Materials from the March 9 SF Librarian Meetup

LIBRARIANS: Here to Champion the TRUTH

With talks by Sarah Houghton & Michelle Zaffino

SF Librarian Meetup, March 9, 2017 @ Mechanics’ Institute


Sarah Houghton’s slides can be viewed on her Librarian In Black website or email me for a PDF.


Michelle Z. Presentation


Hi, welcome to the SF Librarian Meetup. Thanks to Sarah Houghton, San Rafael Public Library Director, for speaking here tonight. I’m Michelle Zaffino, founder of In the Stacks, a book discovery startup. I also write young adult novels, the latest of which can be found at Librarian Detective.

From 1996 to 2004, I worked in NY at various editorial and fact-checking roles at 5 different Hearst Magazines publications, eventually becoming head of research at Marie Claire, where I managed fact-checking for domestic and international news stories and worked closely with legal. I got my MLIS in 2012, and because of the intersection of these two careers, would like to speak briefly on librarians as fact-checkers, promoters of critical thinking and how we can guard against “fake news” in our community.

I hate calling it fake news, btw. Or alternative facts. How did this become a sound bite. It’s not about whether or not you agree, it’s can it be verified and backed up? It’s our responsibility, as librarians, to make information literacy in our communities a priority.

The “stories” we tell ourselves are not true reality. Some “stories” certain political leaders tweet aren’t based in fact. On the Ezra Klein podcast from Feb. 28, 2017, Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, says the following:

“It’s up to historians to tell the difference between what’s really happening in the world, and what are the fictions that humans have been creating (in order to explain or control).”


In the podcast, he goes on to say, humans create stories that help us understand and control society. This alludes to postmodern thinking, where truth is constructed rather than given.

To put a similar personal spin on it, when people ask me why I’m so passionate about writing books and giving book recommendations, I like to say, inspirational and positive storytelling based in truth has the power to change lives.

Either way, Let’s Substitute Librarians into this role of helping filter reality. In the library, when users approach the reference desk, we owe it to our patrons to open a dialogue when appropriate. There’s always been misinformation in the mainstream, and when situations arise, we need to share what we know about distinguishing true information.

Especially now in the digital era, and how news is delivered, with the continuous news cycle, on social media, tv, etc., it’s not only the quality of the ideas, but the speed and volume at which they’re being disseminated, and the context. Who can we trust? Take time to consider, instead of jumping to conclusion. Raise awareness of making snap judgments.

Fact-Checking Basics

-Primary Sources

-Common Sense

-Is it FAKE

-Reputable Secondary Sources

When I was a research editor, it was the dawn of the digital era, but the same rules for good investigative journalism apply today. Sarah covers this in detail in her slides, but I want to offer my experience. Interviewing primary sources, in-person or on the phone is the most reliable way to report. We would call all the sources in a story and re-interview them, or tape the interview and refer to transcripts. Other primary sources include reports and studies from reputable organizations, although use common sense as these can be biased or skewed conservative (especially medical research). Secondary sources from publications are sometimes okay, even some blogs, but use your critical thinking skills. Where did the author get the information? Email them and ask.

“Do not believe anything simply because you have heard it…because it is spoken and rumored by many…because it is found in your [sic] books…or on the authority of your teachers and elders….”—Siddhartha Gutama aka Buddha


And encourage patrons to question what they hear, read, and see as well. Analyze it and decide what you think for yourself. Is it good? Does it benefit the population and community? Is it life-affirming? Choose to uphold love, librarians.

Words to live by, not only in the current political climate, but as we’re constantly assaulted with advertising, phishing, information wormholes etc., awareness of context is key. Especially in our brave new technological world: Could the story be generated by a bot? Fake News Blogs—they look real but they’re not! Is the source a bully? With a mob following them?

It’s okay to disagree. Tolerance of all points of view is a part of a free-thinking, healthy society. BUT we must call out and question when it doesn’t feel right to us. It’s very personal, and owning our opinions is something we’re all entitled to, a part of being human. Be aware of fact-based opinions from post-truth (?!) point of view (where objective facts are less influential than facts shaped by personal belief), and explain this to your patrons.

Quote via

Fact-checking Resources

Graph of Reputable News Sources

Washington Post

Fact-checking resources for librarians

In Summary

-Raise Our Standards of News & Reporting

-Encourage Civil Conversation

-Start Discussions in your Library

In closing, the medium and the method of delivery should not change the standard of reporting and journalistic ethics.

Is the news #unbiased #balanced #impartial #objective #journalism?

Is the publication reputable?

Does the writer have a degree? In journalism?

What sources do they quote?


“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”—Benjamin Franklin

Sure, there will always be citizen journalism, and social media is now just media, where we can police each other, that’s the new reality, but ongoing education of journalists, and upholding quality journalism should be the standard, no matter the budget of the publication. Let’s bust people out of their social media generated bubble, where everyone in their friend group thinks the same, get them to ask questions and reject negative stories. Legitimate news is unbiased and lets the reader draw their own conclusion. It’s just the facts. Let’s get back to basics but evolve at the same time, and spread love not hate….

Librarians Can Fill This Role in Society

Get Involved! Be good examples

Get your communities involved!



View my slides here.