As a young, idealistic library student, certain immutable facts about the contemporary library have a way of haunting me. Take, for instance, the oft-quoted statistic that 50% of library reference questions are not answered correctly or completely. (The study, by Childers & Crowley, is thankfully from the 70s and rather misleading in my opinion, but it’s still a pretty harrowing percentage when pronounced the first time in a library science classroom.)

Similarly, whenever I have a spare moment for library navel-gazing, I always end in despair at the realization that, no matter hard we try, there are books being wrong in the library.

The general understanding among librarians of course is that libraries are collections of books that are true. (Ignore fiction. Fiction problematizes many of the illusions that library science has about itself.) Non-fiction collections should be accurate, relevant, and current, and when they’re not, Scary Collections result. Wander over to Awful Library Books to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

Librarians are also supposed to be neutral. Wherever there are differences of opinion in a community, libraries, especially public libraries, need to offer a variety of sources. Similarly, public libraries usually buy books for which there is great public demand.

So librarians are supposed to buy the most accurate books, but they’re also supposed to buy books from multiple viewpoints, but they’re also supposed to buy popular books. You can see why, despite having no particular plans to go into collection development, this problem fascinates me. What about popular political commentary that’s full of lies and deceit? What about pseudoscience? Of course we buy these books, but aren’t we somehow going against our librarian code by introducing untruth into the library? By allowing people their Ann Coulter and Rhonda Byrne, aren’t we only keeping the masses trapped in ignorance? What’s a not-so-closet-elitist library student to do?

This difficulty was brought back into my consciousness during a conversation with my Archaeologist Boyfriend a couple weeks ago. He once more undid my confidence in all things textual with the revelation that Jared Diamond’s blockbuster Guns, Germs, and Steel is kind of a load of crap. I haven’t read it and cannot comment myself, but the general feeling among archaeologists is that Diamond’s conclusions are drawn from sloppy research and outdated theories of cultural evolution. (Diamond is a biologist by training.) This book, of course, won a Pulitzer. It is still in classrooms and, yes, libraries everywhere.

What do we do with Guns, Germs, and Steel? Of course we buy it for our libraries. Otherwise we get patrons asking why the heck we don’t have it. We could also buy other books that offer a more balanced view of the role that the environment actually has in the developments and achievements of cultures, but many fewer people will read them. They’ll read the popular book, the well-written and engaging book – the wrong book.

I suspect that actual working librarians do not worry about these things as much. They buy the damn book and go back to helping people and fetching diapers out of the book drop. But if they do happen to sit down and worry about this world of misinformation at everyone’s fingertips, they should probably take a deep breath and realize what I finally realized after nearly reaching the point of bibliothecarial despair.

There will never be an infallible library. And that’s okay.

I figured this out by connecting my Jared Diamond conundrum with my coursework in the instructional design class I’m taking right now. It turns out educational philosophy is pretty awesome. Lovely people like Piaget and John Dewey explained to the world what seems obvious to a contemporary audience, that learning is not something that happens when we memorize facts. Learning is the process of using our intelligence to make sense of our experiences. When we come by knowledge, it’s formed by our minds, not by our books – exploratory and tentative. Knowledge is something we do, not something that’s done to us.

Somehow, living in a post-post-modern era or what have you, we forget this. We fall back into believing in some Platonic world of totally correct and accessible facts, to be assembled in the form of an infallible library. Instead we should probably accept that we live in a world of half-truths and it’s our job, constantly and always, to sort out what’s right.

Libraries are not containers of infallible information. Librarians are not God and they are not your mom. They are information intermediaries three to help you find trustworthy information and, more importantly, to teach you to develop your own information literacy skills. Librarians can’t learn on behalf of their patrons. The best they can do is to keep on buying the best books, and a variety of books, and the popular books, and maybe take a class in instructional design.

I am really pleased with this realization because it puts the power back  in the hands of the people – it makes education, in libraries and out of them, a democratic enterprise.

So, yes, there will always be wrong books in libraries, and that’s okay. Maybe we could put a motto on the doors of our libraries to clarify this:

“Some of the books in this building contain information that is not true. You should probably read more than one.”

Okay, it might not be the best marketing strategy. But it would be a helpful reminder of what libraries are actually about.

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