Libraries – Protecting From Fake News

In recent years libraries have been squeezed tightly.

Since the banking crisis of 2008, all levels of government have seen budgets cut. One of the first areas of constraint to be seen was that of libraries. It appeared that no politicians, no civil servants, whether nationally or locally, were prepared to argue for the defence of libraries.

Local libraries up and down the country have been closed. The mobile library service, which used to deliver books to small villages where residents were too old or frail to travel to their nearest town, was slashed. Purchasing budgets were cut to the bone, and staff made redundant. Some libraries were kept open, but with their hours of service reduced so far that it was next to impossible for people to visit, which soon justified closure; others were kept open, but with volunteer staff only.

Of course many see now reason to keep libraries open. What service do they really provide?

Forget, for a moment, the invaluable access to information held in books. Libraries also allow the elderly and disabled an opportunity to meet in a safe area. In recent years they have become essential sources of information for those who cannot afford computers. Essential? Yes. Ever more government departments and companies demand internet access for those who need their services. whether it is learning about the nearest foodbank or trying to apply for a new driving licence or social security, those trying to get help often have to go on line. And the most vulnerable cannot afford their own devices.

Yes, perhaps people do not need to have libraries stocking vast numbers of books and DVDs that are providing only a means of relaxation and entertainment. But libraries are much more than that.

I have often spoken with people who believe that for an author like me, research must be a great deal easier with the digital age. My response is consistent: it’s harder.

The problem is, everyone has information at their fingertips. Computers, tablets and phones mean people can check information in the blink of an eye.

But who loaded that information? Was it a professor at a university, or a spotty teenager? I once found a fascinating comment about the Crusades that suggested that there were elite troops in the Muslim armies attacking Acre in 1291, a form of shock troops who swept all before them. I checked, and found that there were references to other supporting documents. I checked these, and soon discovered a worrying fact: all the references were inter-related. One mentioned another document, which itself referred to a second, which itself referred back to the first in the sequence in a circular, self-justifying manner. In other words, I could not trust the information at all. It was probably invented.

What relevance has this to libraries?

Simply this: when I have a book, I know that it has been written by an author who has some knowledge. I can check his/her credentials, but I know that any publisher worth its salt will have done so already. The facts in a non-fiction book will have been fact-checked and often peer-reviewed. The editor will usually have a good working knowledge of the subject, as will the copy editor and proof reaDER. Thus the book will have been through five separate people to confirm the facts as presented.

Compare that with, say, Wikipedia, which deliberately prevents primary sources. Hearsay and guesswork are given the weight of “facts”. It is entirely unreliable. For instance, when my friend Ian Mortimer found “facts” about himself that were entirely false, and he corrected them, he was informed that his changes were not relevant because primary sources, in this case himself, were not relevant.

The internet is not a reliable source of information. Books are.

In the latest report from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on “fake news and disinformation”, the authors took care to note the vital role of librarians and and information professionals.

It really is essential that libraries and the people who work in them are protected. Their budgets should be increased, and the technology and books they provide should be preserved and expanded.

5 Responses to “Libraries – Protecting From Fake News”
  1. Natalia says:

    Totally agree. Libraries are to be treasured.
    There is a question this article raises though: how reliable are self published books?


  2. I agree with the importance of keeping libraries open and funded. I do take little issue with the dismissal of Wikipedia. In years past, it was indeed an iffy source. However, since about 2012 it’s become a reliable source, if not perfect. I wouldn’t cite it on a research paper, but it gives good information and cites its sources.


  3. Lindsey Russell says:

    Libraries in Essex (where I used to live) have been decimated by closures. Here in Suffolk (a far more rural county) they are at least putting up a good fight and my local village library (which is tiny – not much bigger than a through lounge/dinning room) provides many services for the older generation and clubs for the kiddies, plus reading groups, and a recently started writers’ group. But its most important asset is it is open on a Sunday – like many other libraries in Suffolk, and those that aren’t are open on Saturday. And despite being tiny it has a facebook page.


  4. I agree absolutely. The Internet is unreliable and is increasingly a vehicle for advertising and PR. Gone are the days when it was a vehicle for academic information exchange. Mu h of it consists of ill-informed gossip and hearsay. Fortunately there are still pockets of the good stuff, but governments are increasingly wanting to intervene. How long before anything worthwhile is either behind a pay wall or just not available?


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