Francesca Tripodi, Assistant Professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), is the lead author on a newly published research article examining the role libraries play in finding a solution to disinformation.
In “Libraries Combating Disinformation: From the Front Line to the Long Game,” published in the January 2023 edition of The Library Quarterly, Tripodi and her co-authors present findings from a recent study which analyzes the shortcomings and gaps in how library patrons search for information and how librarians can support information search literacy.
The purpose of the study is to address the urgent need to find a solution to the increased spread of disinformation.
“Addressing misinformation is of critical importance, as it threatens the health of the United States across various sectors - from the financial to public health to the future of democracy,” Tripodi says. “In this study, we wanted to identify how people’s online search habits could perpetuate the spread of disinformation as well as how libraries and librarians can serve as resources to develop improved search skills and diminish the spread of disinformation.”
Collecting Data: Observing Library Patrons
In the study, Tripodi and her research assistant Jade Angelique Stevenson, a recent MSLS graduate of SILS, conducted ethnographic observations and interviews at three Montana libraries to identify how library patrons search for information.
In order to gain an understanding of library patrons’ search capabilities, researchers conducted talk-aloud tasks with library patrons asking them to search for information and assess the credibility of various websites. Participants were asked to pretend they were conducting their own research on the topic of minimum wage before making an election decision. Specifically, they were asked to assess the credibility of the website of an organization that opposes a raise in the minimum wage. Participants could navigate the web as they normally would and open as many tabs as needed outside of the assigned website to make an evaluation.
After assessing the participant’s search habits and decisions on whether the website was credible, researchers drew primary conclusions.
The Findings: Identifying How Librarians Can Fill the Gaps of Patron Search Skills
The findings show that most participants searched for information vertically rather than laterally to determine the assigned website’s credibility.
“Whereas historians and students often read vertically—scrolling up and down on a website looking for superficial markers of reliability, such as polished websites and logos and domain names—fact checkers read laterally, quickly hopping off the page in question, opening new browser tabs, and using other websites to gain more information on the source behind the information,” the article explains.
According to the article, participants stated that because websites had a .gov, .org, or .edu domain, they could trust the information on the site more than if the information was presented on a .com website. When searching vertically, patrons in the study dug deeper into the assigned website, such as visiting the website’s “About” page to decide whether the information on the site is credible.
This search technique leaves information seekers at a disadvantage in which they only view the perspectives and outlooks of one source rather than conducting external research through other sources that can provide more context.
Through this finding, the researchers propose that librarians can support patrons by providing educational classes for patrons on how they can adjust their search habits to search laterally rather than vertically in order to gather a wider scope of sources and information.
However, for librarians, this might include tailoring individual educational support to patrons’ specific informational needs.
“The librarians we interviewed helped us understand that the challenge of improving the public’s search literacy is not simply imparting a set of computer skills but building trusting relationships with patrons to gently help them examine their ingrained search habits,” the article states.
The researchers also suggest that more research is needed to better understand how people use mobile devices to look up information as part of their daily life using apps not traditionally associated with search, such as TikTok.
The article concludes that focusing on how to intervene and correct search habits that don’t support search literacy can create effective strategies to confront disinformation; a role that librarians have the opportunity to fill in their communities.