Why media literacy is a shared responsibility to history and the future


For those who love books, libraries are sacred places. Once inside, we are surrounded by an infinity of words and inspiring ideas that span millennia; a veritable sea of knowledge waiting to be absorbed. For roughly 2,800 years, subject matter has been systematically organized for intellectual benefit. Whether stone tablets, papyrus or the digital ones and zeroes you’re experiencing now, scholars, students and the curious public have trusted libraries to safeguard texts both sacred and irreverent.

Libraries may enjoy a long, rich history but they are anything but archaic. While some readers still prefer physically locating a title and the satisfying sensation of flipping its paper pages, libraries are increasingly offering more digital options for consuming content.

Libraries are also playing much larger and essential roles for their patrons and visitors these days. They have become community gathering places, learning centers, lecture halls and sanctuaries.

Libraries have survived the seismic shift brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and are evolving to meet the challenges of an era of artificial intelligence and misinformation. To truly thrive in a world racked by constant and accelerating change, though, libraries need to evolve for a future most of us can’t even imagine yet. 

See also:

A mission defined


When it comes to outlining the mission of libraries, few people in history have the authority of steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who funded the establishment of over 2,500 public libraries around the world. The single largest investor in public libraries in US history, Carnegie donated much of his vast fortune to science, education and peace efforts. In the early 1900s, Carnegie’s view was that “there is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library…” 

Echoing that sentiment in the 1940s, US President Roosevelt said libraries were “essential to the functioning of a democratic society”. Today, the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) states that a library’s purpose is to give everyone the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop.  

Libraries’ and journalism’s shared path to democracy

During the lifetimes of Carnegie and Roosevelt, and up to the early 21st century, societies were taught to read and critically analyze information. Entire generations knew how to seek out primary sources outside the internet, which wasn’t accepted as a primary source. But in what felt like a blink of an eye, the web became the source. Not only did this affect libraries, but it has changed the face of journalism as well. 

While publishers and libraries may not always hold identical perspectives, their shared plight and challenges bring an opportunity to champion their valued history and pen a compelling, media-literate future.

According to the American Press Institute, journalism’s mission is to “provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”  

Similar to Roosevelt’s take on libraries, The News Media Association in the UK adds that journalism plays a vital role in a democratic society, and in 1841, Thomas Carlyle called it the “fourth estate” — a label that lives on today.

So, if journalism’s role is to be the fourth estate in a democratic society and libraries are equally essential for democracy, shouldn’t media companies and libraries work together to achieve the same goal: freedom of the press and uncensored access to media content that matters?

New call-to-action

Libraries: restoring literacy — and trust 

Over the past few years, press freedom and availability of quality, trusted journalism has been deteriorating. With greater frequency, those who should be accountable in government and society live outside the media ecosystem entirely, reaching billions of people with whatever lies and propaganda they want to spread through social media and other digital channels.

Media literacy and false narratives (or "fake news", if you prefer) get a lot of press, but not enough attention. And thanks to all that disinformation infiltrating our lives, the foundation upon which mainstream media was built is crumbling. People are trusting the media less and unsubscribing to it more.

That said, if we can give media consumers the tools and trusted information that help them separate truth from lies and make informed choices about their role in society, we not only improve their media literacy skills, we help elevate trust in traditional media back to where it used to be — above everything else.  And the place to find those media consumers is — drum roll, please — libraries! 

Libraries don't just democratize content; by offering media-literacy education, they help people of all ages and backgrounds develop the critical thinking skills to analyze media messages and determine what information is trustworthy and what is not.  

What is media literacy?


What, exactly, is media literacy?

Media literacy (alternatively known as information literacy or news literacy) is a skill set that empowers individuals to be active participants in today's information-saturated world, and not merely passive consumers of media messages. 

The US-based Center for Media Literacy defines media literacy this way:  

Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.  

Media literacy skills enable us to critically engage with media and news content, understanding its sources, intentions and potential biases. Media literacy is the ability to apply critical thinking to one's daily consumption of print newspapers, TV shows, podcasts, social media and other sources of content.  

Media literacy education is vital

CNN’s Brian Stelter once said, “Democracy demands media literacy.” And in 2020, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index registered its lowest score in its history.  

Sadly, media literacy is on the same trajectory. Back in 2016, Stanford University reported that most US students couldn’t distinguish credible from unreliable news articles. Two years after that, only 2% of young people in the UK had the literacy skills to tell if a news story was real or fake.  

In 2019, Stanford closed its latest media literacy study with a dire warning. If ever there was a need for libraries and mainstream media to join forces to fight the good fight for media literacy, it is now.

As long-time journalist Alan Miller, founder of the News Literacy Project, once astutely noted, “We’ve lost any sense of a common narrative, of a shared reality. We not only can’t agree on what the facts are, we can’t even agree on what a fact is.”

The good news is that libraries are ideally positioned to teach media literacy in an age of misinformation by equipping patrons with fact-checking skills and opportunities to practice media-literacy know-how through workshops and other resources. An added challenge for every media-literate person in the digital age is being able to tell the difference between AI-generated content and that created by a human being.

Libraries are essential contributors to society

As guardians of the world’s greatest treasures, libraries have proven to be essential social infrastructure for people and the global economy. This was especially true during the early days of the pandemic when citizens were in lockdown with limited access to trusted information.

Librarians worldwide hit the ground running, working long hours from home, helping people sign on to digital services to use platforms like PressReader, where they could find newspapers that kept them informed and magazines that helped them escape the stresses brought on by COVID-19.   

Libraries have the power to change the world, but the battles they face fulfilling their mission to democratize the availability of content and solve the media literacy crisis is daunting.  

The value of teaching media literacy to library patrons — especially to those who are members of underserved communities — is inestimable. We must all work to ensure libraries along with their publishing partners continue to provide us with the information we require to make informed decisions in our lives, communities and society.

Find out how academic libraries all over the world use PressReader to provide  students, faculty and other users with a world of information at their  fingertips. Click here to learn more.

Let’s work together

Libraries library trends technology academic library media literacy

Related Articles