Category Archives: Library

Right in the Feels: Fiction and Empathy

by Jessica Jones

Something really interesting happens when we read fiction. Our brains take the words and turn them into imagery, characters, and feelings for which we suspend disbelief to appreciate. Even though fictional stories aren’t literally true, they give us a lot of intangible things, like entertainment, stress reduction, and empathy.

I don’t think that anyone who reads fiction would be surprised to learn that doing so encourages empathy, but science actually backs us up on this point. There has been a lot of research on this topic in the last decade especially, and it has been interesting to watch coverage evolve as the conversation continues. This is a very abbreviated summary of the conversation that, I think, is useful from an information literacy perspective.

For more about information literacy, check out the January and February 2022 issues of the City’s newsletter! In the meantime, a quick version:

Information literacy is a skill that is developed and utilized to evaluate the reliability of information. It involves using critical thinking to consider the context of information to make judgments about where and how that information may be applied. The ability to discern reliable information from “fake news,” and the veritable avalanche of uninformed and under-informed opinions we encounter, is crucial to safely navigating our world.

How do empathy and fiction fit into this definition? I believe they live in the “context” component.

Research shows a general consensus that there is a correlation between consumption of fiction and empathetic traits. John Best cites this consensus and notes in his 2020 North American Journal of Psychology article “Reading Literary Fiction: More Empathy, but at What Possible Cost?” that, “readers of fiction outperform nonreaders of fiction on empathy tasks.” This happens because when we read fiction, we, “use imagination and other cognitive processes to visualize and simulate social processes occurring among the fictional characters,” i.e., we take in the words and translate it through our lived experiences and observations into a mental picture with which we interact.

To my mind, validation and empathy are two sides of the same coin with fiction. When we see ourselves, it can be validating. When we see others in fiction — other cultures, ethnicities, religions, politics, disabilities, sexual orientations, genders, socioeconomic classes — in this setting where we are already mentally worldbuilding and imagining, we can expand our worldview, and we can empathize.

Granted, we bring our own biases wherever we go, and fiction is no exception. People can reach vastly different conclusions with the same text. I’m pretty sure that’s a big component of literary criticism as a field. But fiction can be a tool to get us outside of ourselves, if
we’re willing to go there. And, therein lies both the opportunity and the potential hazard.

In her 2009 TEDtalk, Chimamanda Adichie warns of the dangers of a single story, or expecting one narrative to speak for entire demographics. As wonderful as their stories may be, we can’t count on Adichie to speak for all women, Black people, or Africans; Isaac Bashevis Singer for all men, Jews, or immigrants; or, Joshua Whitehead for all two spirit peoples or Peguis Nation members, much less all Indigenous peoples.

Fiction can be a tool to help us understand, but there is no
single fictional title that is expansive enough to overcome every reader’s biases. To further illustrate, in Ann Jurecic’s 2011 article “Empathy and the Critic,” she states that, “one may read a novel that portrays the trauma caused by systematic urban violence in an American city and imagine that one understands the experience, but such identification can prevent one from recognizing one’s own complicity with the social and political structures that engender this violence.”

In other words, reading fiction will never be a substitute for understanding ourselves and the systems in which we operate.

The other unintended consequence of empathizing with fiction is that an author who understands how to elicit empathy from readers can also use it to advance their own agendas. They may not even identify their fiction as fiction. We see this happening everyday on social media, for example. How many of us know someone who was pulled into the toxic climate of disinformation that Facebook seems unable to correct? “Fake news” is just “News” when it’s taken at face value.

This article began as a piece about why reading fiction is good for us as a society, and I still believe that, overall, it is good for us. That said, I think it’s also important to interrogate why someone may want to elicit emotions from us as a sound information literacy practice.

Maybe we can file this under the “Nothing Is Ever Simple” heading, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I believe we need to leave room for things to be complicated, because how will we ever begin to understand the people who think differently than we do, if we can’t put ourselves in their shoes? How can we imagine a better world for everyone without the understanding that our current systems affect everyone differently?

For recommendations on your next fiction read, please visit or contact the Library, and we will be happy to help you find something.

The works consulted for this article are available to any interested parties; please email for a bibliography and source attachments.

This article was featured in the June 2023 Newsletter. Visit the Takoma Park Newsletter webpage to see the full list of past newsletters.

Hot Topic: Censorship and Libraries

Content warning: Discussion of potentially sensitive topics with reference to those in the LGBTQIA2S+ spectrum.

With the public dialogue in a frenzy about book banning in libraries right now, I wanted to talk about how libraries experience and interact with censorship.

You may have seen recently that the Missouri State House
voted in April to advance a FY24 budget that defunds their public libraries. You may have also seen the photos coming out of Florida
of empty school bookshelves in the wake of their governor signing HB 1467. A library director in Llano County, Texas, was fired last year for refusing to remove challenged books.

Closer to home, the Proud Boys protested a Drag Queen Story Hour event at Loyalty Bookstores in Silver Spring this past February.

I am, unfortunately, no stranger to this topic; I fielded many book challenges in Texas. This is a personal topic for me, so if the tone reads as more emotionally charged than usual, that’s because it is. There is a time and a place for emotional distance, but this article isn’t it. I want people who have the ability to advocate for libraries to understand what is at stake for everyone involved.

I can think of at least six different titles that were challenged when I was working in Texas; all of them were under the LGBTQIA2S+ umbrella, many were challenged multiple times, and all of them were intended for young audiences. There was And Tango Makes Three about the male penguin couple who adopt an egg and raise the chick together; it was returned defaced on multiple occasions. Heather Has Two Mommies inspired a boycott of our library by a local church-affiliated group, which resulted in some of the most hateful emails I have ever received.

The toughest challenge I fielded, however, was for a book called My Two Dads, which was part of a series that was all shelved together about different family situations that children may experience, like having a parent in the military or having divorced parents or living with grandparents. My Two Dads triggered a patron’s nerve in a major way.

Some quick background: I spent a year working in crisis intervention with AmeriCorps while I was deciding if I wanted to go to graduate school to become a social worker. Ultimately, I chose information science, but the year with AmeriCorps taught me a lot about de-escalating people in crisis and empathizing with them. These have been the two most useful skills I have honed when fielding difficult situations anywhere, and they are crucial to working towards positive outcomes with book challenges.

The patron who objected to My Two Dads very quickly went from
asking me how to take this book off the shelves, to yelling and crying in the middle of the reading room, when I said that we would retain the book in the interests of the LGBTQIA2S+ families who need to be represented in the library’s collection, just like her own family is. When someone reacts that disproportionately, it is almost always something more deeply rooted than the issue at hand. I talked to her long enough to find out that she had recently disowned her 16-year-old gay son and kicked him out of their family home.

Knowing that the odds are stacked against gay homeless teens, I found it extremely difficult to access empathy. I had to disengage from my emotional state to get through the rest of the interaction. The book remained in the collection, and I found another book for her to take home to the children she hadn’t disowned. On the surface, this was a positive outcome for the library—the patron calmed down, and we kept the book in our collection—but it spoke volumes about the state of our community. I went back to my office and cried.

When we talk about book banning and censorship, the objectors tend to suck all the air out of the room, but in reality, they are the ones least affected by their actions. Remember the youth who see their burgeoning identities under attack, the families who lose representation in publicly funded collections, and the teachers and library staff who go to bat for our marginalized communities every day—sometimes under the threat of firing or legal action.

Youth, their families, and the library and school workers who
provide services to them need advocates in their communities.  I do believe that for every person who demands removal of a title that makes them personally uncomfortable, there are far more people who can see the value in that contested title. We need disengaged bystanders to channel the bravery of library workers who promote diverse books and programs, the teachers who refuse to compromise their inclusive values, and the kids speaking out at school board meetings.

I want these experiences to be something you think about before we get to Pride Month in June, because Pride should be a celebration! Pride is joyful, but we do a disservice to our LGBTQIA2S+  neighbors when we don’t acknowledge the oppression many people in this spectrum experience when the outspoken opponents to their identity (ugh, merely typing that phrase is painful) politicize and target them to create “us versus them” situations, manipulate their environment to minimize their own discomfort, and appeal to our worst instincts.

I could not function in this world if I didn’t believe that there is more love in it than there is hate, but sometimes, in uncontested silence, it can feel like indifference outnumbers them both. I am not so naïve as to think that this library is immune from actions taken by emboldened bullies to retain “safe spaces” for themselves while condemning the term as it is used sincerely by marginalized peoples who do not feel safe in public spaces. I hope that, if the time comes to defend our own values of diversity and inclusion, that our allies will be louder than our challengers.

This article was featured in the May 2023 Newsletter. Visit the Takoma Park Newsletter webpage to see the full list of past newsletters.

COVID-19 rapid test kits and N95 masks available now!


The Takoma Park Maryland Library has COVID-19 test kits and N95 masks available for pickup during regular library hours.


Takoma Park Maryland Library
101 Philadelphia Avenue
Takoma Park, MD 20912


Monday – Thursday: 10:00 am – 8:00 pm
Friday – Sunday: 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm

How to use your rapid test kit

Rapid tests produce results 15 minutes after you complete all steps.

  1. Read the instructions before beginning.
  2. Follow the steps to complete your test.
  3. Self-report your results.
About our N95 masks

We offer adult-size ZYB-11 masks (a brand of N95 masks). We do not have child-size masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated mask guidance to emphasize protection against COVID-19 spread. N95, KN95, and KF94 respirators, or masks, provide higher levels of protection against COVID-19.


Order free rapid tests for at-home delivery from the US government.


Please note: Staff wore gloves while handling masks and test kits.

Information Literacy: A Special Report from the Takoma Park Maryland Library, Part Two


By Jill Raymond and Anne LeVeque

Last month we talked about the various forms of mis- and dis-information (Part One). Now we’re going to talk about how we sort out the vast amount of information we are exposed to every day. Two central skills are required for discerning credible from non-credible information: first is the ability to set aside our emotions and desires and use our capacity for reason, accepting facts even when we don’t like them; second are the tools to recognize trustworthy information.

So, how do we know what is trustworthy? Is a source that is trustworthy always right, every time? Actually, no. A trustworthy source can be in error, resulting from lack of clarity, insufficient data, or honest misinterpretation of data. Dr. Anthony Fauci, and others, asked that people not wear masks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, thinking it would cause a shortage and medical personnel would not have enough; there were shortages of protective materials in the beginning, but as the science of the virus came into better focus, it was clear that mask-wearing offered great protection for the public; many people began making masks to help mitigate the shortage, and production ramped up. The knowledge around this issue continues to evolve.

Science builds its knowledge base on information gleaned from multiple failed experiments. The details of these experiments are critiqued by other experts in the same field, which is why we say that trustworthiness comes from facts as society currently has the tools to discern them. The tools of discernment examine factors like intent, expertise, and transparency regarding data, methods, connection to monied interests, etc.


Disinformation involves malicious intent. Disinformation is false information promoted to achieve a particular end goal that benefits the perpetrator, either financially, socially, politically, or militarily. Disinformation is usually (but not always) a professional product. Like actors on a stage or sophisticated advertising techniques, it is packaged to deceive and look like “the real thing.” One recent example is the well-documented effort by the Russian government to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Disinformation morphs as the public conversation shifts over time and as true and factual information becomes available to more people. For example, those who publicly deny climate change and the science behind it began to call themselves (and get the media to refer to them as) climate skeptics, which sounds much more thoughtful, often naming themselves something that sounds quite public-service-minded, like “Institute for Energy Research.” They try to discredit climate science by casting doubt on the evidence. However, their “experts” are often tied to the fossil fuels industry or far-right-wing organizations with political agendas tied to climate denial. A famous tobacco industry document from the 1960s said, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.


Do your own research: Google and Wikipedia. One problem in discerning information is semantic: The word research is used for many different levels of inquiry from scientific research into diseases to looking up the definition of a word with which we’re unfamiliar. Using Google is fine for a general inquiry and frequently takes you to a Wikipedia page as part of its results. Wikipedia is a user-edited encyclopedia and thus is subject to problems of bias. It does its best to address these issues, but it’s not perfect. Wikipedia is a good starting place. The example given at the beginning of this article, Critical Race Theory, was adequately addressed by looking at Wikipedia. The article ,was clearly scholarly and had many sources and footnotes. Those sources and footnotes are a good indicator of the reliability of an article.

When a scholar is beginning a research project, they will go further than Wikipedia, of course. They will begin by searching academic databases for their topic, reading those articles, and further researching the footnotes and references given by those articles. This way, researchers can be sure they are not either covering well-worn ground or furthering incorrect information. This type of research is best aided by a research librarian who is familiar with the literature in any given field of study.

Another use of the word research is scientists’ clinical trials and laboratory experiments. This kind of research is based on the foundations laid by prior research and the preliminary research done by searching databases. When the results of this kind of research are submitted for publication, the study undergoes peer review, where other researchers in the same or a similar area review it and recommend (or not) the research for publication.

When we research a topic, we want to see what Google or Wikipedia says for most of us. However, if we want verified, reliable information, we should go to such resources as Encyclopedia Britannica, Oxford Reference resources, and others, all of which are available through the library’s website. Your tax dollars have paid for access to these resources.

There are other valuable resources online for checking facts and quelling rumors. One of the best is, which began as a fact-checker of urban legends but has expanded into a trusted source of information. Another is, which as its name implies, verifies political information, including statements made by politicians or pundits. It is sponsored by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists.


Speaking of doubt. This brings us to two important caveats as we think about how to navigate the oceans of mis- and dis-information on the internet and in our conversations.

  1. Cynicism and nihilism are the byproducts of a chaotic and unreliable information environment. To throw one’s hands up and surrender, to find oneself saying “they all lie” or “they all cheat and steal” is as damaging to our info-ecosystem as spouting the tenets of the newest cult. To be critical is not the same as adopting a posture of manufactured cynicism. Criticism shines light, and it does not promote hopelessness, which is the real goal of many purveyors of disinformation. Cynicism and hopelessness do not work to make things better.
  2. Critical thinking does not exclude marginalized or minority voices. The insights from racial, ethnic, and gender minorities have been excluded, deliberately and otherwise, from much of public discourse.

Our tools of discernment and fact-checking must become habits of thought, like looking both ways before crossing a street. The good news is that the more people there are being careful with information, the easier the job becomes because we share reliable and credible sources.


Library Director Jessica Jones contributed to this article.


A note to readers: The authors posted references, footnotes, and some expanded content on the library website, including links to reliable sources of information along with some amusing illustrations and memes. Go to for more information.


This article was featured in the February 2022 Newsletter. Visit the Takoma Park Newsletter webpage to see full list of past newsletters.

Information Literacy: A Special Report from the Takoma Park Maryland Library, Part One


By Anne LeVeque and Jill Raymond

Not long ago, a library patron asked for help in finding information about Critical Race Theory (CRT). The patron had searched online using Google and said that all the results, “were negative.” We helped the patron find unbiased information about CRT, including a clear definition of it. There is a huge amount of misinformation and disinformation about CRT being bandied about in the public square, not just on social media but in school board meetings, state legislatures, and the courts. Many of these debates are heated and have led to death threats against school board members.

The consequences of poor information literacy can be dire. In the age of COVID, people have literally died because they believed incorrect information about the disease, how to prevent spreading it, how to treat it, and, of course, vaccinations that prevent it. Not only that, but the misinformation around COVID has led to significant financial losses in our economy. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security published a report in October 2021 estimating that the cost of COVID vaccine misinformation and disinformation is between $50 and $300 million dollars per day since May 2021, and that is just in the United States. Global figures are much higher. At press time, the omicron variant has just emerged, and we may see this figure increase significantly.

First, let’s start with some definitions: What is misinformation, what is disinformation, and what is the difference? The meanings are very close. Both terms refer to false information. Misinformation refers to false information, such as false rumors, misunderstanding of information, and misleading use of facts. Disinformation is like misinformation; false information is used deliberately and in an organized fashion. The term has its origins in the Cold War era and originally referred to a type of propaganda, particularly government-sponsored propaganda. The word “disinformation” has come to mean any organized campaign of false information, whether government-sponsored or not. Think of it as the deliberate intent to convey an untruth or to persuade people of an untruth for the purpose of achieving some goal of the perpetrator.

Information literacy is the ability to distinguish reliable information from mis-and-disinformation. The term arose in the 1980s in the context of libraries and refers to the ability to evaluate information critically to determine its authenticity, veracity, and purpose. In this article, we hope to convey information about some of the tools available to help you do that.

Types and Sources of Misinformation

We all pass around misinformation. We all like to be “in the know.” Sometimes an otherwise reliable source we trust has made an error, and we have passed that on in casual conversation or on social media.

One source of misinformation is our own memory. Professional investigators know that the memories of eyewitnesses to crimes or other events are notoriously unreliable, some have even tweaked their interviewing techniques appropriately.

Are there things you would like to be true, but you suspect probably are not, like horoscopes? Are you ever in arguments with friends about a scandal involving a sports figure or celebrity? You may not want to think this person guilty of serious moral failings, but the credible evidence suggests that maybe they are.

Psychologists know that people too often believe what they want to think is true for emotional reasons. This is called “confirmation bias.” People often want to believe something just because they think large numbers of other people think it’s true. This can bring about something called the Mandela Effect in which large numbers of people believe that something happened (the death of Nelson Mandela in prison in the 1980s, when in fact he died in 2013 after serving as president of South Africa) that didn’t occur.

Another source of misinformation is “spin.” Spin is the manipulation of information for a particular purpose. It is not necessarily inaccurate, but it is info that is packaged in such a way as to achieve a specific reaction in listeners/readers. Relevant details may be left out deliberately or irrelevant ones disproportionately emphasized. The best example of this is television commercials. All of us boast, exaggerate, or try to “spin” the facts if, for instance, we are embarrassed about something. But for serious and reliable information based on facts as society currently has the tools to discern them, casual assertions cannot be taken at face value.

An extreme sort of spin is clickbait. Clickbait is not necessarily incorrect, but it is designed to tempt. It screams something phrased to enrage, terrify, offend, or otherwise make people put down what they’re doing and look at something they would otherwise ignore. Whenever this is the case, we must look at what interest is being served here. Most clickbait articles are on sites that are paid “per click,” so there is a financial interest in getting people to read these lurid articles.

Satire is such an enormous source of misinformation that some social media platforms have required it to be tagged as such. A well-written satire is not always discernible as comedy. Three centuries ago, Johnathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” which suggests that the poor in Ireland could survive by eating their children. Scholars debate Swift’s precise target, but it certainly served to excoriate British policy towards the Irish.

Today, Alexandra Petri writes columns for the Washington Post with headlines like, “Big Bird is a Communist.” But as things get passed around on the internet, often without identifying source details, some people mistake satire for sincere argument and may be inclined to join up with a movement that isn’t real. Is Big Bird a communist? Another example is in the 1990s, the satirical news website The Onion ran a joke article saying that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, was encouraging children to worship Satan. This article was spread among people who believed it to be a real news article and evidence that the Harry Potter books were Satanic. Those who spread the article, presenting it as real, whether they knew it was satire, have spread misinformation.

The founders of America knew that a mass of people could be manipulated into an angry mob capable of violent behavior none of the individuals would separately, having thought about it, engage in. What they feared is really a combination of disinformation—on the part of the perpetrator, who has something to gain—and misinformation being passed along among members of a crowd that is emotionally primed to believe what the perpetrator is telling them. And that’s why the founders knew the framework of checks and balances they devised was not by itself sufficient for protecting democratic governance. An educated and knowledgeable populace was necessary. Inscribed on the Library of Congress building named for him is James Madison’s warning: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governours must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Library Director Jessica Jones contributed to this article. Next month’s article (Part Two) will discuss how to tell reliable information from misinformation.


This article was featured in the January 2022 Newsletter. Visit the Takoma Park Newsletter webpage to see full list of past newsletters.

Library’s Books-To-Go Service Begins Monday, July 6th


Here’s how curbside service will work:

To check out books, all books on your library card first must be returned! Once you return your books in the book-drop, they are quarantined for four days, so they will still appear on your account for a few days after you’ve brought them back.

Before requesting books, please check our catalog  to see if we have the book, and if it is available. This saves us time, and allows us to serve more patrons.

Requests will be taken by email (strongly preferred), and by phone.

The email for book requests is:
To request kids/teen books, call: 301-580-0085
To request adult books, call: 240-507-0229

  • Phone requests will be taken Mondays and Wednesdays, 10-12 and 4-6, and Saturdays, 10-12.
  • Please provide your birthday, in either your email or phone request,  so we can call up your account, and also to ensure you get the books you ordered.
  • Patrons are limited to 5 books per order.

Picking up your books

  • Once your requested books are ready. we’ll give you a pick-up window.  Mondays and Wednesdays, 12-2 and 6-8, and Saturdays, 12-3.
  • Call 301-580-0085 when you get to the Library during your assigned window. We’ll bring out your books and leave them on a table for you to pick up.