Let’s face it, objective journalism, the former guiding principle for newspapers and information gathering, is dead. As dead as the New Deal, having lived and died for approximately the same time span in US history. (Coincidence? I think not . . .) Being a librarian, this causes me actual angst. Professionally, I am ethically bound to provide my patrons with as many points of view as we can afford so they can make their own determinations as to how (and what) they want to learn. But what am I to do when the vast majority of those sources are so unbelievably slanted as to become worthless for factual research? We used to be able to use Time/Newsweek or the NYT/LAT as some sort of baseline for “the facts”, from which a reader could then venture forth to find more obviously opinionated takes on what those facts meant. Where does one go now, however, to find those “facts”, painstakingly gathered and simply presented, for the novice student to begin that journey? I think it has become impossible; there is no such place. (Cynics would say that there never has been, but I think for most of the 20th century, one could pretty much rely on the NYT and the WaPo for the basic elements of “truth”, and Time/Newsweek for a slightly more involved, but still fairly drawn, portrait of interpretation of events.)
I am personally vested in discovering the truth about current events, especially politics (surprise, given my presence here, right?), and have always been a historian by interest (my first degrees were in history), where the “truth” has always been a tough not to crack. Historians of periods before the 20th century had to glean the facts about anything—even the most notable and famous of individuals—from scanty and/or seriously biased written records, or from other, non-written contemporary artifacts entirely. (The latter forced the profession to assimilate and incorporate non-traditional skills, borrowing from math, sociology, anthropology, and even art fields of study.) But for most of the past century, the written record is vast and substantially reliable (comparatively, at the very least), especially when taken as a whole. Unfortunately for us and future historians, we have reverted back to a pre-20th century landscape, where instead of having journalists wanting to write the “first draft of history”; we have mere shills transcribing some predetermined narrative dictated to them.
What can a librarian faced with this type of world do? Collection development for a public library can be a tricky thing. One must balance one’s budget, the public’s desire for instant access to everything at any time, and (for some) the validity of the works themselves. Far too often, that last one is totally ignored by professional librarians. If something is popular—say, the latest screed put out by someone like Ann Coulter—they feel we need to have it. To that, I say, “Fine. But I don’t want it on the same shelf that we put actual histories written by men and women dedicated to real research using reliable sources and rigorous historical methods.” And I get completely overridden or treated like I’m not deadly serious. Having a piece of trash like Glenn Beck’s Common Sense sitting next to Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is a personal affront to my sensibilities as a librarian, historian, and an American. On a professional level, though, it galls me because I know that by owning it and placing it there, our library gives Beck’s tripe the filmy gauze of respectability he so desperately craves (and that his publisher and financial backers literally count on.)
We readers and writers at Daily Kos often wonder how we are going to turn the ship of state around from the disastrous shoals of stupidity and evil on which we are just about grounded dead in the water. I’ve voiced many times that I think it is actually too late to turn around, and that opinion is formed due to my experience as a librarian; if I can’t convince my bosses (who, by and large, are intelligent—and even liberal—women) of the pernicious effects of having purposefully misleading tracts on our shelves, how on earth will I be able to dissuade people and students from assuming they contain some truths? We spent public money for it! I see this question not in terms of a librarian’s professional ethical “code” for collection development, but instead as one of more basic common sense: Why do we want to have books that are known to be factually inaccurate in our collection alongside those that aren’t? Until librarians, who are supposed to be custodians of knowledge (cough), address this simple question with more than mealy-mouthed platitudes as an answer, we are doomed to fight ignorance with both hands tied behind our backs.