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Notes from Executive Director Scott Garrison – Dec 2022/Jan 2023

In early 2023, MCLS will co-sponsor presentations by Kristin Fontichiaro of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor’s School of Information and Dr. Emily Knox of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s School of Information Sciences, on understanding and addressing misinformation, disinformation, and intellectual freedom challenges. Many have noted how these issues are heavily impacting a growing number of public libraries, school districts and libraries nationwide, as well as higher education (e.g., in Florida). Read on for a preview of Fontichiaro and Knox’s presentations, based on impactful talks each gave during the fall 2022 conference season, and other work.

Kristin Fontichiaro gave an excellent, impassioned presentation entitled “When Misinformation Shows Up At Your Door: Pink Slime Journalism, Manipulative Algorithms, and Your Library” at Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Region of Library Cooperation (UPRLC) conference in late September. She began by pointing out how trust in media, government, science and other professions, and institutions including libraries has eroded over recent years, based on historical and recent data from Gallup and the Pew Research Center. Fontichiaro shared First Draft’s 7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation to set context around how social media, foreign nations, and politically-motivated interests have come to generate mis- and disinformation, and how all of this has divided American society. She outlined how “pink slime journalism” has created networks of websites (including across Indiana and Michigan) that mimic local news outlets and syndicate a mix of harvested published news stories and politically-biased mis- and disinformation in a non-transparent manner.

Fontichiaro then turned to how mis- and disinformation during and after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic are manifesting in libraries, in terms of book challenges (which are destabilizing libraries such as the Patmos Library in Michigan) and violent threats against staff. She urged the audience to address the impact that mis- and disinformation and division place on libraries, pointing to Knox’s 2015 book Book Banning In 21st-Century America. Fontichiaro also recommended that libraries equip communities with strategies to fight mis- and disinformation, through programming and newsletter or social media posts with information and data literacy strategies. Before taking questions, she closed by inviting participants to join Kitchen Table Conversations on Learning and Libraries that bring small groups of educators and librarians together.

I found this presentation to be one of the best and most memorable ones I’ve seen this year. I encourage you to register for Kristin Fontichiaro’s presentation on Jan. 30, 2023, noon-1:30pm Eastern (11am-noon Central), via Zoom. MCLS is co-sponsoring this event with the Michigan Cooperative Directors Association.

Dr. Emily Knox has written, taught, and spoken widely on intellectual freedom and censorship, book bans, mis- and disinformation, and more. Seeing her speak as part of a panel at the 2022 Charleston Conference was a stark reminder that though many tend to focus on impacts on public libraries and schools, higher education and academic libraries must also contend with the issues that are core to her work. Her latest book is Foundations of Intellectual Freedom (ALA Neal-Schuman, 2022).

In the panel discussion, Knox and her fellow panelists touched on some of the history of academic and intellectual freedom challenges. Knox noted a structural shift with the widening of the culture wars, in which challenges now appear across the landscape from pre-kindergarten to higher education. In keeping with her work on why censorship exists as it does today, she raised questions some in society ask regarding where children learn about ideas, and how ideas take root. Knox pointed to ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual for best practices including keeping the library’s mission in mind and taking care when setting and vetting policy (the Manual advises six separate policies libraries should have). She also stressed the importance of being prepared for challenges by having up-to-date policies, training library staff, and identifying any additional resources such as legal support before they are needed.

Knox emphasized that understanding how mis- and disinformation work is internally-focused, based on how an individual understands information. While information literacy helps identify good sources, individuals make judgments based on their own political and cultural views and values. She also discussed how important it is for libraries to be more political and advocate for why libraries and intellectual freedom matter, in a time when public goods including libraries are under attack. Knox urged the audience to join and support grassroots groups such as the National Coalition Against Censorship (for which Knox serves as board president), Unite Against Book Bans, EveryLibrary, and the Freedom To Read Foundation, and to run for library and school boards.

Dr. Emily Knox will visit Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo for a lecture and professional development program for librarians, Feb. 7-8, 2023. Please watch the MCLS website and your email inbox for specific times, descriptions, locations, and registration information to come. MCLS is co-sponsoring Dr. Knox’s visit with Western Michigan University Libraries, and our goal is to make her presentations available as widely as possible to the MCLS member community in a hybrid format, in person and via Zoom. I encourage you to participate however possible.

As we move through the holiday season into 2023 and toward Fontichiaro and Knox’s upcoming presentations, I’ll close with comments from ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall from her recent interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition. When asked how she would respond to a parent wanting to protect a child from being shaken up or hurt by something they read, Hall responded,

“…that’s what books and art and good media does. It takes us outside of ourselves. And I think that’s the role of literature, that’s the role of reading, to move you, to shake you up and to make you someone new. And so I would say to anybody who said to me, I don’t want my child shaken up, I would say that we want to create people who can be with other people. And the only way we do that is by allowing ourselves to come into contact with other thoughts and ways of living.”

Later, Hall closed by saying that “…today, we have over 160,000 libraries – so school libraries, public libraries, academic libraries, the place where anyone, no matter who they are, can … see themselves and their lived experiences reflected on our shelves, to see themselves at or behind the reference desk, to see themselves in the information that they are using to navigate their daily lives. And that’s what we work towards.”

Best wishes for a healthy and restful holiday season and positive new year, and I hope to hear from you at