Yesterday I was scrolling through some shared items in Google Reader when I stumbled on a post from BoingBoing about the Salvation Army requiring proof of US citizenship before they gave children gifts. I tend to get a little irate about anti-immigrant policies, and so, casting aside all my good librarian skills, I immediately forwarded the piece — without even reading it fully — on to my mother and my friend.
Now as it so happens, yesterday my mother and my friend both beat me at the information literacy game. My mother clicked through to the actual post and saw the update from Cory Doctorow, wherein a Salvation Army PR person explains that they don’t require proof of immigration status; they just ask for things like birth certificates and Social Security numbers to make sure that people aren’t double-dipping. My friend, who is a Lutheran pastor, clicked through and saw the update and wrote to me a little more about her own experiences with the practice:
when I provide Salvation Army services I’m required to take their social security number. It’s one of the hardest parts of my job with them. People, as you might understand, get really upset saying that just because they are poor etc, they shouldn’t have to give their ss number to me. However, as it is is a unique number to each individual it’s a very convenient number for the Army to use.
As a national charity that is more reputable than the Red Cross they need to be able to track the needs of the people. One such example might be an influx of foot traffic from the South to the North as people seek jobs, or an increase in women and children seeking emergency housing due to abuse as unemployment rises. That said, there are ways around all of these stipulations and the article doesn’t do the Army justice about this. I have a woman right now who isn’t able to provide a social security number for her son because the card is with his father, but I’m still going to fill out a voucher for him to get a new winter coat, and some clothes due to their emergency relocation.
If you read through the comment thread on the original post, you see a little of the same thing happening. There are a lot of knee-jerk reactions like mine to start out with. Then there are some people who come in with defenses and explanations. Then there are counter examples, some with citations. And of course there are some more snarky comments (I mean, it is BoingBoing, after all). But the end result of reading through all of these things is, I think, that one feels more confused than convinced — and I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That confusion forces you to think about things like poverty and homelessness and charity in a practical way. It’s easy enough to say, “no one should be homeless.” It’s much harder when you have to run an actual shelter, and then suddenly you have a fire marshal to deal with, and zoning regulations, and the needs of a variety of people to keep in mind, and suddenly you do have to institute rules and turn some people away, and that’s terrible, but it’s also reality. If you have too many people in your shelter, the fire marshal will shut you down and you won’t be able to provide shelter to anyone. Librarians reading this blog are, I suspect, all too aware of the difficulties.
But I’m getting away from my topic. This morning I was reminded of this whole little saga by a couple of threads in the LSW Room on FriendFeed which further the eternal question of how we teach people to interrogate information, to ask whether it is credible or useful or even accurate. And the answer, it seems to me, is always that it is much more complicated than you think.
The ability to judge information depends on a lot of things. It depends on avoiding knee-jerk responses, and it depends on having a set of criteria you can use, and it even depends on having some previous knowledge. I can’t teach all of that to a class of fifth graders in a one-shot session. I doubt you can teach all that to a class of college students over the course of a semester. Oh, you can help them find criteria, and you can help them gain a bit more of a knowledge base, and you can probably help them get better at this whole information literacy game. But as with many things, the only way you actually get better at this game is by playing it and playing a lot of it. I, for one, have a good deal left to learn.