Tree Octopuses, Hate Sites, Agatha Ann Cunningham: The “Oh, C’MON!” Menagerie of Information Literacy

Librarians aren’t in the business of books; we’re in the business of information. If that information is in a book, that’s cool. But if it’s not, we’re here to help you determine if it’s the kind of information you can trust. Last school year, for whatever reason, I was mostly doing class visits for elementary school aged students: lots of storytimes and tours and talks about what a library can offer. This year, I’m getting the older kids: mostly middle school and high school. Their teachers want  database and internet research demonstrations. During these demos, I’ve learned what many of you educators already know: HOLY SHIT. Students don’t know how to navigate the internet or conduct simple research. They are without a clue. It is terrifying.

I typically start by asking how they, the students, begin their research. Whether it’s a fancy charter/private school or a NYC public school, whether they’re honors students or not, they all seem to start on their phone. They type whatever into the search box (Google and were mentioned as search engines of preference) and…that’s it. That is it, my friends. That’s their process. Sometimes they’ll mention using Wikipedia. Sometimes not. They dig into the first couple of search engine results and call it a day. This is a sad state of affairs.

We’re often told that this generation of teens grew up with computers. They have some sort of innate, built-in expertise. This is crap.They need more instruction than we realize. Often, when I’m working at the reference desk, a teen will inform me that their computer is broken (Nope! Someone just turned off the monitor! Let me hit that button for you, kid). I have tried to teach more than one teen to cut and paste into a word document. I’ll find them navigating to the most (seemingly) random and bizarre sites for their homework. How did they get there? What are they even doing? Who taught them this is OK?

I use two main sites to talk about information literacy: the Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site (which is a hoax-site) and the Martin Luther site (which I won’t link to, because it’s a repulsive hate-site. Click at your own risk).


When presenting the tree octopus site, I talk about it as if it’s a real endangered species. I click around the page, showing them pictures (like the one above), talking about how their natural predators are sasquatches, and point to other elements that should set off some red lights. I’m DYING for a student to say to me, “You’re full of shit. This is fake. That’s a stuffed animal shoved into a pine tree and sasquatches aren’t real.” No one ever does. I’ve even tricked some teachers. After I admit that it’s a hoax site, we explore the elements that point to the site’s lack of credibility. If the teens are old enough, I’ll briefly show them the  MLK, JR. .org hate-site as an example of potentially harmful sites out there. The MLK site is particularly troubling, as it typically shows up in Google’s top 7 or so hits for Martin Luther King. Also, the .org component of the website can lend an illusion of credibility to what’s actually a bunch of white supremacist nonsense.

I compare the internet to the streets of NYC. It’s a public place, and everyone is allowed to congregate there and say whatever they want, without filter. Sure, you’ll run into a bunch of pretty smart characters, but you’ll also meet the town crazies. You can’t believe everyone you meet on the street. You need to choose your company wisely, because not everyone on the internet can be trusted.

Which brings me to Agatha. Remember Agatha? I’ve been talking a lot about Agatha. I hope you’ve figured out by now that Agatha Ann Cunningham, the ghost of Brooklyn Public Library, is fake. Yup, our teen interns Roger and Peter made this awesome mockumentary about a little girl who disappeared in my library and was never seen again. The video has tricked a lot of people, but it’s true. Agatha Cunningham never existed.

During our viewing of the Agatha movie this past Halloween, I waited nervously, for a student to “out” Agatha as a hoax. We even had a panel of Agatha “experts” (Ivy, Howard, Rich, and Deloris from the movie) answering questions from the teens. We hoped this would open up a dialogue about the validity of the story. Not a single teen expressed disbelief or questioned our story. My coworker Leigh and I were open to outing the Agatha story as a fake if the teens simply showed signs of skepticism. They did not. In fact, an adult in the audience suggested that we hire an exorcist.

An incident that makes this entire Agatha debacle more discouraging involves a discussion Leigh had with a local journalist. We were under the assumption that the journalist was going to write up something like “Come to the library and see a scary movie” as a plug for our program. Instead, she was about to write an article about Agatha as if she were a real person. Here’s the thing about Agatha: that picture is actually that of our former coworker. Information about Agatha Ann Cunningham can’t be found outside of our library’s website, the Youtube link, a Facebook page that we made, and a couple of hits on my own blog. Agatha can’t be found in the Center for Missing and Exploited Children or in the New York Times or any local Brooklyn paper. So why would this journalist think Agatha was real?

If adults who call themselves journalists can’t navigate the world of information literacy, how can we expect teens to? The journalist based her assumptions about Agatha based on interviews with two of our librarians (both of whom were playing along with the ghost story because they were kind of confused by the journalist’s line of questioning) and not much else. She didn’t even see the 13 minute video, which is just poor research on her behalf. The journalist finally asked Leigh if the ghost story was real. Leigh said no.

Instead of thanking Leigh for preventing her from writing a pretty embarrassing article, the journalist proceeded to write up a nasty little essay in which she called us “lie-brarians” and “book-minders” responsible for “perpetrating an elaborate hoax”. Nice, no? She patted herself on the back for “debunking” the Agatha story. Though, is it really a debunking if the librarian flat-out tells you that it’s fake? Crackerjack journalism here, folks. I won’t link to her article because I’m not giving her any more hits for blowing up our spot and almost derailing our entire event.

I’d like to congratulate our teens, Roger and Peter, for making such an awesome video that had most of Brooklyn (and a journalist, too!) totally duped. Other than being proud of our former interns, I’m feeling pretty glum about the state of teens, information literacy skills, and research. Until they can confidently single out tree octopuses and little girl ghosts as fakes, librarians have a long, long way to go.

~Love and Libraries, Ingrid

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P.S. Shout out to this guy on the Youtube page for Agatha. Nobody listened to you. Nobody cared. I see you, guy. I appreciate you:

Such language!
Such language!

9 thoughts on “Tree Octopuses, Hate Sites, Agatha Ann Cunningham: The “Oh, C’MON!” Menagerie of Information Literacy

  1. This reminds me of one of my favourite sites – the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division:

    It’s highly detailed and entirely factually accurate (as far as I can tell). It’s also a hilarious and very clever lesson in reading between the lines and making your own mind up based on proper research.

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