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.

9 thoughts on “Authoritative Sources Or Question Authority?”

  1. I recommend your/Marc’s article, Chucking the Checklist: A Contextual Approach To Teaching Undergraduates Web-Site Evaluation, to all. It’s downloadable from your/his website: I just recently came across this article – much-enjoyed it, found it thought-provoking – and hope to try out the approach in my fall instruction.

  2. This perspective on what we call ‘authority’ has probably been valid for decades (or forever!), but it also has some obvious application to wikipedia. That is, how the heck do we teach students to use wikipedia (and similar sources) intelligently and appropriately, instead of just telling them not to use it (since they won’t listen anyway, and since most of US probably use it from time to time too–in ways we think are appropriate of course–because it is in fact useful!)

  3. I have to agree with Marc – we don’t focus enough on critical information literacy, and too often the checklist approach is reduced to examining surface features rather than reading the texts, evaluating their arguments and evidence, and comparing those to related material for confirmation and comparison.

    When faculty ask me to address evaluation of sources, it’s almost exclusively in the realm of Websites, which make them nervous, but students tend to have a much clearer idea of where they come from (and are more disposed to be critical as a result) than they do any traditional medium. Scholarly articles taken as a whole probably have a higher dreck-to-insight ratio than articles found in a good daily paper, but if “is it scholarly?” is a criterion for authority then simply having footnotes renders a source authoritative. [shudder!]

    Another good article on this topic is James Elmborg’s, “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 32, 2 (2006): 192-199.

    I was reminded of this when looking at the second pingback here – to an interesting blog which includes a link to a recent article on critical media literacy. What strikes me about the article linked there is that the authors seem totally unaware of information literacy efforts. Media literacy and IL are related efforts that are almost totally disconnected, which is too bad because they really have much in common.

  4. Barbara,

    I agree completely that it is a shame that writers in media literacy are not aware of what is happening in information literacy scholarship. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that there is not nearly enough conversation taking place between scholars involved in multiple critical literacies. I have been thinking lately that it would be very valuable to have a conference focused on critical literacies of all types in an effort to promote the exchange of ideas. It’s something to think on anyway.

  5. Very well spoken. Check lists belie a simplicity that is very dangerous. “Truthiness” was a word of the year from the American Dialect Society. The blog permalink is:

    They describe it as:

    “truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. As Stephen Colbert put it, “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.” Other meanings of the word date as far back as 1824.”

    Somehow I missed the appearance of this word onto the scene. Perhaps it’s because I really can’t bear the Colbert Report 😉 ! But it has Information Literacy written all over it. Check out the definitive source 😉 at:

    American Dialect Society’s blog entry on truthiness:

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