Fake News, a.k.a. Information Disorder: an ongoing reading list

Since before the first Libraries in a Post-Truth World conference at the beginning of this year, I’ve been keeping a list of relevant articles. This list has expanded to include books, studies and reports, and other materials, and I am sharing it here. If you have relevant materials to add, please leave a comment here. If you would like to use this list for library programming, teaching, or related work, please feel free – I’d love to know about it if you do.

Though “fake news” is a term most people recognize these days (unfortunately), it is not the best term to use, for reasons Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan state in their Council of Europe report:

We refrain from using the term ‘fake news’, for two reasons. First, it is woefully inadequate to describe the complex phenomena of information pollution. The term has also begun to be appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organisations whose coverage they find disagreeable. In this way, it’s becoming a mechanism by which the powerful can clamp down upon, restrict, undermine and circumvent the free press.
We therefore introduce a new conceptual framework for examining information disorder, identifying the three different types: mis-, dis- and mal-information.

Misinformation is when false information is shared with no harmful intent; disinformation is when false information is shared to cause harm; and mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm (e.g. by moving it from the private to the public sphere). Unfortunately, again, we are dealing with all three today (plus satirical sources like The Onion, which are the only good kind of fake news).

Fake News a.k.a. Information Disorder: A Resource List

Again, feedback is welcomed; please let me know if you use this list, or have anything to add. I am particularly interested in using the rise of interest in the topic of fake news to advocate for librarians in schools, as they are the ones who do the important work of teaching research skills, critical thinking, information literacy, and media literacy.

 

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Top Ten Unique Book Titles

As usual, I am using Linda’s list for inspiration, and it’s not a Tuesday at all. Also, there are eleven twelve, and I could keep going. This is a fun one.

    1.  Cover image Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: This book mystified me when I read it – was it fiction? Memoir? What? – but I always liked the brash confidence of the title. And the bit about French fries.
    2.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: I think I came to this as an Ann Patchett recommendation, but the title would have made me want to pick it up anyway.
    3.  Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman: It may have been the title that made me pick this book up, I can’t remember now. Either way, I’m glad I did.
    4.  I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: This one is on Linda’s list, but I liked the book better than she did. It probably helped that I read it in New York in my early twenties (the essays are about the author in New York in her twenties), and the title always makes me smile.Cover image of Men Explain Things to Me
    5.  Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: Well, obviously she’s not.
    6.  Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit: The title is so good, and so appropriate, that it’s the only thing on the cover of this book: white text on a deep blue background. (I hate to think what Solnit would have done to a cover designer who put a pair of heels on the front of her book.)
    7.  Someone Could Get Hurt by Drew Magary: A perfect title for a laugh-out-loud parenting memoir.
    8.  I Crawl Through It by A.S. King: My least favorite of her books – I really didn’t get it at all – but I love the title. Her others are good too (e.g. Please Ignore Vera Dietz).Cover image of Someone Could Get Hurt
    9.  Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer: I heard the song by The Cure before I read the book; both are atmospheric. I love discovering literature via music and vice-versa; when done well, it adds to both. (I discovered The Smiths’ song “Asleep” via The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.)
    10.  A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh: The title was more promising than the book itself turned out to be, but then, how could that not be the case?
    11.  Shh! We Have A Plan by Chris Haughton: Initially, I didn’t think this picture book quite lived up to its funny title, but after enough re-reads I came to love it.
    12.  A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace: I’ve never read this collection of “essays and arguments,” but I’ve thought about this phrase a lot over the last two years. It’s rarely apt, but when it is, it’s so perfect.

Least favorite title:

Baking With Less Sugar by Joanne Chang: This doesn’t sound appealing at all.

What are your favorite titles? Least favorite? Book you read because of (or in spite of) its title?

Edited to add (12/5/2017): Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower is a great title, as is Tim Kreider’s essay collection We Learn Nothing.

Reviving the lost art of repair

In early September, the article “Libraries and the Art of Everything Maintenance” (Megan Cottrell, American Libraries, 9/1/2017) was the Library Link of the Day. The article featured a few public libraries that partnered with organizations such as Repair Cafe  and Fixit Clinic to encourage the repair of broken items, and teach people how to repair their own things.

There is so much to love about this idea. Together, libraries and Repair Cafe/Fixit Clinic:

  • help build a more sustainable world
  • fight the “throwaway” culture of obsolescence
  • encourage an interest in how things work
  • teach useful skills

For the past several years, libraries have been talking about Makerspaces – and in some cases, carving out space and buying 3D printers. While I think that 3D printers are amazing for specific purposes (like making teeth), I’m afraid a lot of them are used for churning out cheap plastic junk. They may serve as an introduction to design and robotics, which is not to be discounted…but I think the repair cafe/fixit clinic idea is so much more useful. After all, learning a skill comes easier when you have a purpose: learning a coding language, for example, will probably be a wasted effort unless there’s something you want to make with it.

In this scenario, a broken item – lamp, toaster, necklace, scooter – provides motivation for learning, the library provides space and coordinates the event, and the Repair Cafe or Fixit Clinic provides the volunteers (who may bring the tools of their trade with them). In the AL article, Cottrell writes, “The goal of the U-Fix-It Clinic [is] allowing people to repair broken items instead of throwing them away, but also inspiring them to learn more about the products they consume and how they work. The event is part of a larger movement across the globe working to help keep broken items out of landfills and revive the lost art of repair.”

Knowing how things work – and how to go about fixing them – is empowering; it’s useful knowledge.  In a piece for WGBH, “‘Fixit Clinics’ Help People Revive Their Broken Items,” Tina Martin interviewed the founder of Fixit Clinics, MIT grad Peter Mui, who said, “There’s a sense that [people] don’t have a choice when something breaks, there’s no repair people left anymore to fix this stuff.”

Mui wrote a guest blog post on ifixit.org, saying, “Once people start repairing, they start asking questions like ‘What went wrong?’, ‘Can it be fixed?’, and ‘How might it have been designed differently to avoid breaking in the first place?’ That last question is where we’re ultimately going with Fixit Clinic: to encourage products designed with maintenance, serviceability, and repairability in mind.”

As the things we use on a daily basis have become more complex (sometimes by necessity, sometimes not), design has become more opaque. I often think of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things while I’m working at the reference desk, explaining the “hamburger menu” to a patron, or helping them locate the miniscule, hidden power button on our new laptops. They often apologize, and I tell them it’s not their fault – it’s poor design. But as more and more of our things have microchips inside them, instead of parts we can see and tinker with, we’ve forgotten how to open things up and explore; we’ve given up on figuring out how things work – or why they stop working.

The mentality behind the Repair Cafe and the Fixit Clinic addresses these problems in a tremendously useful way. The Repair Cafe “About” page explains, “We throw away vast amounts of stuff….The trouble is, lots of people have forgotten that they can repair things themselves or they no longer know how. Knowing how to make repairs is a skill quickly lost. Society doesn’t always show much appreciation for the people who still have this practical knowledge, and against their will they are often left standing on the sidelines.”

The Fixit Clinic’s mission has similar themes: “Fixit Clinic conveys basic disassembly, troubleshooting, and repair skills using peoples’ own broken things as the vehicle. By sharing these skills while transferring them to others we teach critical thinking through the lens of our relationship to consumption and sustainability. We strive to demystify science and technology so that we can ultimately make better policy choices as a society.”

A community learning experience that brings people together to share skills and tools, and repair items that would otherwise end up in landfills and be replaced with new things: this is a perfect program for libraries to host. The Cambridge Public Library has partnered with the Repair Cafe in Cambridge already; I’d love for our library to do this as well, and I’m keeping the idea on the back burner. (The front burners are already occupied: I’ve just launched a cookbook club this fall, which is wonderful but a lot of work. If only we had more staff…)

Related:

The end of repair? 3/11/2013

The extinction timeline, 12/29/2014?)

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

US cover of The Power by Naomi AldermanAn absolutely remarkable thought experiment that is also an engaging, suspenseful novel. The premise is simple: “An environmental build-up of nerve agent…released during the Second World War…changed the human genome.” As a result, all girls have “the power,” the ability to send out an electrical jolt through their fingertips. Adolescents can “wake up” the power in older women. Some have more power (and better control) and some have less, but it’s not going away – which means that the historical gendered imbalance of power has flipped. Suddenly, women are more powerful than men, and in places where women have been most oppressed, “justice is at last being meted out.”

The framing device for this story is a letter from the author, Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman), to Naomi, asking for feedback on his “historical novel.” His novel is set in a time close to our present, but Neil and Naomi’s exchange takes place about five thousand years after the “Cataclysm,” in a future where women have been dominant for five thousand years.

A few characters, some of whose stories intersect, take us through the momentous emergence of the power: Roxy, daughter of a London crime boss; Allie, an orphan suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her foster parents; Tunde, a young male journalist who follows the most explosive events; and Mayor Margaret Cleary and her daughter, Jocelyn. Also throughout are Kristen and Tom, TV news anchors whose gender power balance shifts subtly but definitively throughout the novel.

The Power succeeds marvelously in its aim, and is therefore disheartening: it shows that when the disempowered attain power, they do not necessarily wield it any better than those who were previously in power. (As the voice in Allie’s head tells her, The only way to be safe is to own the place.) The solution, it is implied, is not simply to flip the gendered power imbalance, but to make it so that everyone is equal. And as the voice in Allie’s head also says: You can’t get there from here.

NELA 2017: Virtual attendance via Twitter

At every library conference, there are a few good souls who tweet key ideas, soundbites, stats, pictures of slides, and other tidbits from the sessions they attend. I didn’t go to the New England Library Association annual conference this year, but I did follow it on Twitter.

NELAtweet1NELAtweet2NELAtweet3NELAtweet4NELAtweet5

A few key themes emerged:

Media: A “silver spot” (not so much as to be a lining) of the 2016 election is the resulting heightened awareness of fake news and the importance of media literacy. A related point is that news organizations, pressured by the 24-hour news cycle and the lure of clickbait (clicks = revenue), may opt to cover “Twitter fights” instead of paying journalists for real field reporting.

Allyship and “neutrality”: As my co-worker tweeted, “Taking a neutral position is taking a position”; it supports the status quo. Being an ally for historically marginalized populations may be uncomfortable – “You’re going to mess up. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.” It is not your first reaction but your second that makes you an ally. Be willing to be uncomfortable, be willing to listen with openness and compassion.

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Think outside the box, move things around (mobile furniture!), try new ideas – and don’t use the “we tried it once and it didn’t work” excuse. When was the last time you tried? Changes in staff, the community, or technology may make an idea that failed last time succeed this time. This applies to workflows as well. Why do we do the things we do the way we do them? Does the original reason still apply, or would doing things a different way make more sense now (and serve patrons better)?

Library, community, and social media: Social media is more of a conversation than a lecture; use the library social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as an engagement tool, not just a marketing device. PC Sweeney, political director of EveryLibrary, advised libraries to “build a critical mass of supporters before you need them,” raising awareness and encouraging advocacy. (EveryLibrary is “the first and only national organization dedicated exclusively to political action at a local level to create, renew, and protect public funding for libraries of all types.”) It’s also important to “speak the language of your audience,” for example, “We need to protect all Americans’ rights to access their libraries.”

Statistics: “What you measure, you pay attention to.” And you pay attention to what you measure.

Kids and reading: “Kids know what books are right for them.” They can close a book at any time if they are scared or confused.

It sounds like the author talks – Ann Hood, Adam Gidwitz, and Garth Stein – were all wonderful, as well.

Thanks to those NELA participants who tweeted from the sessions!

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The Book of Dust

Cover image of The Book of Dust, volume one: La Belle SauvageIt’s been seventeen years since we left Lyra and Will under the hornbeam trees in their two separate Oxfords; twenty-two years since we met Lyra and Pan, scurrying through Jordan College. When the kind bookseller at Porter Square Books slid my copy of The Book of Dust across the counter, I teared up. “A lot of people are excited about this book,” she said, smiling. I mentioned that my daughter’s name was Lyra, and that today was her birthday. “Oh,” she replied, “You’re really excited.”

True. I took that day off and the next to read La Belle Sauvage, and when I finished, before noon on the second day, I immediately wanted the next volume. Alas, it will be another wait – so I simply began reading this one again.

Pullman brings us back to Oxford ten or eleven years before The Golden Compass begins, when Lyra is a six-month-old baby, and Malcolm Polstead – our new protagonist – is the eleven-year-old son of the owners of the Trout Inn, across the river from the Priory of St. Rosamond. Malcolm does work around the inn and and for the nuns, goes to school, and paddles around in his canoe, which he has named La Belle Sauvage. But things are changing, in Malcolm’s small world and in the larger one: the Magisterium (the Church) and the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) are growing more powerful and frightening, and the League of St. Alexander comes to the schools, encouraging children to sign up and turn in anyone disloyal to the Church; this encouragement to inform on friends and family felt reminiscent of 1930s Germany.

This swing to the political/religious right is countered by liberal forces working in secret; one of these, Oakley Street, has a few familiar members, including scholar Hannah Relf and gyptian Coram van Texel (later to become Farder Coram). Malcolm becomes involved, meeting with Hannah weekly, but his true loyalty is to baby Lyra, who is in the care of the nuns at the priory. When a flood comes – as Coram warned – Malcolm and Alice Parslow (Parslow being another familiar name from The Golden Compass) take Lyra and flee in the canoe, but they are pursued by the CCD and by Gerard Bonneville, a scholar with knowledge of the Rusakov field whose daemon is a terrifying three-legged hyena.

The second half of the book takes place on the water, as Malcolm and Alice try to keep Lyra and themselves safe. First they plan to head to Jordan College in Oxford, where Malcolm thinks they could ask for sanctuary for Lyra, but the river is flowing too fast, and they head for London instead, hoping to find Lord Asriel and deliver Lyra to him. On the way they have several run-ins with scary figures, lose Lyra and get her back, and meet a fairy (a different sort of magic than any Lyra or Will encountered in His Dark Materials, but consistent with British fairy lore; Pullman has said he was inspired by William Blake). In the very last pages, Malcolm and Alice do find Asriel, and he manages to get them all to Jordan, where he entrusts the Master of the college with Lyra’s care; there the book ends.

Although La Belle Sauvage takes place about a decade before The Golden Compass, it has much the same feel. The CCD is immediately sinister, and unsurprisingly, Mrs. Coulter is behind the League of St. Alexander. Lord Asriel is much the same as he is in His Dark Materials. Hannah is to Malcolm much as Mary Malone is to Lyra; a scholar who mentors him, though she is somewhat in the dark herself. Baby Lyra’s brief time in a sort of orphanage, and Malcolm’s rescue of her there, is reminiscent of Bolvangar. But the most similar part, oddly enough, is Malcolm himself: he is like a blend of (older) Lyra and Will, with her facility for thinking on her feet (making up false names, for example) and his ability to be unnoticed. In their steadfastness to each other, despite initial antagonism, Malcolm and Alice are a bit like Lyra and Will as well; they rely on each other because they’re all they have, and that bonds them.

Now, we wait for the second volume of The Book of Dust, and we wait even longer for the third. I am confident that both will be worth the wait.

Turtles All the Way Down

Cover image of Turtles All the Way DownAza Holmes – Holmesy to her best friend, Daisy – has a mental illness, a version of OCD. More than most people, she lives in her own head, but she doesn’t feel like she has control over her thoughts; she gets into obsessive thought-spirals, during which she withdraws from her surroundings, down into her worries, fears, and compulsions – only none of those are strong enough words to communicate her experience to others. Metaphor is the best she can offer, but even metaphor falls short: “The words used to describe it – despair, fear, anxiety, obsession – do so little to communicate it. Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain.”

The plot, such as it is, is rather simple: Daisy convinces Aza to reconnect with an old friend from “Sad Camp,” Davis, so they can collect a reward for information on his recently disappeared billionaire father. But there’s more sadness than mystery here: Davis knows his father was a criminal and a jerk, but his younger brother Noah still hopes his father will find a way to get in touch with them. Aza and Davis do rekindle their friendship, while Daisy finds romance with fellow high school student and artist Mychal.

Climactic scenes are not related to plot, but to character: Aza going deep into a spiral; Aza and Daisy fighting; a car accident, an underground art show. The people and the relationships are the heart of the book, and it’s Aza and Daisy’s friendship that is its core. The romances fizzle, but the friendship remains – even through to adulthood, as we find out in the last few pages, which have the flavor of an epilogue even if they aren’t marked as such.

Pettibon spiral with text: No one had remembered ever seeing him so animated as when the picture went on the blink during one of his favorite cartoons.

Pettibon spiral

John Green’s hallmarks are all here: the fast-talking, articulate teens (who are more likely than the average bear to launch into enthusiastic speeches about science or art or  history), the realistic relationships with parents and other adults (Aza’s therapist, for example), frequent literary quotations, and the way that technology suffuses all the teens’ relationships, from texting and FaceTime to blogs and fanfic and Wikipedia.

But Turtles All the Way Down is a deeper dive than, for example, An Abundance of Katherines. The characters face difficult issues, and not just mental health problems, though that is the primary one for Aza; there are also tensions around money and what it means to have too much (Davis) or not enough (Daisy), and the impact of losing one or both parents.

For all Aza’s difficulty in communicating her struggle to those closest to her, Green succeeds as well as one can in bringing readers into her experience (which is also, in many ways, his own). Turtles All the Way Down met, or even exceeded, my high expectations, and I plan to read it again. The not-an-epilogue toward the end was especially touching; I teared up a little on the last page.

Additional reading: Green answers many questions from readers on this reddit thread, including an image of the Pettibon spiral (image above) that Aza appreciates at Davis’ house; he also reveals that the fast-forwarding into Aza’s adult life at the end of the novel was his wife Sarah’s idea.