Western Libraries in a "post-truth" world

Published on November 06, 2017

How to spot fake news posterWe hear the phrase "post-truth" regularly, but what does it mean? The post-truth information landscape is one where, in some venues, objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion. Instead, information dissemination becomes entangled with the rhetoric of spectacle, persuasion, and emotional appeal.

This environment, often characterized by "fake news," "alternative facts," and a willful denial of the truth is most notably present in the political arena, but its destabilizing effects can be felt beyond it to the scholastic enterprise.

Librarians have long recognized that one problem of the post-truth era is a deficit of information literacy skills - a set of twenty-first century competencies for using and evaluating information sources effectively and ethically.

"Information literacy has always been important," says Christy Sich, Research and Instructional Librarian at The D. B. Weldon Library. "But with the advent of the Internet, the amount of information readily available to consumers is overwhelming, so acquiring skills to cope with this is important. While having access to everything makes finding information easier, it also makes succumbing to hoaxes and believing bogus information easier too."

As a partner in the university's teaching, learning, and research missions on campus, Western Libraries is providing leadership and expertise on integrating information literacy into the curriculum so that students graduate with a robust set of research skills. Additionally, our information literacy programs aim to develop students' capabilities to identify reliable sources, handle information overload, and evaluate truth claims.

Sich and her colleagues recently created a set of undergraduate information literacy learning outcomes that complement the Western degree outcomes.

"We are taking a more programmatic approach to how we teach information literacy," she explains. "One of our goals is to embed these learning outcomes into the curriculum. We plan to share the learning outcomes and lesson plans with our teaching partners, and also offer to teach in the key courses where it makes sense."

Despite the problems of the post-truth world, Sich suggests that it also presents an opportunity to discuss information literacy and its importance to students and a civil society.

"In many ways I find teaching information literacy now easier. Students know the 'alternative' facts are out there because the mainstream media is talking about it," she notes. "This is a good way to convince students that learning skills for assessing information is going to be very important for their academic life--but also beyond."