By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Chinese American Di Zhang, 29, is one of the very few Asian American male librarians in the country. And he works at Seattle Central Library (SPL). Part of his job is teaching a class to help people differentiate fake news from real news.
During his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington (UW), he was interested in architecture at first, but eventually found a love for philosophy.
He didn’t want to be in academia and enjoyed the part-time library work, and decided to explore that route.
Zhang has been working at SPL since 2008. He started as a student assistant and moved his way up to Adult Services Librarian, which is his title today. Along the way, he also received a Master of Library and Information Science from the UW.
It hadn’t been a smooth path leading up to his current position. Zhang failed his initial qualifying interview to become a librarian.
“I was underprepared and mentally didn’t see myself in the same league as the librarians I was working with yet. That set me back and I really had to work on owning the role,” he admitted.
After better preparing for the interviews, Zhang was able to pass several months later.
According to the 2016 Census Bureau reports, approximately 18 percent of librarians in the United States were male. Only 5 percent of total librarians were Asian, compared to 6 percent Black and 85 percent white.
Zhang said he is a natural introvert — he despises public speaking and being in front of the camera.
“I’ve always tried to make it a point to get out of my comfort zone and to work on my weaknesses. Being a librarian has given me so many opportunities to do this and it has made me a stronger person,” he said.
Informing the public
As a librarian, one of Zhang’s main missions is to help educate and inform the public, to help them evaluate information so that it’s accurate and relevant for their needs.
When fake news became a buzzword after the 2016 election, Zhang said that the library saw an uptick of people coming in to inquire and fact check.
There was an opportunity to create a class around spotting fake news. Zhang was a temp in his current department at the time. It was a project that his manager assigned him to create a curriculum to address the need — hence the birth of the fake news survival guide class.
Teaching the class is only a small part of his day job as a librarian. Zhang also manages the reference and physical collection for the business and health and medicine topics, which is his subject area. He also answers patrons’ questions in-person and online.
The class launched in April 2017 and are held once or twice a quarter, up to eight times a year at the Seattle Central Library location.
The free, first come, first served classes are held in the Central Library’s large computer lab that seats 25.
Zhang said that he has adapted the class for an iPad version, as well as a presentation for different community groups. He’s also presented at library and journalism conferences.
One of the first groups that he met with was an executive peer group, a group of company executives that meets monthly.
The executives were specifically interested in how they can protect themselves from online slander or negative press. Zhang worked with Andra Addison, SPL’s communications director, to provide them with tips to put out fires and distinguish their reality from fake news.
A small part of Zhang’s curriculum also addresses net neutrality.
Zhang constantly hones his curriculum based on audience feedback and interests. This gives him an opportunity to do more research and learn more as well. For example, Zhang added how to do a reverse image search to his course due to multiple requests.
“I want to make sure they’re getting the information that they need. It’s a topic that’s so large, so I want to make it relevant to what they came for,” he said.
Tips and tricks to spotting fake news
“You want to check multiple publications, basically find support from more than one source. I always talk about finding multiple sources that say the same thing to confirm,” he said.
While the most commonly shared top fake news stories are political and partisan in nature, Zhang makes it clear that the class is non-partisan and aimed at better navigating information.
Zhang advises people to read beyond the headline — studies have found that 60 percent of links get shared on social media without even being read.
“People are sharing based on emotion or agreeing with the headline instead of consuming the information critically, so I always say, take a step back, take time to evaluate what you’re sharing before you share,” he said.
After that, people should check the news source, author, and support to make sure it doesn’t raise any red flags.
In his class, they go over red flags and other things to look for, as well as completing exercises to go over the skills.
Zhang also advises people to look up fake news sites on the internet archives instead of going directly to the URL. This avoids adding a click and financially supporting those websites through ad revenue.
Where to find reliable news
“If I’m going to turn anywhere first, I’ll turn to my local news,” he said.
Zhang is a big supporter of outlets like The Seattle Times because they’re the ones connected to and accountable to the community.
In addition, if a publication has won a Pulitzer Prize, to Zhang, it’s more reliable.
He also visits realclearpolitics.com for balanced political news — the site contains a human-curated list of articles that is updated twice daily.
“At the heart of it, I love helping people. Connecting them to the piece of information that’ll make a difference to them or applying for a job, teaching them a skill to evaluate information, getting them reliable health information, or helping them navigate information systems to get their needs met,” he said.
For more information, visit spl.org.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.