounds like I was in college in the Middle Ages, but it was not long ago that all of our information came from paper bound books from libraries with that “book smell.”


Now, we just pound a keyboard and Google (used as a verb) a bunch of words hurriedly thrown together to have hundreds, thousands, and even millions of website dump more information on us than could be read in a lifetime.

A lot of the issues today is that we get most of our information from social media, and one posting on one site can be “forwarded” within an hour (or even minutes) and literally bounce around the world unchecked.


The days of people watching the evening news, and reading the newspaper, and reading Time and Newsweek seem relegated to my age group.


How many times do you hear someone say, “I heard, I saw someplace, somewhere I noticed, I was told” pointing to some nebulous source no-longer-remembered.


The librarian in me always wonders the source of the information, who wrote it, and what is behind the information?


Of course, I use the Internet and Facebook, but I cringe at some story forwarded to me or on my Facebook account --- typically some story with a predictable twist or too weird to be true --- and my little inner feeling of Melvil Dewey tells me it is a fake.


All those books that used to be in library reference collections were developed by someone in the editing room of the publisher.  The newspapers were written by journalists, the evening news was developed by a news editor working with wire services.


That Internet site could have been written by your cousin Larry, or that strange uncle who lives someplace in a remote cabin.


The responsibility falls on you, the consumer of information, to determine if something is real, or just more “fake news.”  Think about it before blasting it across social media to everyone.


Google and Facebook are supposed to be developing means and methods for addressing “fake news,” and you can always check on-your-own with or or the growing number of fact-checking websites associated with newspapers and publications.


The other day I sent a fax to a non-library institution and the receiving person emailed me back and complemented me for the “great cover sheet” with names and phone numbers and information all neatly printed.


I asked how they usually received faxes, and he said, “Oh, usually a name to receive the fax is scrawled in unreadable handwriting on the first sheet.”  I told him, “You have received a fax with a cover sheet made by a librarian.”