March 19th, 2018

Library Chat: Seek out information literacy

By Medicine Hat News on December 22, 2017.

The Medicine Hat Public Library board has just released the library’s 2018-2020 Plan of Service and you can find it on our website – Just scroll to the very bottom of the main page, and look under “About Us.” One new initiative will be to provide programs to help patrons to improve their information literacy skills, and I can’t think of anything more important for us — as individuals, as a library or as a community — to work on.

“Information literacy” may not sound particularly interesting or valuable, but here’s an example of what it looks like when you don’t have it. Back in the 1980s there was a teacher named Jim Keegstra who was teaching his students that the Holocaust was a hoax. When he was interviewed on TV he had a coffee table in front of him piled high with books that to his mind “proved” the truth of his bizarre and hateful views. A person with an even rudimentary ability to assess information would have known that these books — all from obscure publishers and fringe groups — weren’t reliable sources of valid information.

That was back in the ’80s, a simpler time. Now we have hundreds of thousands of Keegstra types spreading their version of “truth” online. We have politicians, corporate media relations spokespersons and well-funded think tanks spewing half-truths and outright lies by whatever means they can, including social media. We have hoaxes so convincing that even our most level-headed Facebook friends sometimes fall for them.

The ownership of media is concentrated in very few hands; local newspapers and broadcast stations are closing. There are fewer investigative journalists working, and when they file well-researched reports they find themselves accused of fabricating “fake news.” The views of scientists and other experts are dismissed if they don’t support the narrative that someone is trying to spin. There are very powerful forces using very sophisticated methods to influence your opinions, your vote, and your purchasing decisions

The stakes can be very high. As Voltaire said, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” There are many dangerously misinformed individuals in our province and country, and many more to the south of us. We have a duty as citizens to inform ourselves as well as we can. And it’s certainly in our self-interest as well; we need to know how to find useful and accurate information that impacts our health, our finances, our daily lives.

The library can help, but this is work that you’ll mostly have to do on your own. Maybe one of your New Year’s resolutions could be to read more non-fiction books, or view more documentary films, or use our library system’s PressReader subscription each day to skim through a newspaper that you wouldn’t ordinarily read.

We all need to stretch ourselves a bit, to get out of our comfort zones. It may seem counterintuitive to seek out more information when we’re being constantly bombarded with it, but the more we practice reading and viewing in an engaged, thoughtful, skeptical frame of mind the better off we’ll all be.

Dave Bahnmiller is a clerk at the Medicine Hat Public Library.

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