Daily Archives: May 9, 2007

Authoritative Sources Or Question Authority?

When teaching how to evaluate information, academic librarians often rely heavily on the concept of authority. Authority for librarians is usually understood to be some kind of reviewed and reputable source. Students are to trust sources that have authority over those that lack it. Whatever authority is, we like it. Conveniently, libraries specialize in acquiring authoritative sources and providing them to users. This is all well and good.

Except what happens when sources have some of the indicators of authority but need to have their authority questioned? Isn’t this when we are most likely to be fooled? How do we know when to trust authority (we can’t be expected to independently verify everything or have the expertise to do so) and when to question it? I was thinking about these things as I read an article about a course at SUNY Stony Brook that attempts to teach students how to evaluate information in the news.

The study was completely invalid, the experts said, and yet it was published by a newspaper and read by tens of thousands of people without challenge. Why, Mr. Schneider asked. Because it confirmed what reporters, editors and readers already believed.

That is one of the hardest things to do as a news consumer,” he told the class of 30 or so students, “to stay open to information that does not conform to your views.” It was one small moment in the course on news literacy, a semester-long lesson on how to be an informed consumer of news, how to navigate with appropriate skepticism the ever more crowded — and confusing — spheres of print, broadcast and Internet journalism. The course is unusual in that it is aimed at all students, not just aspiring journalists.

A simple message here is don’t trust everything you read in the newspaper, but the deeper point is about how our own beliefs can lead us astray. Would the many checklists to evaluating information put out by libraries help students question a source like this? Or do we encourage too much trust of authority when we teach about evaluating information? Even peer-reviewed sources have errors and biases, occasionally they are even outright hoaxes. Perhaps in our desire to slam home the point that “authoritative” library resources are better than the free web we promote a bit too much trust in authority.

One of the ways that our libraries are key partners with subject experts in aiding critical thinking is for librarians to build large and diverse collections and to encourage students to use more than one source and to corroborate sources against each other. This is very simple advice yet I seldom see it recommended outright in the checklists. It’s a tricky balancing act, but in our drumbeat for students to “use authoritative sources” let’s not forget to recommend questioning authority.