“Books are less trustworthy in an era when anyone can publish electronically or on paper. What’s more, even major publishing houses can skimp on fact-checking — one more reason why we need librarians to help smarten up digital-era readers.” This they tell us at the Library Endowment website.

Well I can see how you might want to make this argument in favor of ensuring universal access to libraries and expert librarians. If we can’t trust what we hear or read, then obviously being able to have access to reliable sources of information becomes even more important.

However have books really become less trustworthy in our digital age? Worriers about Wikipedia wonder about its accuracy — though it’s so easy to correct that I suspect any inaccuracies must be short-lived. We know there’s lots of wrong info on the web, but there’s almost always a correct version lurking at the next search result. Google is daily giving us an education on critical intelligence and error detection. And of course plenty of old books contain plenty of wrong information. For example Richard Hakluyt writes in his The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589) about “people without heads, called Blemines, having their eyes and mouth in their breast”. We do not believe him, I think, though Sir Walter Raleigh confirms the “fact”, which dates back at least to Herodotus.

The suggestion that publishers “can skimp on fact-checking” is strangely enough another example of a false belief based on print communication. In fact publishers don’t employ fact checkers at all (well, except for the rarest of occasions, when they may hire a freelancer to check things on a special project)— only The New Yorker does regular fact-checking. If a book contains potentially dangerous information the publishers will (one hopes) print a disclaimer in the front pointing out that they don’t really know what’ll happen if you follow the advice in their book. But they will not regard it as their obligation to check that all’s well. The correctness of the facts in a book is the responsibility of the author — and the author’s contract will contain an indemnity clause holding the publisher free and blameless in this regard. The publisher might in a particularly risky instance hire an outside expert to read the manuscript, but there might well be a subsequent effort to bill this cost to the author.

In a world, however, where only a sixth of the books published in any year is published by traditional publishers, the claim advanced by Library Endowment comes across as a bit of a slur on self-published books. Obviously self-published books are not subjected to the gatekeeping function which traditional publishing is often criticized for applying. If you make the assumption that traditional publishers are guaranteeing the accuracy of their books, then this might look like a bit of a red flag. However, when you accept that the “fact checkers” employed by traditional publishers are exactly the same individuals as the fact checkers employed by indie publishers — i.e. the authors themselves — then the distinction melts away. In fact the rate of error in books is probably pretty much the same today as it was a hundred years ago. It may be a little bit better than it was two or three hundred years ago. It’s almost certainly better than it was five or more centuries ago. This might be thought of as an embarrassment for book publishing, but I guess it’s not a big enough one for the industry to feel it has to do anything about it. As ever, caveat emptor.


* The Pajama Game, for anyone who cares.

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