Libraries and the Global Retreat of Democracy: Confronting Polarization, Misinformation, and Suppression: Volume 50

Cover of Libraries and the Global Retreat of Democracy: Confronting Polarization, Misinformation, and Suppression

Table of contents

(14 chapters)


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Section 1: What is Democracy?


This is a troubled age for democracy, but the nature of that trouble and why it is a problem for democracy is an open question, not easy to answer. Widespread wishing for responsible leaders who respect democratic norms and pursue policies to benefit people and protect the vulnerable don’t help much. The issue goes well beyond library contexts, but it is important that those in libraries think through our role in democracy as well. Micro-targeting library-centric problems won’t be effective and don’t address the key issue of this volume. The author can only address the future if we recover an understanding of the present by building up an understanding of actually-existing democracy: (1) the scope must be narrowed to accomplish the task; (2) the characteristics of the retreat from democracy should be established; (3) core working assumptions and values – what libraries are about in this context – must be established; (4) actually-existing democracy should then be characterized; (5) the role of libraries in actually-existing democracy is then explored; (6) the source and character of the threat that is driving the retreat from democracy and cutting away at the core of library assumptions and values is analyzed; (7) the chapter concludes by forming a basis of supporting libraries by unpacking their contribution to building and rebuilding democratic culture: libraries are simultaneously less and more important than is understood.


In an April 2018 webinar, the Freedom to Read Foundation asked the question: Do information consumers have the right to be misinformed? Fake news is nuanced, prolific, sometimes malicious, often automated, and has the added complications of emotion, privacy, and ethics. And unfortunately, fake news and its foundational components of misinformation and disinformation (mis/dis), aren’t quickly fixed by learning a few information literacy strategies or media literacy concepts. People are inclined to believe what they want to believe despite training, awareness of critical thinking, and acknowledgement of widely held “objective facts.” Are they less intelligent or information poor because they choose to exist in their own information worlds and privilege their own confirmation biases?

Individuals have the right to seek, avoid, and use information for themselves as they see fit, regardless of whether or not others deem their information deficient, insufficient, or even false. However, this is a very black and white perspective on a much more complex and nuanced moral issue. Even if it is to their detriment, people ultimately do have the right to be misinformed, choosing the information they will and won’t accept. But information professionals should still be compelled to instruct patrons on the importance of seeking, finding, and using quality information and sources.


This chapter addresses the perceptions versus facts divide as the United States experiences an eruption of facts, opinions, and untruths in web-facilitated environments. It addresses how traditional and newer media undermine social justice and political inclusion in ways lingering beyond Donald Trump’s presidency. A competitive environment encouraging journalists to publicize rumor and gossip is addressed. The reliance of individuals on the personal experience of mental models, heuristics, and perceptions to separate fact from fiction is examined. Powerful influences of self-interest and political allegiance are explored. In the context of a deeply divided nation, libraries are seen as having the capability of implementing confidence-building measures to bridge the rift in their communities and organizations. The roles of information educators in advancing democracy through promoting useful theories and effective interlanguages are considered. The value of pragmatism, a philosophy promoting engagement in reformist projects possibly acceptable in conservative and mixed ideological environments is addressed. Economically advanced nations committed to equality and inclusion may find the US experience to be both a warning of potential roadblocks and a guide as to how such obstacles may sometimes be positively addressed.

Section 2: How the Information Environment Contributes to and Detracts from Democracy


This chapter examines the impact of information digitization on the rise of misinformation, and the broader implications that this has for democracy. It is based on the Researching Students Information Choices (RSIC) project, which looks at how students evaluate scientific information on the internet.1 Part of this study looked at container collapse.

In previous decades, information was contained in a physical book, newspaper, journal, magazine, or the like. These containers offered important contextual information about the origin and validity of the information. With information digitized, this context is lost. This can facilitate misinformation, as people might make incorrect judgments about information credibility because of the lack of context.

It is vital that citizens have the information literacy skills to initially evaluate information correctly. One possibility for misinformation being pervasive is that, once encoded, it becomes resistant to correction. This underscores the importance of teaching students to evaluate the credibility of information prior to the point of encoding.

To combat misinformation, librarians can teach students to evaluate containers and the indicators of credibility that they provide. Information containers can be evaluated prior to consuming information within a resource, while fact-checking only can happen after. Because of this, container evaluation can help prevent misinformation from being encoded. Our research demonstrates that this requires thoughtful engagement with the information resources and critical evaluation of the sources that produced them, and that students cannot accurately identify containers when they rely on heuristics like the URL and Google snippet.


While LIS scholarship emphasizes the need to be multi-literate by equipping people with critical information literacy, digital literacy, and media literacy skills to combat the phenomenon of fake news in the contemporary information society, the concept of political information literacy is still in its infancy. This chapter addresses this gap by developing an understanding of political information literacy and challenges the premise that information professionals and information organizations should remain neutral in the face of phenomena like censorship through noise and disinformation. In this endeavor, it reviews contemporary information environments vis-à-vis the growth of fake news and misinformation, and current information literacy approaches utilized by information organizations. Thereafter, it explores several cognitive barriers, such as the role of confirmation bias, information avoidance, information groupishness, and information overload, which affects people’s ability to process information. Finally, it encourages information professionals to hold regular information sessions on politically charged topics, tackle the cognitive factors increasing misinformation, and cultivate multidisciplinary approaches to confront fake news.


According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is experiencing the greatest refugee crisis in recorded history alongside increasingly restrictive limits on asylum seekers and refugees. In 2020, the US administration established a ceiling for refugees of 18,000 people, the lowest number on record, and only 11,814 refugees were admitted to the United States. The Biden administration has expressed commitments to building a coherent asylum and refugee system and quickly reversing recent detrimental policies. But the administration has cautioned how quickly change might occur, given how “agencies and processes…have been so gutted.”1

2016 to 2020 included an overwhelming series of changes to laws and policies affecting asylum seekers, often with little documented planning or communication, wreaking severe effects on conditions for asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border. These changes had significant consequences for human rights, most notably the linchpin right of access to information. At the US–Mexico border, must the right “to seek, receive and impart information” be fulfilled in order to fulfill the right to asylum?

While information professionals are not expected to be experts in law, they are experts in understanding the link between access to information and the realization of justice and human rights. This chapter investigates the role of the information professional in the fulfillment of the right to asylum, particularly in the context of contemporary asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border, volatile information landscapes, and the legal and historical framework in the United States for seeking asylum.

Section 3: Libraries as Virtual and Physical Spaces for Democracy


As fake news and other disinformation are spread primarily online and erode trust in experts and institutions, they challenge the role of librarians as information gatekeepers. Experts have advocated for libraries to educate the public to resist misinformation, yet libraries cannot assume sole responsibility for information literacy work. In this chapter, the authors explore several successful information literacy programs in Ukraine, whose fake news problems made global headlines in 2014, when the Russian annexation of Crimea was accompanied by a flood of crude but effective disinformation. The authors look particularly at the Learn to Discern programs established by the international non-profit organization IREX to foster information literacy using techniques grounded in interdisciplinary expertise and carefully evaluated through pilot studies and follow-up evaluations. These programs train instructors through workshops and provide them with materials. In the first program, aimed at the general public, many of the instructors were librarians, and library facilities were heavily used to deliver the public training. In the second program, information literacy was integrated into the public school curriculum and thousands of teachers were trained to deliver expertly designed materials for particular grade levels and subjects. The authors also consider the special challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, both as a source for new forms of misinformation and as a disruptor of training previously delivered in tightly packed libraries and classrooms. These Ukrainian programs demonstrate the potential for fighting fake news and other misinformation on a scale far beyond what could be accomplished by individual libraries acting alone.


This chapter explores “politic talks” (also known as political information) on the websites of academic libraries in land-grant state universities of the South in the context of a global retreat of democracy that emerged during former President Trump’s regime as the 45th President of the United States. The exploratory qualitative evaluation applies website content analysis of seven information offerings in three categories that include: (1) information sources (collections, resources), information policy and planning (assigned role, strategic representation), and connections (internal, external, news and events). Promising practices and illustrative examples of “politic talks” representation on academic library websites show how they are serving as significant providers of political information during current politically turbulent times. The discussion of these findings in relation to each state’s voting likelihood based on trends since 2000 has significant political implications in enhancing the role of academic libraries moving forward.


While much discussion of information literacy in librarianship has focused on the educational roles that librarians play in promoting information literacy among the communities they serve, the information literacy education of librarians themselves has not received much attention. In response to an article written by the authors of this chapter, a surprisingly large number of librarians responded to them to try to contradict the assertions of their article using what was clearly disinformation. Drawing upon these attempts by librarians to spread misinformation in a professional context, this discussion explores the ways in which a lack of critical information literacy among information professionals can impact the ability of libraries and librarians to support their communities. This chapter also considers ways in which the librarians and library professional organizations could work to promote critical information literacy among current and future members of the profession.


This chapter discusses the unique role that public libraries can play to (re)build our Republic by centering the lived experiences and voices of marginalized communities. As robust sites for out-of-school time learning and community-based information spaces, public libraries have long played a key role in promoting the health and well-being of our nation’s democracy. Public libraries’ inclusivity efforts, though, have not always been evenly balanced, and these efforts have often been underdeveloped, poorly articulated, and undervalued by other key civic actors. Bringing together a Learning Sciences scholar of youth development and civic engagement, Library and Information Sciences scholar on free speech, and an Assistant Director of a public library in the Southeast, this chapter will offer interdisciplinary research-practice insights into both the challenges and opportunities that exist for public libraries as they grapple with the serious question of how to serve the public in the complex reality that is this third decade of the twenty-first century. In particular, this chapter explores questions like: how can public libraries balance the constraints of the status quo to hear, share, and amplify the voices of marginalized communities? And in what ways can library staff encourage opportunities that bridge librarians’ expertise and libraries’ resources with the lived realities and needs of marginalized communities? In this chapter, the authors expand upon these questions and collectively dream about the ways in which public libraries might be reimagined to more authentically and equitably serve the many faces of the contemporary American public.


Pages 257-264
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Cover of Libraries and the Global Retreat of Democracy: Confronting Polarization, Misinformation, and Suppression
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Advances in Librarianship
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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