When the zone is being flooded, libraries need to make the high ground

Last week I learned from TikTok that for the last eleven years, a man who calls himself John Green has maintained a website (well, a tumblr with a URL) called wasthecivilwaraboutslavery.com. I’ll let John explain his reasons why he created this site:


#greenscreen greetings from my website wasthecivilwaraboutslavery dot com. Hope Nikki Haley finds it useful.

♬ original sound – John Green

Before we go further, let’s ask ourselves, “Who is John Green?” and “Does John Green’s has any expertise in regards to the subject of the Civil War?” This won’t take long. Let’s give ourselves 30 seconds.

First, I will direct your attention to John Green’s Wikipedia page which lets us know that John Green is a novelist, a YouTuber, and co-founder of Crash Course:

As part of the platform’s “YouTube Original Channel Initiative“, YouTube approached John and Hank with an opportunity to start a Google-funded channel. YouTube gave the brothers $450,000, which they used to launch the Crash Course YouTube channel.[r][113][114] The channel was launched in January 2012, with the first episode of its World History series hosted by John Green.[115][4] The channel has since grown to 44 series covering topics including history, literature, and science. All of the content is available for free and many follow the curricula for the Advanced Placement program.[9][4] John has hosted several of the series, including the first on world history, which he co-wrote with his high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer

Wikipedia contributors, “John Green,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Green&oldid=1190904369 (accessed January 1, 2024).

As I have been a financial supporter of Crash Course for several years, this additional context is good enough for me, but feel free to use the rest of your half-minute to learn more.

This advice to take 30 seconds and do some lateral searching to establish the context of a claim comes from Mike Caulfield and Sam Wineburg from their recently published book, Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions about What to Believe Online. I recommend you read it.

Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions about What to Believe Online.: book cover featuring a large green check mark

Mike Caulfield developed the SIFT Method of evaluating online claims and sources of information. These methods are expanded in Verified.

If we return our attention to wasthecivilwaraboutslavery.com, we see that John’s website isn’t just the word YES in a large font. Below YES are statements of claim that are backed up with links to primary documents, mostly in the form statements of secession from a number of US states. These statements place John’s claim on solid ground.

I think libraries could learn something essential from John Green. Here it is in the form of a call to action:

Libraries can and should lend our authority to help others establish claims based on credible sources of information on the internet.

I’m not suggesting that libraries should concentrate on providing context for the most outrageous claims being made online. I am increasingly convinced that libraries should (resume) maintaining basic information about and for their communities. Wikipedia is a solid source for establishing context but essential information about your community — such as the closest legal aid clinic or food bank — will not be deemed notable enough for inclusion.

This is work that will only become more valuable in time, as local information will become even more difficult to find online due to the Augean quantities of bullshit that already flooding the zone for ad dollars or for nefarious reasons.

In a world with large language models, writing a professional “About” page is as easy as asking ChatGPT to write it. And while there are currently some guardrails on the use of LLM technology to produce fake news and fake scientific articles, we should expect those protections to be circumvented. One of the last expensive surface features — style — is about to get the basic spell-check treatment.

What can we do to protect ourselves? We are a bit repetitive here, but the solution is the same: use the internet to check the internet. A website’s credibility shouldn’t be judged by the tone or style of its pages, which can now be faked with the press of a button. Instead, the most expensive signal — online reputation — remains your best guide. What do other reputable people say about the site, the organization, or the claim? Is the organization what it first appears to be? Have people ever heard of it?  LLM’s will be used in the future to cook up sweet, professional websites overnight that feel like they’ve been around for 30 years, but they can’t generate 30 years of external coverage.

Caulfield, M., & Wineburg, S. S. (2023). Verified: How to think straight, get duped less, and make better decisions about what to believe online. The University of Chicago Press. pg 218.

It’s 2024. The waters are rising. Let’s take the high ground.

4 Responses to “When the zone is being flooded, libraries need to make the high ground”

  1. I find this fascinating because it reminded me that one of the things I did in my very first library job (around 2001/2002) was convert a ring binder of local information held at the reference desk into a static HTML site that could be easily updated and was faster to navigate. This was very cutting edge for the time!

    It now occurs to me that I never thought to *publish* this as an actual website: the purpose was to make life easier for the librarian on the desk. But that would be a very useful service in a world increasingly full of GenAI garbage.

  2. Thanks Hugh. I’m fascinated about all the pre-internet ways that libraries used to keep themselves informed at the reference desk. Sometimes reference desk staff kept binders, sometimes index cards, and sometimes vertical files.

    And institutions like the New York Public Library used to commercial published their own Library Desk Reference book: https://www.nypl.org/node/62003 !

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