Today, I committed a librarian sin; I demonstrated my blatant, personal bias. Here’s what happened:
Student: Why did you tell my teacher I can’t research the Earth being flat.
Me: I didn’t tell your teacher you can’t research that topic. Only your teacher can approve or deny your topic. I may have told her it wasn’t research-able.
Student: Why isn’t it research-able.?
Me: [Without thinking] Because it’s a fact the Earth is round.
Student: No, it’s a theory. There’s a lot of information that proves the Earth is flat.
Me: [Waiting for candid camera or the student to admit she’s pranking me]. ….[awkward silence]…I know of no credible theories that argue the world is flat prior to the 18th century before cartography, exploration, and science proved it to be round.
Student: I found information on the community college library website that proves why the Earth could be flat. Doesn’t that mean it’s researchable?
Me: [Backpeddling….] Okay, let me go back. When your teacher asked me about this topic, I could not imagine how any credible, academic information would be out there that explored an alternative, scientific theory that the Earth is not round. I admit I was thinking from a scientific perspective. Are the sources you found from another perspective about the Earth? [treading lightly]
Student: Yah, a religious perspective.
Student’s friend: [Whispering into student’s ear] She doesn’t believe in religion.
You know those conversations you wish you could rewind and start again? Yep. This was one I’ll think about for a while. How did it end? With the student nearby, I ran a search in my databases to see what types of credible, academic resources explored this “flat earth” theory. And, yes, journal articles and other credible sources have in fact written about this theory and explored the workings of the “Flat Earth Society,” a group who collects and disseminates information that seeks to prove the Earth is in fact a plane, not a globe.
To close my interview with the student I asked three questions–my three go-to questions that help me know a student has a research-able topic:
Are you personally compelled to learn more about this topic? Why?
Is it research-able? Are there credible and authoritative sources out there that explore a range of perspectives and issues? Can you find diverse types of sources?
Are you open to thinking, believing, or feeling differently about this topic than you do now? (Students don’t realize that research should work over the individual as much as or more than the individual works on the research).
The student answered in the affirmative to all three and marched back to her teacher for the official nod of approval.
Let it be known that in my library classes I aced this topic! On message boards, discussion posts, essays, and researched-based papers, I adamantly opposed bias in any form or fashion entering the library. I fully commit to my role as a guide for those seeking information and knowledge. I denounced those librarians who allowed their personal beliefs to influence how they serve patrons and their information-seeking needs.
The new AASL Standards for School Librarians begin with the common belief that intellectual freedom is every learner’s right.
Learners have the freedom to speak and hear what others have to say, rather than allowing others to control their access to ideas and information; the school librarian’s responsibility is to develop these dispositions in learners, educators, and all other members of the learning community.
I spent the month of September working with every single English I student to ensure they knew their rights and to warn against the dangers of censorship. Today, I realized I censor students in small, significant ways.
Here’s my full confessional that today’s interview made me realize:
My Blatant Bias Confession:
- Religious views/ theories/ beliefs are not credible or reliable sources for academic research.
- Long-held scientific fact is fact and not subject to alternative theories.
- Knowledge comes from empirical experience.
- Science can and should be trusted.
These biases aren’t hard and fast rules nor are they damaging to any one in particular, but they creep in when I am working with student researchers. I re-commit to asking more questions in an interview before I start to advise student researchers. I re-commit to listening with an open-mind, understanding that each student is on a personal journey and mine is one door they will enter. I re-commit to providing open access to information and ideas (within the parameters the law and my district allows).
The shape of the earth is rather innocuous; I don’t feel morally compelled to help this student come to realize through her research that, yes, it is in fact a globe that rotates on a vertical axis around the sun. That’s not my job to change minds. But, what if it was a topic that struck such a deep moral fiber I couldn’t NOT intervene? I thought of the librarians in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the start of the deplorable propaganda campaign against the Jews. When an individual came to the library seeking to find information that the Jews were responsible for the evils portrayed by the Nazi regime, what did the librarian do?
What would you do? How do you keep your biases in check? When do we as information professionals take off the shield of unbiased perfection and be perfectly human?