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Can libraries help hold our information landscape together?

Floodwater inundated homes along a road on Nov. 17, 2021, in Sumas, Wash., in Whatcom County.
Elaine Thompson/AP
Washington State Department of Ecology
Floodwater inundated homes along a road on Nov. 17, 2021, in Sumas, Wash., in Whatcom County.

Whatcom County's library system serves some communities that lack a grocery store or a bank. Some of the 10 library branches take more than an hour to drive to from the system's administration building. One requires a ferry to get to. Another requires crossing the Canadian border to reach the community of Point Roberts.

Christine Perkins, executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, said in rural areas like this, a library's role is to keep residents connected to each other and the wider world. According to Perkins, rural libraries provide internet access to people who don't otherwise have it and social interaction to people who are isolated.

"We are more aware of people rather than in a big city where you could be anonymous or something," Perkins said. "Those relationships that we have with people are very strong."

Whatcom County's library system is one of six in rural Washington hoping to leverage those relationships to fight the spread of false information and build digital literacy skills in communities like theirs. They're joined by one library system in rural Texas.

The effort, called Co-Designing for Trust, acknowledges that strategies to fight misinformation born in universities and other elite institutions aren't necessarily relevant to people in rural areas.

The idea is that librarians in those areas can bridge cultural gaps. While U.S. residents have lost trust in many institutions, some polls show that trust in libraries has stayed relatively strong.

The effort comes after false information about the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election, and other topics — spread accidentally or intentionally — has sowed political division, complicated public health efforts, and contributed to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Then there are local examples that demonstrate how important it is for people to know how to navigate messy streams of information. Perkins remembers confusion setting in after floods devastated parts of Whatcom County in 2021.

"'How did I get out of here? Am I safe to stay in my house? What happens if my car gets stuck?'" she said. "People are feeling it. They're emotional. They're distraught. They're really, really worried. And I think in that moment those people can't be rational and be making great decisions about things."

Librarians, meeting in regular workshops to brainstorm ideas, realized their first task was to get their patrons to think of false information as a problem they should be interested in, said Jason Young, a University of Washington researcher who coordinates the project.

"Misinformation is a very political kind of topic already and so people might want to avoid that or, for example, a lot of people don't think they're going to get tricked," Young said.

"They may think they kind of already have the skills that they need and that digital literacy is for somebody else."

Librarians in Whatcom County are working with UW to create a series of online quizzes designed to get participants thinking about the quality of information online and their own ability to tell true from false. One quiz, for example, involves a deal for a used truck that looks too good to be true.

"You think you have this confidence, since you engage with technology, somehow, 'I'm good with it' or 'I'll be good at this,'" said Tamar Clarke, who coordinates teen services for the Whatcom County Library System. "And you just realize there's cracks in one's knowledge."

As conservative censorship groups move to ban books they deem objectionable — overwhelmingly books on LGBTQ themes or race — libraries themselves have been swept up in the culture wars, much like schools and many other aspects of life in the U.S. In some states, conservatives have moved to strip libraries of funding over culture war issues.

"We're super grateful that, in this corner of the state, in our county, we haven't experienced that to the same degree that others have," Perkins said. "It's distressing that people question other people's access to information and ideas."

In Whatcom County, librarians say they believe the personal relationships they have with their patrons will ensure they remain trusted experts in navigating an increasingly fractured information landscape.

"If we could have a dime for every time people say, 'We don't need libraries anymore, we can just find everything on the internet,'" Perkins said. "And it's like, yes, you can find 10 million things on the internet but you want to find the one thing that's accurate and we can help you do that."

The first phase of the Co-Designing for Trust effort started more than a year ago with a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. It received a $5 million grant last year for a two-year second phase. The work with rural libraries is only one component of the project, which also involves K-12 schools, community colleges, and nonprofits.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.