How Librarians Survive on the Frontlines of Fake News
Kristen Arnett Goes in for Some Hardcore Librarianing (Sure, It's a Verb)
Listen, I start my day just like everybody else: I sit up, stretch, and then shove my phone directly into my face so I can inundate myself with what happened in the news. It’s a good way to get the blood pumping. Just set yourself up for a day of stress and anxiety, worrying what awful thing will happen next.
I mean, sort of kidding. But most of us really do wake up that way now, don’t we? It’s not like we want extra stress, but with what’s going on in our country right now, those horrible feelings are inevitable. There’s the phone next to your bed, and then BAM there’s the news, strobing right into your eyeballs.
I have to deal with the fallout from the news in multiple ways. On a personal level, because I am an American, I live here, and it affects my daily life (wanting to tear my own hair out, yelling at my television, buying all the back supply of Steel Reserve from the 7-Eleven). But as a librarian, I’m also processing and relaying that same news to patrons. That means I need to engage with news on my own, process it, attempt to understand it, and go about sharing it in a way that’s helpful to others and not flavored by my own outrageous levels of upset.
It’s exhausting. And you know what? Sometimes I am super bad at it.
I know everyone’s tired of hearing the phrase “fake news”—I sure as hell am—but librarians are in the business of debunking. Our degrees are in processing and communicating accurate information. In my day-to-day work, I utilize that expertise to make sure that the patrons I’m serving are getting the correct information. My job isn’t just to provide factual resources; it’s to show people how to assess for themselves. I’d be lying if I said this was easy. It gets tough, especially when you have to deal with a slew of bad info. You’re dealing with your own upset, but you’re also dealing with other people’s feelings, too. It’s a struggle not to project all my own outrage onto another human being.“I’d bet there are tons of other librarians out there trying to find the same measure of peace in this overwhelming shitstorm.”
So what do I do with all that bad energy besides go home and scream into a throw pillow?
As a librarian, I’m used to being able to assist—finding the right answer, the exact right information that will help another person. When I feel bad and outraged from the news, I want to do something right then, but most of the time I can’t. What do I have to give the internet outside of jokes about my dogs?
Last week, I found myself feeling extremely defeated. I watched people online talking about all the ways they felt stressed, too, and wondered what the hell I could possibly do about it. I don’t have that much money. I can only call my representatives so many times in a day. People are hurting. What can I do? Well, I can do library work. Always. So I tweeted that I’d take anyone’s reference questions in my DMs and then I waited to see what would happen. Right away, people began sending me things. I got a lot of questions. A LOT of them.
Over 200 reference questions.
This… was something I hadn’t anticipated. I worked as quickly as I could. I sent out articles and scanned book chapters and downloaded stories from back issues of the New Yorker. I provided access to anyone who couldn’t get through the paywall to the information. I defied copyright. I got people the information they wanted. And it ruled.
Then I worked on tougher stuff. Genealogical queries. Reference questions about paper topics for classes, art projects, or trying to figure out episodes of TV shows they couldn’t recall. I found myself energized, feeling wildly enthusiastic. The more people I helped, the better I felt. I was actually doing something. And people were happy!
Another thing I quickly discovered was that I couldn’t do it all myself. I mean hey, I work a full-time job. I have patrons to help in person, too. Other librarians saw my tweets and immediately volunteered to put in some time. I was able to parcel off a few questions that were out of my scope to more specialized librarians. I ended the day pretty exhausted, but happy, and came back the next day to try to get through the rest.
There’s only so much Kristen to go around, it turns out.
What I know for sure is that I want to find ways to keep helping, even if it’s not Twitter-Ready-Reference every day of the damn week, because when I do work for others it’s also helping me. I feel empowered. I want to keep trying. I’d bet there are tons of other librarians out there trying to find the same measure of peace in this overwhelming shitstorm. If we can do even one small thing to help other people, we are doing okay. Because every morning we’ve still gotta get up, still gotta go to work, still gotta find little pockets of satisfaction.
And if I can make it so people can get even a little joy out of life, then I’m doing good work. Plus I just love it when people laugh at my jokes. Makes dealing with people saying “my fines pay your salary” just a lil easier.