Riccardo Ridi on intellectual neutrality: a perspective from Italy

 

Italian perspectives

In the English-speaking world, we are not sufficiently aware of the huge amount of professional literature published in other languages. My eyes were opened to the wealth of professional literature in Italian some years ago, when I was awarded honorary membership of the Associazione italiana biblioteche (AIB), the Italian Library Association (AIB). This gave me access to the AIB’s e-mailed newsletter and its various publications. As a means of practising my rather rudimentary Italian, I make a point of reading the regular e-mailed news circular. This points me to the latest articles appearing in its online newsletter, AIB notizie, and its peer-reviewed quarterly journal AIB studi (formerly Bollettino AIB), among others, where I have found interesting and useful articles. (I should mention here another open-access Italian journal well worth following, JLIS.it, Italian journal of library, archives and information science. It has articles in English as well as in Italian.

While working on a paper on ethical aspects of combating fake news, I discovered that a debate on the post-truth concept and fake news has been taking place in the pages of AIB studi.

Half-a-dozen of these articles are cited in an article by Riccardo Rici (2019), “Livelli di verità: post-verità, fake news e neutralità intellettuale in biblioteca [Levels of truth: post-truth, fake news and intellectual neutrality in the library].” Ridi’s article seems to me to make useful and thought-provoking points, and since my co-author has even less Italian than I, I made an extended summary of the article, which I share here for those English speakers who may find Ridi’s viewpoint interesting. The reader is warned that due to my self-taught Italian some mistranslations and misunderstandings may occur in this account, which is open to correction.  To break the text into digestible chunks, I have added some additonal subheadings (in italics) and a few pictures.  I have also added some comments in italics within square brackets.

Post-truth, a non-existent problem

For Ridi, “fake news” does exist, but its significance is exaggerated, whilst “post-truth” is an empty concept or a non-concept and constitutes a non-existent problem. The term has at least five meanings, of which Ridi considers two to be most widespread and important: “strong” and “weak” post-truth.

The “strong concept” of post-truth: Does truth exist?

Strong post-truth is a philosophically demanding concept in terms of which objective truth does not exist, or is not knowable, or is irrelevant. But “truth” (verità) is a very ancient concept and its existence has been debated since Plato and Aristotle. So the idea of “post-truth” is not new. It is merely the popularization of a long-held principle of post-modernism.

Ridi maintains that the concept of truth is a precondition for rational and coherent communication, and he questions how arguments based on what one wants to believe can be regarded as truthful. He cites Simon Blackburn (2018) on the necessity of belief for acting in the world. He discusses the idea of “levels of truth” and concludes that this reveals conceptual confusion. Rather, he focuses on levels of reality. [Comment: Ridi does continue to use the term ”levels of truth” in the article, together with “levels of reality.”]  Some currents in contemporary philosophy accept that multiple levels of reality exist. Similarly it can be hypothesized that there are as many linguistic levels, which reflect, within each one, truth as well as falsehood. The world as described by various scientific disciplines, professional and practice communities, in various artistic and natural languages, and as seen from various overlapping social groups, is so diverse as to even create a veritable series of worlds and hence of realities.

 

[Truth, holding a mirror and a serpent (1896). Olin Levi Warner, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson BuildingWashington, D.C.; Photographed in 2007 by Carol Highsmith Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4144508]

Each one of us is part of a varying number of such realities, and we can hold contradictory beliefs, each of which is “true” in its linguistic context or level. To illustrate that people adhere simultaneously to various belief systems, he cites the example of a person who can believe that the bread distributed at Holy Communion is the body of Christ and also believe the analytical chemist’s report that the bread is made purely of vegetable matter. There is confusion between the philosophical and media-political concepts of truth (il concetto mediatico-politica di verità), these belonging to different levels of reality and language. This is the only way in which sense can be made of the concept of “post-truth”, which otherwise must be dismissed as an effective but empty slogan.

The “weak concept” of post-truth

He then turns to the “weak” concept of “post-truth”, which is more widespread, referring to false information, deliberately and knowingly disseminated, or so-called fabrications (bufale: hoaxes or canards), created ad hoc for various purposes such as simply to have fun causing by confusion, for economic reasons, or for political ends. Here he cites Lorusso (2018).

If the use of the term “post-truth” merely refers to the significant growth and increasing dissemination of false information, the weak concept of post-truth does not negate or supersede the (strong) philosophical concept of truth. Even those deliberately disseminating false information want it to be regarded as the truth. “Fake news” is a more appropriate label for this phenomenon than “post-truth”.  [Comment: I found this a bit laboured. Is it necessary to deal with “post-truth” as a form of truth or negation thereof? I prefer to see it as a social, media and political trend in which untruths are widely disseminated and accepted, even when the sender and (not infrequently) the receiver thereof are aware that it is (probably) false.]

Should librarians be concerned about the veracity of documents?

For Ridi the distinction between the weak and strong concepts of “post-truth” is almost irrelevant to librarians, who should not concern themselves much with the truth of what is asserted in the documents of which are the custodians. Here he cites Bawden and Robinson (2017) who state that library and information science does not concern itself with the truth of information but with the quality of the semantic content and especially with the accuracy, authoritativeness and completeness of what is asserted in them. He also cites a contrary opinion of Jonathan Furner (2018).

Ridi offers three arguments in support of his position that librarians should not be too concerned about the truth (verità), in whatever sense it is understood or not, of what is stated in the documents, and therefore, about the veracity (veridicità) of the documents themselves:

(1) Intellectual neutrality (dealt with later in more detail)

(2) The practical/technical impossibility of checking the truthfulness of documents: the task of determining veracity, other than sporadic and unrealistic efforts in respect of some articles in Wikipedia and fake news item, is beyond the competence and resources available to librarians. Trying to do so would entail much duplication of effort. And what would the librarians do when they have found a document to be untruthful? Destroy it, correct it, quarantine it?

(3) Attempting to use truthfulness as a criterion for library collections and their use disregards the existence of many levels of reality and of truth. Attempts to determine the veracity of documents show that librarians have not understood or accepted this. How does one determine the veracity of the Bible, a sci-fi novel, the Odyssey, or the penal code, not to mention a jazz CD or a movie by Fellini? Veracity is not particularly relevant to the selection of a very large proportion of the documents which librarians decide to acquire and conserve.  Even when it comes to the selection of that much smaller subset of documents of which the veracity is more pertinent – principally works of recent scholarship and especially strictly scientific works — veracity is not mentioned in librarians’ evaluation guidelines; instead, criteria such as authenticity, accuracy, precision, completeness, coherence,  reputation, and authoritativeness are applied. [Comment: If we accept the previous point that librarians lack the competence and resources to determine the veracity of documents, one might equally argue that they would find it difficult to apply most of the above criteria themselves except by relying on reviews by expert reviewers.]

Is there a right to  be truthfully informed?

Citing D’Agostini (2017) on alethic rights, where alethic refers to modalities of truth, Ridi concludes that it is not possible for librarians to guarantee for their users a right to be correctly informed.

Indeed, with two exceptions, such a right to be truthfully (in modo veridico) informed does not feature in librarians’’ ethical codes (a long list of which is given in his footnote 37). [Comment: One of the exceptions is the ethical code of the Russian library association, which states that “in relations with users a librarian… does not promote inaccurate, false materials, aware of the danger and the harm they can cause the individual and society”. This is both laudable and potentially problematic: who decides what the values of “society” are?]. Librarians can use various methods of selection, but they are not able to personally verify the contents of the materials they acquire and manage. As in all spheres of life, there is very little knowledge of which we can personally have directly certainty of the truth. Instead, we are able to survive only thanks to a complex social network of trust in knowledge of which others have ascertained the truth.

What librarians cannot and can do

This applies to reference service as well as to collection building. The reference librarian is unable to give users assurances that the materials they obtain are truthful, or tell them which is the book that conveys the truth on a given subject. The librarian is an expert in bibliography and the evaluation of sources, which are useful but not the only tools for fact-checking. The user must accept responsibility for verifying the truth of what he/she obtains from the library. This is so for two reasons: to avoid turning fact checking into a form of occult or hidden censorship in the library, and to avoid that epistemological naiveté on the part of the librarian which consists of believing that the librarian can conduct a neutral and impersonal procedure, based only on documentary sources, which will lead to objective and unequivocal results, independent of the purpose, context, or the specific “level of truth”.

Nevertheless, the library remains an appropriate venue for investigating the presumed truthfulness of many categories of statements, and librarians continue be excellent counsellors in such tasks. The professional procedures for selection of sources and for reference services are such that they produce collections and references which, statistically speaking, lead the users to trustworthy information sources rather than untrustworthy ones. But the systematic checking of the truthfulness of sources is not the primary objective of librarians who select documents for acquisition or who help users with their researches. He does not share the fear expressed by Cavaleri (2017) that libraries will disappear in a “post-truth” age in which it becomes impossible to distinguish between “valid” documents – documents based on the principles of widely-understood scientific research – and documents that are not based on scientific research. Ridi points out that libraries are not only used for the scientific pursuit of truth, but also for many other purposes, including aesthetic experiences and amusement.

A simple problem: fake news

Ridi cites a definition of fake new derived from a comment by Vittorio Ponzani (2018), as “networked fabrications”(bufale in rete). There is general agreement that fake news is not new. [Comment: as illustrated by the cartoon I’ve added below, which dates from 1894:]

Fake news cartoon

By Frederick Burr Opper – https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.29087/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57725977

There is less agreement on whether fake news is limited to real, intentional falsehood, disinformation, or also includes involuntary errors and imprecision, referred to as misinformation. There is some difference of opinion regarding the media through which fake news is disseminated, and there are various ways of classifying it. Ridi does not offer an exhaustive analysis, but lists four characteristics:

Characteristics of fake news

(1) Fake news can be disseminated voluntarily or involuntarily; it is sometimes difficult to differentiate, and in effect the difference is irrelevant to the work of librarians.

(2) In the last dozen years or so fake news has been disseminated via social media and also by traditional (mainly commercial) media, especially on their websites.

(3) Usage of fake news occurs primarily in the digital context, especially via mobile media, using smartphones and tablets, by people who until a dozen years ago rarely accessed the internet for purposes other than work or study.

(4) Fake news contains significant falsehoods which are presented as descriptions of reality, but which are lacking from the point of view of rationality and consistency with trustworthy information sources. This does not include undisguised extreme or bizarre opinions, easily recognizable parodies, minor imprecisions, ambiguous or obscure language, nor sophisticated postmodernist claims on the interpretation of facts, but only pure and simple fabrications (bufale).

Unreflective or naive users are at the same time targets of manipulation and themselves authors of an incessant flood of careless, undocumented and unoriginal comments. This all contributes to information pollution (inquinamento informativo). Various means of combating this pollution have been proposed, including self-regulating codes for social platforms, state control, moderation, fact checking and debunking, and the use of algorithms to identify suspect social media posts. One of these methods is almost unanimously supported by librarians, namely the enhancement of citizens’ information competencies – “information literacy”.

Information literacy: Librarians preaching to the converted?

Ridi agrees that promoting information literacy is desirable, but points out that the number of people likely to be reached by library programmes on information literacy is likely to be very small. Many people hardly visit their library [Comment: he is writing in Italy, where the membership and frequenting of public libraries is probably less common than in the Anglo-American sphere] and those that do visit the library are likely to be more information aware already. Librarians would be “preaching to the converted”. He thinks that the real problem is the “media diet” (dieta mediatica) of the public. If the user receives most of his/her information from a limited set of social contacts and frequents those sectors of the media which are the main carriers of fake news, the user runs the risk of ending up in an “echo chamber” captured by a “filter bubble”, in which the possibility of being exposed different points of view diminishes progressively.

A healthy media diet

A healthy media diet should be ample, varied and on average of good quality, including some documents that are long, structured, accurate and complex. A monotonous media diet of idiotic tweets, talk shows, and Facebook, leave the user poorly informed and credulous. Deploring fake news is unhelpful. If you rely only on poor sources of information it is your own fault if you get things wrong.  Librarians’ actions against fake news, such as IFLA’s infographic on how to spot fake news, are good to the extent that they insert the topic into general discussion and serve to remind people that libraries and librarians exist. But librarians do not have a secret weapon against fabrications; their actions are not new and they are of limited effect.

A complex problem: intellectual neutrality

Intellectual neutrality is the most controversial value in librarians’ ethics. [Comment: I have translated deontologia, deontology throughout with the more familiar term “ethics”.]  Librarians are required, while professionally occupied, to set aside their own values and political, religious and moral orientations, so as to ensure maximum impartiality in respect of the points of view contained in the documents they deal with and provide to users.

The main argument in favour of intellectual neutrality (which Ridi supports) is that it constitutes a fundamental if not indispensable basis [premessa], for the most widely shared value of library ethics, that is the obligation to ensure access which is equal (without discriminating against any user), and universal (that is without censoring any document) to all publicly accessible information. Such a principle of equal and universal access to information can be seen as a right of every human being to be informed (informarsi, to inform oneself). Combined with the symmetrical right to express oneself, this right constitutes the value of intellectual freedom.

Arguments against intellectual neutrality

The following are the most frequent and incisive arguments against intellectual neutrality: (1) Balanced collections required for intellectual neutrality are not really balanced because they are dominated by the traditional publishing market. This represents acceptance of the industrial publishing industry and hence the mainstream [neoliberal capitalist?] ideology. (2) Neutrality is humanly impossible, so that any pretence at neutrality is unrealistic. This is more radical than the first. Preferences, orientations and prejudices are unavoidable even if hidden and unconscious, in all forms of library service. (3) Neutrality weighs too heavily relative to the various social responsibilities that librarians have in relation to their communities. By pretending that they are dispensed from choosing sides on account of their technical role as information intermediaries, librarians would be choosing to remain spectators. He deals with the first and third objections first.

First objection to intellectual neutrality

Ridi responds to the first objection, which he considers the easiest to deal with, by arguing that, whilst librarians should be on their guard against the dominance of the mainstream publishing market when building their collections, they have to base their selection on what exists – what authors and publishers produce (mainstream and alternative) and on the ideas that circulate in the society of which they are part.  The role of the librarian is to select, organize, conserve and make accessible documents produced by other parties, and not to substitute themselves for these parties in the production of ideas and documents. Library neutrality (neutralità bibliotecaria) can only be exercised on what exists. [Comment: This may – debatably—be true in societies with well-developed book industries, but I have argued elsewhere (Lor 2012) that librarians in developing countries have a role to play in promoting writing and publishing in indigenous languages and in supporting community publishing actions, especially those of marginalized groups.]

Third objection to intellectual neutrality

Addressing the third objection, Ridi points to the problematic aspect of placing social responsibility on the same level as, or above, intellectual neutrality. In today’s complex and diverse society it is not easy to identify which are the demands placed on the library by the various sectors of the community, or to compare and prioritize them. In the absence of resources to satisfy all the demands, the result will always be a clash of priorities not only with intellectual neutrality, but also among the demands themselves. In a society with limited ideological diversity, an emphasis on social responsibility may imply a duty of censoring whatever is not aligned to the dominant ideology. Conversely, there is a risk that the librarian may, in good or bad faith, confuse social responsibility with his/her own point of view on social issues. It is in order for the librarian to engage in a noble civic struggle using personal resources, but not if this is done using those of a public agency – in which, he notes, other people may be working who have different ideas.

The commitment to professional neutrality does not in fact exclude other values such as social responsibility. Professional neutrality is not the only professional value. The ideal of pure professional neutrality has in practice to be negotiated case by case in light of other values, starting with social responsibility. Since library deontology is not monist but pluralist, a difficult and unstable equilibrium has to be found among the values. He suggests that it is intellectual neutrality which is in fact the most appropriate tool to find that equilibrium, since (a) it helps the librarian to choose among sources and search for them, also in the midst of  the various social pressures, and (b) it will ring an alarm bell when a censorious social pressure group endangers intellectual freedom.

The second, most potent, objection to intellectual neutrality

Ridi regards the second objection, in which it is argued that the attachment to intellectual neutrality is itself a prejudice, as the most insidious and potent objection to intellectual neutrality. It challenges supporters of intellectual neutrality, who claim that they support no ideology, to state whether they believe in the ideology of neutrality itself. If they do, they would not really support neutrality. If they do not, they would have to give up defending neutrality.  The question arises: how can a norm impose the renunciation of any norm, including itself?

The objection would be problematic if the value were to be held as a fundamental value of general ethics. However, professional ethics is not general ethics, nor is it a monist ethics. Professional ethics, as reflected in the professional codes, embraces a plurality of values, which are not placed in a hierarchy. Generally, professional neutrality is regarded as a secondary value, supporting intellectual freedom and professionalism. Librarians who adhere to professional neutrality do not prescribe or recommend it for society as a whole. Nor do they in fact prescribe it for themselves, since they reserve the right to maintain their own moral, political, religious and educational points of view in their capacity as a citizen, voter, parent, etc., and they can adhere to a variety of interest groups and “parties”. For purposes of their professional lives, librarians have chosen to belong to the “party of the impartial” (partito degli imparziali), that is, the party of those who strive not to privilege any party, even their own. If anything, the supporters of the professional neutrality of the librarian, at most hold this opinion: that in a society there needs to be at least one group of professionals dedicated to conserving and making available documents without being preoccupied with their contents. This makes their work more effective, which in turn will be useful to all.

It is then up to the user community of each library to produce the society they want, conservative or progressive, religious or secular, authoritarian or libertarian, etc. Such a society would find it difficult to adopt neutrality as its own founding principle. Librarians, who work in institutions created and financed by the society itself, need to be aware of this, but do not have to anticipate the outcomes of complex social processes. Like any other member of society, the librarian may participate in the political process in favour of a desired orientation. Aware that human nature makes it difficult to be completely impartial and feeling the obligation to decide, librarians (but not all) have decided that the particular nature of their work makes it advisable for them to “decide not to decide”.

Ridi concludes that, seen in this way, he can see no logical veto against intellectual neutrality. Indeed, intellectual neutrality constitutes one of the reasons why the truthfulness (veridicità) of the documents they conserve cannot and should not be excessively relevant to librarians. Often the truth or falseness of what is asserted in documents is not something that is obvious, objective or incontrovertible. Instead, it depends on a network of assumptions, knowledge, beliefs and contexts which differ depending on the educational career, experience, world view, ideologies and values of whoever has to express a judgment regarding its truth or falsity, or regarding an epistemic status in between truth and falsity.

On the one hand the value of intellectual neutrality prompts the librarian to put aside as far as possible his/her personal network of assumptions and ideologies, which makes it difficult to assess the truthfulness of a given document. On the other hand the frequent difficulty of maintaining a good level of neutrality should counsel the librarian against censorship or even unconscious prejudice, and to leave the final decision on the epistemic status of the document‘s contents to the user.

What librarians should (not) do

It is for this reason that Ridi recommends that fact checking should be done by users rather than by the librarians, so as not to risk its becoming a form of hidden censorship. Intellectual neutrality is not unanimously accepted by all librarians, and even if they accept it, they may unwittingly introduce their own values into their evaluation of documents’ veracity. This entails the risk of censorship on the one hand and propaganda on the other. He sees it as better to equip users with tools (both material, such as reference works, and immaterial, such as advice on how to select and utilize materials). This enhances the user’s information literacy. Information literacy is undoubtedly essential, but it must be recognized that it is not always sufficient and despite best intentions, not always neutral. The same can be said of the works consulted and of the librarians’ selection of materials.

Ridi therefore supports the ethical code of the Italian Library Association ( AIB), which recommends what librarians can and cannot take upon themselves: They should not express opinions on the value of materials requested, used or placed at the disposition of the public, and hence [for Ridi] they should not carry out fact checking. Instead librarians can provide information [indicazioni] and advice [consigli] on the most effective tools and methods for the searching, selection and evaluation of documents and information, thereby enhancing the user’s information literacy.

There should be a clear division between the field of activity of librarians and the area in which they have no specific competence. In a footnote Ridi cites Robert Musil (2005), who claimed that  the field of activity of the librarian goes as far as the threshold of the document, extending to tracing the journey through which it has reached us, and examining its paraxtext (i.e. material about it supplied by the authors, editors, printers, and publishers, and including front and back matter, editor’s notes, and design.) If librarians go beyond this, professional neutrality cannot operate and the risk of undue influence and censorship is increased. It is better to leave the burden of fact checking to other professions. Indulging in propaganda [for something] or censorship [against something] would constitute a mortal sin on the part of librarians, as it constitutes a betrayal of their mission.

[Final comment: Seen from an Anglo-American perspective, Ridi’s position seems to reflect a document-centred conception of the library, which may well derive from the past heritage-centredness of Italian librarianship, and which is somewhat removed from the current Anglo-American concept of the library as a forum for conversation, and of the librarian as a participant in the struggle for social justice, not to mention from the position of critical librarianship, as encapsulated, for example, in an opinion piece by Meredith Farkas (2017) .]

References

Bawden, David, and Lyn Robinson. 2017. ‘Curating the Infosphere: Luciano Floridi’s Philosophy of Information as the Foundation for Library and Information Science’. Journal of Documentation 73 (5). doi:10.17613/M6T768.

Blackburn, Simon. 2018. On Truth. Reprint edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cavaleri, Piero. 2017. ‘Il bibliotecario nel mondo della post-verità [The librarian in the post-truth world]’. Biblioteche oggi 35 (0): 46–53. doi:10.3302/0392-8586-201707-046-1.

D’Agostini, Franca. 2017. ‘Diritti Aletici [Alethic Rights]’. Biblioteca Della Libertà 52 (218). doi:10.23827/BDL_2017_1_2.

Farkas, Meredith. 2017. ‘Never Neutral’. American Libraries Magazine. January 3. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2017/01/03/never-neutral-critlib-technology/.

Furner, Jonathan. 2018. ‘Truth, Relevance, and Justice: Towards a Veristic Turn for KO’. In Challenges and Opportunities for Knowledge Organization in the Digital Age: Proceedings of the Fifteenth International ISKO Conference, 9-119 July, Porto, Portugal, 468–74. Baden-Baden: Ergon Verlag.

Lor, Peter Johan. 2012. ‘Preserving, Developing and Promoting Indigenous Languages: Things South African Librarians Can Do’. Innovation, no. 45 (December): 28–50.

Lorusso, Anna Maria. 2018. Postverità [Post-truth]. Bari: Laterza.

Musil, Robert. 2005. L’ uomo senza qualità [The man without qualities; translation of the German Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften]. Translated by Anita Rho, Gabriella Benedetti, and Laura Castoldi. 2 vols. Einaudi tascabili. Classici. Torino: Einaudi. https://www.ibs.it/uomo-senza-qualita-libro-robert-musil/e/9788806173821.

Ponzani, Vittorio. 2018. ‘L’alfabetizzazione sanitaria: biblioteche e bibliotecari per il benessere dei cittadini [Health literacy: libraries and librarians for the wellbeing of citizens]’. AIB studi 57 (3). doi:10.2426/aibstudi-11751.

Ridi, Riccardo. 2019. ‘Livelli Di Verità: Post-Verità, Fake News e Neutralità Intellettuale in Biblioteca [Levels of Truth: Post-Truth, Fake News and Intellectual Neutrality in the Library]’. AIB Studi 58 (3). doi:10.2426/aibstudi-11833.

 

About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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