Traditionally, libraries and librarians have played an important part in the provision of information to support democracy and the democratic processes. In this context, this chapter reports on a study conducted in 2017 which explores and compares the respective contributions of public libraries and university libraries in Sydney, Australia, to supporting democratic processes. It concludes that in spite of a shift from an institutionally based view of truth to one focusing on an individual, librarians are still concerned with principles that underpin the understanding of quality in information.
Democracy and library services
Western culture has developed based on notions that truth, by overcoming falsehood, underpins democracy. However, Rose and Barros (2017) claim we are no longer concerned with creating a consensus of knowledge, and Harsin (2015) asserts that we are undergoing a shift from a regime of truth to a regime of post-truth, where citizens acknowledge that they cannot easily verify a truth claim. Foucault – whose influence on thinking on the relationship between information, knowledge and authority is described by Andrew Whitworth in Chapter 2 of this book – wrote that ‘each society has its regime of truth, its general politics of truth: that is the type of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true, the mechanisms and instances which enables one to distinguish true and false statements’ (Foucault, 1980, 131). Foucault's regimes of truth are produced by institutions in which there are relatively clear processes for identifying the authority of the source of a message and therefore the credibility of that message, control over channels of communication is understood, the processes for validation of the content of messages are recognised, mechanisms for addressing audiences are regulated and competing messages can be categorised so that the flow of information is not overwhelming.
For Harsin (2015), key factors in a regime of post-truth include fragmentation of sources of information leading to a dilution of authority, the creation of social groups bounded by the use of technology, content targeted to these bounded groups, along with shifts in journalistic practices, political communication and the speed of communication. Lewandowsky, Cook and Ecker (2017, 420) identified seven societal trends indicating ‘the emergence of a post-truth world’, although they acknowledge that this list may not be exhaustive.