Presentation to California Library Association for panel on Librarians as Stewards of Knowledge: Critical Thinking, Empathy, Truth

The following presentation was given to the California Library Association’s annual conference on June 4, 2022.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, famed Russian writer, Vladimir Sorokin says that faced with authoritarianism in Russia and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he “sees the conflict not just as a military onslaught but as a semantic war being waged through propaganda and lies—an assault on truth that writers must combat.” (1)

Here in the U.S. we are also facing a destructive assault on truth with fascist forces inside and outside the Republican Party, using disinformation and book bans to ideologically condition millions. Some promote the “great replacement theory,” which claims that there is a conspiracy to replace white people with people of color in the West. (2) This ideological assault is also leading to hate crimes and mass shootings aimed at African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, immigrants of color, Muslims, Jews, and the LGBTQ community.

Given the growth of white supremacy and fascism in the U.S. fueled by disinformation, librarians have a critical responsibility in confronting this situation. We are after all masters of “Library and Information Science.” It is incumbent upon us to be in the forefront of battling disinformation, promoting critical thinking and challenging fascism, an ideology of genocide which can certainly not be treated gently as just a point of view within a diversity of views.

As a public librarian with over twenty years of experience, I see our responsibility on three different levels. First, promoting regular discussion groups on news literacy and current events at community branches. Secondly, offering workshops on the basic principles of critical thinking. Thirdly, promoting discussion on U.S. history from the vantage point of critical thinking.

Although most public libraries are short-staffed, we can reach out to professors at community colleges or universities or other qualified people in our communities who would be eager to help us to facilitate such programs. We also have resources from the American Library Association and PEN America that can be used.

In general, in order to be successful in helping the public distinguish between fact and fiction whether in relationship to current events or U.S. history, we need to provide library patrons with ways of understanding the basic principles of critical thinking.

In this regard, librarians have a great resource in the work of Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader Come Home and a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Information and Education Studies. Wolf argues that with the transition from a literacy-based culture to a digital one in the 21st century, overreliance on digital reading is doing long-term damage to our memory, our ability for critical thinking, reflection, empathy and democracy itself.

Society, she argues, is at a “hinge moment.” (p. 198) On the one hand, overreliance on digital mediums and media and their algorithms of distraction can change the brain circuitry of humans and possibly permanently destroy our distinctive human potential for critical thinking and reflection. On the other hand, if we build on the best characteristics of both print and digital mediums, we can develop “biliterate” persons with “ever more sophisticated forms of cognition and imagination that will enable our children to leap into new worlds of knowledge.” (p. 8)

The latter possibility requires the practice of what Wolf calls “deep reading.” Deep reading begins with attention, remembering, following the sequence of the text/narrative, and drawing connections between the observations and questions gleaned. It requires putting oneself in the position of others. It is thus connected to empathy as both knowledge of and feeling for the other. She writes: “We welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves, and sometimes we become other. For a moment in time we leave ourselves, and when we return, sometimes expanded and strengthened, we are changed both intellectually and emotionally.” (p. 44)

Deep reading, she argues, requires that readers approach the text with internalized background knowledge, including conceptual frameworks that allow us to draw meaning, inferences, engage in critical analysis, evaluate the writer’s assumptions, ideas, conclusions, and reflect on the whole process in order to arrive at new insights/thoughts. Our conceptual frameworks need to be flexible enough to be open to new ideas, changes, expansion and enrichment.

Deep reading, Wolf argues, is the antidote to disinformation, manipulation and demagoguery. When we do not read deeply and do not delve into complexities, we can become prey to simplistic answers, homogenization of thinking and extremism (p. 76) She emphasizes that complexity is what writers like Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison have sought to address when they write about the importance of delving into comprehending differences as the pathway to developing new and ever expanding shared vistas for humanity. (p. 83)

A democratic society requires the development of deep reading abilities and “cognitive patience” in all its members, young and old. (p. 94) It is toward this aim that Wolf has written this book. She thinks we can build on the best characteristics of both print and digital mediums to develop biliterate youth who are skilled in deep reading in all mediums and media.

There is a lot more to be said about Wolf’s concept of deep reading, critical thinking and how they lead to empathy. My colleagues Lisbeth Gant-Britton and Wonda Powell will also further address the concepts of empathy and truth. Here, I would specifically like to point to what critical thinking means for us librarians in the U.S. at this moment in history.

In True Justice, a documentary about Bryan Stevenson a human rights attorney who has represented inmates on death row, Stevenson argues that in the United States, “we live in a post-genocide society.” The genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, he argues, was justified by presenting them as inferior or subhuman. This view of the Other as inferior, he insists, can only be overcome if the U.S. population confronts and reflects on its history of slavery, lynchings, segregation and the present system of mass incarceration which disproportionately affects Black people and people of color.

Stevenson emphasizes: “Until we tell the truth, we deny ourselves the opportunity for justice and redemption” It is only through a process of “transitional justice” in which specific steps are taken to reverse and repair this damage, that true reconciliation can be achieved. That process, he argues, begins with confronting the ideology of white supremacy in which “a Black person is viewed as a criminal.” The process of transitional justice also requires challenging any form of “otherizing and demonizing other people” such as Asians or Latinos or the LGBTQ community. Stevenson adds that he has “no interest in punishment. My interest is in liberation” which cannot be achieved if we remain silent.

When it comes to relating critical thinking to U.S. history, and specifically the legacy of slavery and resistance of African Americans , this powerful documentary can be one among many creative ways of promoting library discussions. We also have a great resource in Nicole Hannah Jones’s 1619 Project which is available as a series of short articles on the New York Times website, as well as an expanded book for adults and an illustrated book for children.

We have the powerful contributions of Audre Lorde, a writer-poet who was also a librarian, and one of many Black feminist intersectional thinkers who bring together the intersection of class, race and gender oppression and do not allow for ignoring misogyny, sexual violence, homophobia and transphobia.

I have more to say about all these issues in my forthcoming book, Socialist Feminism: A New Approach.

Here I would like to return to the point I began with, which was the global assault on truth, the genocidal consequences of this assault, and the responsibilities of librarians for confronting this assault. Around the world, so many doors are being closed to any efforts to promote truth. In the U.S. too, we are seeing a growing wave of authoritarianism and fascism. And yet we still have many opportunities to make a difference. I hope we will live up to the challenge.


  1. Alter, Alexandra. (2022) “He Envisioned Dystopias. Now He Fears Living in One.” New York Times, April 18.
  2. Jones, Dustin. (2022) “What Is The Great Replacement and How is it Tied to the Buffalo Shooting Suspect.” May 16, National Public Radio.

Related Items

Biden Must Withdraw for a Viable Challenge to Trump

Biden Must Withdraw for a Viable Challenge to Trump

Originally posted July 5, 2024 New Politics by Frieda Afary If the current crisis within the Democratic Party does lead to Biden’s withdrawal from the race and a period of open debate and discussion to pick a viable presidential and vice-presidential team of...