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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

October 27, 2012 at 8:19 PM

Seattle library fact check experiment risky, but valuable

Nine Seattle librarians are doing something tough, unprecedented and very risky.

They’re fact-checking politics.

It’s happening on livingvotersguide.org, the impressively thoughtful forum where Washington residents are helping each other decide how they’re going to vote on this year’s ballot initiatives, including hot-button measures on approving same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana.

When someone makes a claim another user wants verified, that user can submit it for a fact check. That’s where the librarians come in.

Thoughtfully. Carefully. But not at all quietly.

If you’ve wondered whether librarians are losing their relevance in this age of Google, you’re forgiven. I’ve wondered the same thing. So, frankly, have librarians.

In 2010 the Seattle Central Library invited me to sit on a panel about its uncertain future. I held nothing back. I know libraries provide an essential service to many, I said, but I have the Internet and find my own information. How will librarians serve people like me?

The Living Voters Guide project — which the librarians call an experiment — might find an answer. But not without risk.

“It’s important to us that we’re neutral and that we’re perceived as neutral,” Chance Hunt, Seattle library partnerships and government relations director, told me last week.

So far, so good on that front. Online voices can be vicious, but few would accuse librarians, of all people, of leaning red or blue. Their work has been too private and inert for that to be possible. That is, until now.

A presumption of neutrality is a tough thing to keep when you presume to seek truth for everyone. Just ask a journalist.

That gets to a feature of the fact checks that feels, as librarian Bo Kinney admits, a little “scary.” Instead of giving people information to make their own judgments, he and the other librarians are both deciding and publicly proclaiming whether something is “accurate,” “inaccurate,” or “unverifiable.”

Sometimes, it’s not that simple.

The Living Voters Guide, created by the nonpartisan Seattle City Club and the University of Washington, works by asking voters to submit pros and cons for and against measures on the November ballot.

A con against approving same-sex marriage claimed that “some studies suggest children raised by families with both genders do better than those from a same sex parentage.”

In her fact check, the librarian who researched this claim called it accurate. But, she explained, it “may also be misleading.” At least two recent studies have suggested possible adverse affects to children raised in same-sex households. But other studies show no difference, and one suggests that children in same-sex households do better than their opposite-gender counterparts. The response linked to more information on the studies.

The first version of the fact check drew a user complaint. The librarian edited it in response.

In the first 10 days since the fact checks began Oct. 15, Kinney and his team evaluated 20 claims, keeping to a pledge to respond to every request and to post an evaluation within 48 hours. The librarians give themselves up to two hours to research their assigned claim — they’ve never needed more — and a second librarian reviews every response before it’s posted.

Popular political fact-check site PolitiFact.com labels its biggest falsehoods “pants on fire.” The Washington Post’s fact checker illustrates its content with a Pinocchio nose.

The librarians want none of that excess. They’re not experts on the issues, Kinney explained — just at finding information. They’re not even letting themselves use the word “true.”

“We’re not the final word on what truth is,” Kinney told me.

There’s something refreshing in such a scientific, humble approach to information. We need more of it.

That’s why I have to hope the Living Voters Guide is not just a successful library experiment, but an evolution — and a sign of things to come.

A librarian’s job has always been, as Hunt put it, to provide information in response to a need. More and more, that need is turning up not in brick and mortar libraries but in countless online discussions.

“If we’re not there, are we doing our job?” Hunt asked. It’s a good question. He even suggested a name for a service that extends beyond libraries and even the library website — online forum librarianship.

As for the risks, Hunt and Kinney think they’re worth it. Discussions based on good research and clear information are stronger, they said, and librarians know how to find it.

“This is what we do,” Kinney said, “and we’re good at it.”

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message to her on Facebook.

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