Monday, February 13, 2017


There's a fascinating video created by the Southern Poverty Law Center (in January 2017) that focuses on Google but is equally relevant to libraries. It is called The Miseducation of Dylann Roof.


 In this video, the speaker shows that by searching on "black on white violence" in Google the top items are all from racist sites. Each of these link only to other racist sites. The speaker claims that Google's algorithms will favor similar sites to ones that a user has visited from a Google search, and that eventually, in this case, the user's online searching will be skewed toward sites that are racist in nature. The claim is that this is what happened to Dylan Roof, the man who killed 9 people at an historic African-American church - he entered a closed information system that consisted only of racist sites. It ends by saying: "It's a fundamental problem that Google must address if it is truly going to be the world's library."

I'm not going to defend or deny the claims of the video, and you should watch it yourself because I'm not giving a full exposition of its premise here (and it is short and very interesting). But I do want to question whether Google is or could be "the world's library", and also whether libraries do a sufficient job of presenting users with a well-round information space.

It's fairly easy to dismiss the first premise - that Google is or should be seen as a library. Google is operating in a significantly different information ecosystem from libraries. While there is some overlap between Google and library collections, primarily because Google now partners with publishers to index some books, there is much that is on the Internet that is not in libraries, and a significant amount that is in libraries but not available online. Libraries pride themselves on providing quality information, but we can't really take the lion's share of the credit for that; the primary gatekeepers are the publishers from whom we purchase the items in our collections. In terms of content, most libraries are pretty staid, collecting only from mainstream publishers.

I decided to test this out and went looking for works promoting Holocaust denial or Creationism in a non-random group of libraries. I was able to find numerous books about deniers and denial, but only research libraries seem to carry the books by the deniers themselves. None of these come from mainstream publishing houses. I note that the subject heading, Holocaust denial literature, is applied to both those items written from the denial point of view, as well as ones analyzing or debating that view.

Creationism gets a bit more visibility; I was able to find some creationist works in public libraries in the Bible Belt. Again, there is a single subject heading, Creationism, that covers both the pro- and the con-. Finding pro- works in WorldCat is a kind of "needle in a haystack" exercise.

Don't dwell too much on my findings - this is purely anecdotal, although a true study would be fascinating. We know that libraries to some extent reflect their local cultures, such as the presence of the Gay and Lesbian Archives at the San Francisco Public Library.  But you often hear that libraries "cover all points of view," which is not really true.

The common statement about libraries is that we gather materials on all sides of an issue. Another statement is that users will discover them because they will reside near each other on the library shelves. Is this true? Is this adequate? Does this guarantee that library users will encounter a full range of thoughts and facts on an issue?

First, just because the library has more than one book on a topic does not guarantee that a user will choose to engage with multiple sources. There are people who seek out everything they can find on a topic, but as we know from the general statistics on reading habits, many people will not read voraciously on a topic. So the fact that the library has multiple items with different points of view doesn't mean that the user reads all of those points of view.

Second, there can be a big difference between what the library holds and what a user finds on the shelf. Many public libraries have a high rate of circulation of a large part of their collection, and some books have such long holds lists that they may not hit the shelf for months or longer. I have no way to predict what a user would find on the shelf in a library that had an equal number of books expounding the science of evolution vs those promoting the biblical concept of creation, but it is frightening to think that what a person learns will be the result of some random library bookshelf.

But the third point is really the key one: libraries do not cover all points of view, if by points of view you include the kind of mis-information that is described in the SPLC video. There are many points of view that are not available from mainstream publishers, and there are many points of view that are not considered appropriate for anything but serious study. A researcher looking into race relations in the United States today would find the sites that attracted Roof to provide important insights, as SPLC did, but you will not find that same information in a "reading" library.

Libraries have an idea of "appropriate" that they share with the publishing community. We are both scientific and moral gatekeepers, whether we want to admit it or not. Google is an algorithm functioning over an uncontrolled and uncontrollable number of conversations. Although Google pretends that its algorithm is neutral, we know that it is not. On Amazon, which does accept self-published and alternative press books, certain content like pornography is consciously kept away from promotions and best seller lists. Google has "tweaked" its algorithms to remove Holocaust denial literature from view in some European countries that forbid the topic. The video essentially says that Google should make wide-ranging cultural, scientific and moral judgments about the content it indexes.

I am of two minds about the idea of letting Google or Amazon be a gatekeeper. On the one hand, immersing a Dylann Roof in an online racist community is a terrible thing, and we see the result (although the cause and effect may be hard to prove as strongly as the video shows). On the other hand, letting Google and Amazon decide what is and what is not appropriate does not sit well at all. As I've said before having gatekeepers whose motivations are trade secrets that cannot be discussed is quite dangerous.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about libraries and their supposed neutrality. I am very glad that we can have that discussion. With all of the current hoopla about fake news, Russian hackers, and the use of social media to target and change opinion, we should embrace the fact of our collection policies, and admit widely that we and others have thought carefully about the content of the library. It won't be the most radical in many cases, but we care about veracity, and that''s something that Google cannot say.


John Mark Ockerbloom said...

"I note that the subject heading, Holocaust denial literature, is applied to both those items written from the denial point of view, as well as ones analyzing or debating that view."

Under LC cataloging rules, they should actually be under two different subjects. "Holocaust denial literature" should be used for the works written from the denial point of view, and "Holocaust denial" should be used for the works analyzing or debating that view.

Catalogs should make it easy to go from one subject to the other. Not all do (though mine does), so I could see some libraries lumping them together if their catalogs don't easily link the two.

Karen Coyle said...

John, thanks. - The fact that it's easy to find books with "Holocaust denial" that are denial *literature* shows that even librarians have trouble understanding what those subject headings mean - so I doubt if there are many users aware of the distinction. Plus, since most library systems' default is a keyword search, typing in "Holocaust" and "denial" gets both headings. This is a great example of how we shouldn't pretend that we are communicating clearly to users. With one search they'll get both "fer" and "agin", all mixed together in a giant list. If nothing else, this cries out for a display, with retrieved items, that gives users more information about what the subject heading means. And perhaps for more distinctive subject headings.