Library Works to Build Information Literacy
By David Ogul
Dean Jennifer Fabbi and her staff at the Cal State San Marcos Library are on the front lines of fighting fake news.
“When I first got into this field, it was all about helping people find information,” Fabbi said. “Information was scarce and you often needed a librarian to find it. Now you have a glut of information; we’re drowning in it. But people often don’t have the skills to evaluate that information for biases and legitimacy.”
Which is why the library puts a premium on information literacy and developing student-scholars who are adept at navigating an increasingly complex landscape pockmarked with sophisticated propaganda and click bait. The goal: to provide CSUSM students with an ability to be engaged, contributing members of the communities in which they work and live.
While the focus at CSUSM is on building research skills (“One of the most important things that librarians do is work with students to evaluate sources within the context of their research questions,” says Fabbi), those skills are vital to understanding the digital information environment, including fake news.
“We want our students to be sophisticated users of information,” said Yvonne Nalani Meulemans, the library’s Head of Teaching and Learning. “We don’t want students to just Google something. We want them to be able to assess the sources and the validity of what they find.”
How bad is the current trend? The Pulitzer Prize-winning seeker of truth Politifact recently put it like this: “For those who care about accuracy and evidence, it’s time to recognize that something really has gone off course.”
Meulemans points out that too many people fail to understand the motivations behind web sources, especially those shared on social media. The trend today leans toward what many derisively refer to as clickbait.
Exhibit A is what is commonly referred to as the Stanford Study. Conducted by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and released in November, the study collected and analyzed more than 7,800 responses from students at middle schools, high schools and colleges across the country. What it found was shocking: Students too often fall prey to bogus information disseminated across social networking sites and Google searches. Most couldn’t tell the difference between a legitimate medical organization and a fringe source. And less than a third of students could articulate how the political agendas of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress affected the content of a tweet by the former that linked to a study by the latter.
“These results suggest that students need further instruction in how best to navigate social media content, particularly when that content comes from a source with a clear political agenda,” the study’s authors found.
“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend,” states the study. “But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”
Said Meulemans: “There’s a tremendous amount of bogus information out there.”
Meulemans and Fabbi note that the University Library has launched Information Literacy Institutes that bring teachers, librarians and others from local middle and high schools to CSUSM to learn the finer points of preparing students with information literacy skills for future education and life.
“The information that is out there is so easy to access, but it can be more challenging to assess and evaluate than ever before,” Meulemans said. “I often tell students that learning to do quality research isn’t just necessary to do well in school or in your career. Understanding how information is created, shared, and used is fundamental to being part of a democratic society.”