Library Leadership

81. Dismantling Disinformation with Barbara Alvarez

What is the role of libraries in dismantling disinformation? Libraries have long held public trust and been cornerstones for providing reliable information sources. On this show I speak with Barbara Alvarez, instructor and author of Embedded Business Librarianship for the Public Librarian. She shares the importance of libraries leading the way in dismantling disinformation by describing what it is and giving a background on the roots of disinformation, as well as how to partner within our communities to take on the disinformation-dismantling role through the creation of actionable and purpose-driven engagement in this area. It is an important topic for everyone to consider. 


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This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

What is the role of libraries in dismantling disinformation? Libraries have long held public trust and been cornerstones for providing reliable information sources. On this show I speak with Barbara Alvarez, instructor and author of Embedded Business Librarianship for the Public Librarian. She shares the importance of libraries leading the way in dismantling disinformation by describing what it is, and giving a background on the roots of disinformation, as well as how to partner within our communities to take on the disinformation-dismantling role through the creation of actionable and purpose-driven engagement in this area. It’s an important topic for everyone to consider. Enjoy the show!

Barbara, welcome to the show.

Barbara Alvarez:

Thank you so much for having me, Adriane, it’s great to be here.


Question #1: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today about dismantling disinformation. Why is this important for libraries? 01:45 

Barbara Alvarez:

Well, disinformation is really important for libraries, and it’s not just because libraries are in the business of sharing information and quality information, but because disinformation can really harm the fabric of our communities and our society. And, libraries are at the center of our communities. So, it’s really important that libraries engage with disinformation, not just as a way of sharing, you know, appropriate and great resources, quality databases, things like that, but also so that we have a pulse on what’s going on in our community and that we are a part of these conversations. Because, disinformation can really cause a lot of harm, and so we want to make sure that we aren’t in the backdrop of these conversations—that we are at the forefront of them. And, we’re uniquely positioned to do that because of our expertise.


Question #2: What is disinformation? 02:53   

Barbara Alvarez:

Disinformation, and misinformation, and fake news—they often get lumped together. Sometimes they just all get diluted and really, you know, they all become used for the same words. But, disinformation is very different than misinformation. So, misinformation—that might be something that, it’s incorrect information, but it isn’t necessarily with a nefarious intent. 

Like maybe, I accidentally tell you the wrong date, or the wrong web address, or the wrong history note, or something like that, but I didn’t do it with any type of malicious intent. It was truly like a mistake. Maybe a journalist accidentally spelled somebody’s wrong name, or attributes a quote to the wrong person. But again, it’s a mistake and they are usually corrected and updated right away, you know, as soon as possible.

Disinformation is totally different. Disinformation is intended to deceive. It’s meant to steer people into a certain way of thinking, or to believe in a certain ideology, or follow a certain path. It’s meant to put some thought process into somebody’s mind and get them on a certain pathway to believing in that, or engaging more—with an ultimate intent of creating division. Of creating this us-versus-them narrative. So, that’s what disinformation is. It’s really harmful. It’s really dangerous. It’s not something to be taken lightly. 


Question #3: Can you give us some background on the roots of disinformation?04:30 

Barbara Alvarez:

Well, that’s a great question. And, the full conversation about fake news, misinformation, disinformation—it might feel like it’s kind of recent. This has been in our dialog for the last five, six, seven years, or something like that. Certainly with the internet becoming, you know, at the turn of the century, the internet becoming more popular. We all got chain emails, and things like that with a bunch of fake news. So, this whole information thing might seem like it’s newer, but it’s not at all. Disinformation is age old. It’s been going on for centuries, and a lot of it has to do with racist rhetoric, anti-Semitic rhetoric. For example, Henry Ford—he was really well known for sharing disinformation about Jewish elders, and this plot to take over the world, which is not only not true, but is extremely dangerous. And, that is something that happened at the turn of the century, of the 20th Century.

And so, this has been going on—disinformation has been going on for a long time. Disinformation about African Americans and their ability to vote, or to be recognized as full citizens, full personhood. Tons of disinformation has been spread to try and propagate those narratives in order to get people to take a side, a really harmful side. So, those are some of—just a couple of examples of roots of disinformation. There are many more than what I’m bringing up here. 

But, I think what I’m trying to get across is that disinformation isn’t new. It’s age old, and the disinformation that we’re seeing right now—often just regurgitated narrative of what’s been going on for centuries. It’s just in a new package, but it’s really the same hateful messages.


Question #4: Wow. And, you say because of this we should be looking to community partnerships and initiatives to counter disinformation. Can you tell us about that? 06:44 

Barbara Alvarez:

Yes, absolutely. So, libraries need to engage with the community so that we know what’s going on in our community. It’s so important for libraries not to be siloed, not to be this other organization like, Oh, the library. You know, This place that we go to take our kids for storytime, and that’s about it, or something like that.

It’s really important that we become integrated and embedded into our communities so that we know the conversations that are happening around us. I can say that in my own hometown there was somebody that was running for a mayoral candidate position who really engaged in disinformation—really harmful disinformation. And, so it would be important for the library to know, what are the conversations that are happening in the community? This candidate gained a lot of support. They didn’t make it through the final round, or anything, but there was a lot of support around this candidate. And so, that’s important for libraries just to know what’s going on. 

Not necessarily to, you know, get involved in a political campaign or anything, I’m definitely not saying that. I’m just saying it’s important to know what is going on in the community. What are the conversations that are being had? And, not only just the conversations, but what’s behind those conversations? Sometimes there is very legitimate fear that’s going on in the community. Maybe there is a lot of changes that are happening, especially with COVID-19. A lot of people’s lives were just totally uprooted. They lost their jobs. They weren’t seeing family, things like that.

So, being able to know what’s going on in the community—what are the conversations being had? And also, how could the library then know what are the real anxieties that are going on—the things that are based in legitimacy? 

And, how can we form partnerships in our community to help people? What organizations are doing the work that libraries don’t necessarily do? We’re not healthcare organizations, but can we partner with a healthcare organization? We aren’t a mental health hub, but can we partner with a mental health hub?

What are the organizations that we can work with, that we can amplify their voices—that we can share legitimate information with? That we can help them. They can help us, so that we can have stronger community connections. And, hopefully that will be integral to countering disinformation so people know that there are very real alternatives, grounded in reality, and grounded in true support on a local level that they can turn to, instead of false dichotomous narrative.


Question #5: What would you say to anyone who questions whether leading the way into dismantling disinformation is a role for libraries? 09:32 

Barbara Alvarez:

Well, I would definitely say I understand where they’re coming from, because disinformation—there’s a couple of ways they can look at it. On the one hand, sometimes it’s just like, Oh, that’s so silly, who would actually believe that, that’s ridiculous. Anybody, with their head on straight, couldn’t possibly believe that stuff. That’s first of all, a big problem—disinformation often gets swept under the rug, just kind of mocked, people that believe in that, Oh, that’s my crazy aunt, or something like that. It’s not taken seriously. People don’t really engage with it. First of all, there might be a tendency for libraries to be like, Look, you know that’s silly, we’re not even going to touch that. That’s not worth our energy. That’s not worth our time. That could be one objection.

The second objection could be, Well, this is too polarizing. This is too serious. I don’t want the library to get involved in here because we’re supposed to be neutral. And, I really don’t want to stick our neck out there and take sides, or anything. So, that’s the second objection that may come up.

The third objection that may come up, also very real, is, Hey, we’re short-staffed. We’re doing the best we can, which libraries absolutely are. We just don’t have time to be doing community partnerships, and stuff like that. We’re just trying to catalog the books and keep the doors open. 

And I totally understand that. I can empathize with all of these objections. I get it. But it’s still so important for libraries to engage with the community and to counter disinformation. This is a core part of our profession, and our role as information professionals. I could argue it’s one of—it’s a cornerstone of our profession, because disinformation really rots away, not just at information access, but it’s the communities that we live in. It really breaks communities down. 

Information access is how we—how we form our lives, the decisions that we make every single day. Now, that’s important on an individual level, what about a collective level? So, libraries definitely need to be part of this conversation in any way that’s possible. Every library’s going to be different depending on staff, depending on the community, depending on needs. Maybe it’s going to look like these really embedded community partnerships. Maybe it’s going to be something a little bit more passive about workshops at the library, or resources online, but whatever it is, libraries definitely need to be part of this conversation, because information access is tantamount to people’s life choices and our collective wellbeing. And disinformation is the antithesis of that.


Question #6: So, while you acknowledge that there are no simple solutions for working in this space, you also say that libraries can create actionable and purpose-driven engagement around disinformation. What does this look like? 12:31   

Barbara Alvarez:

Again, like you said, I’m not proposing that this is a simple solution. Disinformation is extremely complex. It has a way of tapping into people’s emotions in a way that can stick. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be such an issue. 

Disinformation, first of all—it’s serious, and it’s not something that’s just going to go away with one workshop, or one outreach event or anything like that. I also don’t want to feed into this narrative of librarian’s being superheroes who can solve all the world’s problems. I mean, I personally think that librarians [laughter] are superheroes in our own right. I also recognize that libraries are stretched thin. We’re doing the best that we can. We also need to turn to other experts in the community and partner with them who are really superheroes in their own right.

Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that every library—it’s going to look a little bit different depending on their budget, depending on their staff size, depending on the community that they operate in, things like that. But, libraries can absolutely create actionable and purpose-driven engagement. And, they can do this by starting to build connections in their community in a meaningful way. And, that can start really small. 

That can start as, Let’s have a coffee with the leader of this nonprofit organization. Or, Why don’t you come to the library and we can give you a tour. Or, We would love to see your nonprofit organization, or your business, or whatever it is, we’d love to learn a little bit more about you.

It can start by just having small conversations—inviting people in. Maybe having a staff member be part of a local committee, through your local government, or something like that—a task force. So, people don’t think the library is this separate entity that’s just kind of on their own, instead the library becomes part of conversations in the community. The library gets invited to events. The library gets invited to committees, and task forces, and local conferences, and gatherings, and things like that. It isn’t this—it’s meaningful. So, the library becomes just a regular part of where the voices are being shared, the decisions are being made. 

We can do that just by starting slow, and by having conversations, by inviting people in, talking with local leaders, asking if we can participate. That can be a snowball effect to not only sharing our expertise, but really finding out what’s going on on a local level, and how we can be part of these conversations. And ultimately, that’s going to be the foundation to making strong partnerships in the community that can help dispel disinformation.

So, it’s not an easy solution. It’s not a quick fix. It starts with a foundation of community engagement, community partnerships that builds into a collective understanding, and actionable plan.


Question #7: Is there anything else you’d like to share? 15:50 

Barbara Alvarez:

I just want to say that disinformation isn’t something to be taken lightly. It is something that’s very serious, very dangerous. It is age old. It is something that can really get into peoples’ consciousness. Libraries are really—we’re information professionals. We’re the experts on information access. And, in order to create equitable, inclusive, diverse services we need to counter disinformation. Because, disinformation is the antithesis of diversity, of equity, of inclusion. It might not seem like it on the surface, but if you just dig a little bit under the surface you can find out that it has harmful roots that create division—that feed into extremely harmful rhetoric that’s dangerous. 

If we’re going to espouse being a diverse, inclusive, equitable profession, and library organization, we can’t sit passively with disinformation. That also means we need to look at our policies. We need to look at our procedures, our hiring practices to make sure that we are standing up for the values that we claim to espouse. So that way, when we are countering disinformation, it’s just a natural part of the work that we do on an internal level, and an external level too.


Question #8: Thank you. Do you have a favorite management or leadership book, and why? 17:24 

Barbara Alvarez:

Yes. So, I have a couple that I’d like to share. One of my favorites is Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek, which—I just really like that book. It’s a great foundation for what leadership is supposed to be about, and how managers, and anybody who’s a leader, can help make positive change and build real relationships in their organization.

I also recently read Authentic Diversity:  How to Change the Workplace for Good, by Michelle Silverthorn. I really recommend this. Michelle Silverthorn is a culture change expert and diversity speaker. She talks about how we can move from having this like, lip service to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our organizations to actually making it happen.

The other book that I have just started—but I’m really enjoying it so far is, The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You, by Julie Zhuo. I actually teach a class at the University of Illinois on administration and management. It’s all about management in library organizations, and I have made this book required reading. I am really looking forward to diving deeper into this, and to also having conversations with students in my class about it.


Question #9: Those sound great. Barbara, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 18:54 

Barbara Alvarez:

I love that question. Libraries, you know, libraries have always been a place that I felt comfortable in. When I was a kid I would just love to go to the library. I felt safe there. It felt warm. When I was in high school I volunteered at a library. I didn’t consider librarianship as a career until the 11th hour of my undergraduate graduation. I guess I didn’t really think about librarianship as a career. I didn’t know that it was there, which is interesting because librarians are such an important part. But, in a way, I thought maybe I didn’t realize it was a career, because librarians—I didn’t see, you know, I just saw them as part of the community. It took a second to be like, Oh, that’s a career choice. 

They mean a lot to me and they always have. Libraries personally mean to me, a place of potential for individuals, but for communities as well, and also for the library organization itself. I think it’s really exciting that we have moved from repositories to community centers. There’s so much potential in the staff that we have, the varied expertise. There’s a lot of potential in the profession as a whole. I think there’s a lot of really important conversations that are happening right now that can move our organization in a positive way forward. And, I think there’s a lot of potential for libraries to do great work with the community, of course, there’s a lot of potential for anybody who walks in library doors. So, that’s what libraries really mean to me, personally, is a place for potential.


Marvelous. And, I’m so glad you made that career choice, and that we got to have this conversation today about libraries leading the way in dismantling disinformation. It’s such valuable discussion time to really dig into this, a topic that’s on the front of all of our minds right now, so thank you so much.

Barbara Alvarez:

Well, thank you so much for having me today, for having this conversation, and for this wonderful podcast. So, thank you for your work.


Thanks, Barbara.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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