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Public Libraries in New Jersey Lack the Resources Needed to Address COVID-19 Misinformation
A new study by Assistant Professor Britt Paris shows a lack of resources, institutional resistance, and the inability to target library practices around misinformation impeded the ability of NJ public library staff to address pandemic misinformation.
A lack of resources, institutional resistance, and the inability to target library practices around misinformation impeded the ability of New Jersey public library staff to address pandemic misinformation, according to a new study by Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science Britt Paris.

Is it true that chlorinated pool water is less likely to spread COVID than salty ocean water? Can dogs and cats become infected with COVID and spread it? Is it potentially dangerous to get too many booster shots?

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation has continued to swirl around every aspect of the disease, its spread, and its impacts on humans and the world around us. But where does the American public seek trustworthy information about the pandemic?

Certainly much of this fact-finding happens online and is motivated by a number of factors, which has exacerbated the situation. But some have suggested that trust around verified public health information might be built by looking to public libraries and librarian practice around information literacy as models. However, have libraries and the people who work in them been able to squelch misinformation surrounding COVID and other topics?  

Assistant Professor of Library and Information Britt Paris and her co-authors Kathleen Carmien ‘MI22, a circulation assistant at the Franklin Township Public Library, and Michelle Marshall, 'MI22, launched a study during 2020 and 2021 seeking to understand these issues. They presented their findings in the paper, “’We want to do more, but...’: New Jersey Public Library Approaches to Misinformation,” published by Elsevier in the Journal of Library and Information Science Research.

This study fills a gap, Paris said, as while other recent academic studies have discussed the nuances surrounding different types of libraries’ ability to address misinformation, few have focused on how public libraries, who interface with the broadest swathes of the public, might remedy misinformation around public health issues.

The goal of the paper, the authors wrote, “is not to place the burden of responsibility on library patrons, or on already overworked and underfunded libraries, but to better understand how libraries engage with misinformation and, where applicable, to draw out what support they might need from other actors and engaged stakeholders in these endeavors.”

Their findings show, Paris said, that a lack of resources, the perception that libraries are, can, and should be a neutral arbiter in these discussions, even when neutrality doesn’t match the needs of their patronship, and that library staff members feel they are “speaking to the choir” when they share verified information about the pandemic, are all impediments to the ability of public libraries in the state to address misinformation about COVID-19. The study’s findings also reveal the tactics employed by the libraries to combat misinformation, ranging from active to passive interventions, and literacy-driven to topic-driven tactics.

Their findings can be useful to librarians or those interested in library practice, in evaluating existing methods of addressing misinformation within public libraries, as they sort through methods of addressing misinformation while developing new tactics and partnerships that can be leveraged to meet this goal, Paris said.  

“Perhaps unsurprising,” Paris said, “is that librarians are operating on small budgets and are often overworked, suggesting the need for better funding and support for these public information institutions. If anything, it suggests to academics that public libraries are eager for partnerships with those who have expertise in different areas, including health and medical expertise, as well as expertise in information practices, social epistemology, political science, and history to assist them in developing resources, programming, and practices around misinformation and information literacy.” 

To conduct their research, Paris said, they examined library websites and ephemera to see what types of events, services, links, and library guides the 295 public libraries in New Jersey hosted online in the time frame from November 2020 through May 2021. They then surveyed library staff with a series of questions on their approaches to misinformation. Finally, they talked to library staff members across the state to understand how they personally respond to misinformation as well as how they understand their library's stance and responses to misinformation. Paris said her research team primarily conducted their research online due to the guidelines around pandemic distancing as vaccines were first becoming available to the wider U.S. public.

She and her co-authors (one being a New Jersey library staff member) were motivated to conduct this study, Paris said, first because they are New Jersey residents and information science researchers and second, to critically question wider discourse to focus on library practices and codes of professionalism as a way out of the post-truth crisis; and third, to better understand the nuances of how local, New Jersey public libraries respond to misinformation.

Discover more about the Library and Information Science Department and the Master of Information (MI) at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information on the website







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