I’ll never forget when Steve Thomas (yes, THE Steve Thomas) offered me a chance to host an episode of Circulating Ideas about Critical Librarianship. Now, we’d swapped a few IMs and I’d been vaguely hoping I might get a chance to appear on his show in a few months once I got my own podcast up and running. I had drawn on critical theories of information literacy in my dissertation work (as well in a chapter of a book on Critical Information Literacy just out from Facet Publications), so Steve thought I might be a good fit to host the segment. I was also going to get a chance to chat with Jacob Berg, someone from the #critlib twitter community who I’d admired from afar (and who turned out to be a very nice guy to boot!) So most of this was quite thrilling. However, Steve shared with me that I also got the chance to guest host because he felt like he didn’t know enough about critical librarianship to put together an engaging and useful interview. And you know what? That troubled me a little, because it spoke to a bigger trend in librarianship writ large around how the profession has been navigating what particularly overeducated folks like me would call our “critical turn”.
During my PhD coursework, I’d noticed that once you looked beyond the relatively small world of the #critlib hashtag and other communities of progressive librarians, many librarians and library leaders felt like they didn’t “get” critical librarianship. It usually wasn’t that they were hostile to the movement or anything, but rather that they were confused by the jargon and unsure of how to implement theories of critical librarianship in their library. That’s a problem. You see, critical librarianship is not all that complex. More to the point for this website, I believe that a leader who creates an environment where critical practices can flourish will do a better job of building and sustaining a library that is of service to its community. Because at the end of the day, Critical Librarianship doesn’t have a thing to do with esoteric buzzwords or abstruse epistemological theories. Critical Librarianship, above all else, is about empathy.
What is Critical Librarianship?
The wonderful resource critlib.org defines critical librarianship as a movement of library workers dedicated to bringing social justice principles into our work in libraries. It grew out of the work of progressive educational theorists such as Paolo Freire, who noticed while working with students in his homeland of Brazil that education as traditionally conceived was little more than a “banking” process. Teachers, as the politically empowered holders and arbitrators of truth, deposit politically approved knowledge into purportedly empty students. Students grow in status within this system of education by accepting the truths offered by the teacher uncritically and quietly. Freire argued that students and teachers alike must reframe a pedagogical structure that promotes and sustains structures of social and political oppression. Teachers and students alike can break free of the cycle of oppression by engaging in a “problem-posing dialogue” where neither side was presumed to have a monopoly on The Truth—if such a thing even existed. instead, all parties are assumed to possess knowledge that can help others think through and resolve problems, thereby becoming liberated from intellectual (and eventually, according to Freire, political) oppression.
This optimistic and progressive approach to education and information eventually made its way to librarianship. In my Circulating Ideas conversation with Jake, we explored three areas in which critical theories such as Freire’s had influenced library theory and practice. First, and perhaps most well known, is Critical Information Literacy, a reframing of information literacy which attempts to bring the ideas of Freire and similar theorists into the classroom. Second is progressive cataloging, a problem-posing approach to controlled vocabulary and library classification pioneered by Sanford Berman, who along with his students identified and challenged hundreds of bigoted and discriminatory terms in the Library of Congress Subject headings. This movement has become surprisingly public in recent weeks with the controversy of the Library of Congress’s decision to retire the subject heading Illegal Aliens, and the congressional backlash this decision triggered. Third, and most practical for all librarians, is the movement among reference librarians to critique how we serve our less privileged patrons, particularly those such as homeless individuals or patrons with mental illness who have traditionally been discussed by the profession as “problems” rather than people. Jake and I got deeper into these issues in our episode and I strongly suggest you give it a listen. Once you’re done, I’ll share a story of some typical comp 2 students, and how these concepts of critical librarianship shaped their information seeking experiences—or didn’t.
Why Critical Librarianship matters
I have a simple rule about working pretty, trendy technologies and theories into my practice, which I developed in the heady days of what we now sheepishly call “Library 2.0.” To me, critical librarianship only matters to the degree it helps students better find information, engage with it, and transform it into knowledge they can use to transform themselves and their world for the better. Fortunately, I discovered during my dissertation research that Critical Librarianship clears that bar. I haven’t talked much about my dissertation here yet, because one of the profound things I learned during my PhD journey is that nobody cares about your research project, beyond a polite question or two. However, it’s actually relevant to today’s topic.
My dissertation was titled “On the other side of the Reference Desk”, because that was the perspective I was trying to get. Long story short, for a variety of reasons I simply wasn’t convinced that librarians’ opinions about information search mediation (i.e. who students asked for help with information seeking, why, and what happened in those encounters) were actually an accurate depiction of student experiences. I also suspected that these students’ information seeking experiences might interact in interesting ways with critical information literacy and the ACRL Framework (though my discussion of that side of my project is another story for another day). So I talked my way into the back of a few Comp 2 Classrooms while they were working on their final research papers or presentations, and started watching what they did while looking for information and refining their drafts. I also interviewed 8 students from those classes, and even had them draw pictures of their Information search processes. It was an experience I found fascinating, deeply humbling, and also oddly reassuring.
For those currently struggling with insomnia, my dissertation will be live online in a few weeks. I shelled out extra for open access (and the fact I had to do so is ANOTHER kettle of Problematic Fish), so I’ll be spamming the link all over social media in due course. For now, though, I can share an chapter I wrote on my preliminary findings and their implications for Critical Information Literacy for the book Critical Literacy for Information Professionals, edited by the delightful future podcast guest Sarah McNicol. It’s a pretty short chapter, but I’m going to share an excerpt the final section, because it’s also my argument for why critical information literacy (and other forms of critical librarianship) should matter to library leaders:
By starting with the stories of how students actually do engage with information seeking and search mediators, rather than with theories of how a critically conscious information seeker “should” go about these activities in order to become liberated, an interesting and more nuanced picture emerges. All four students are interested in attaining success, but success as they define it. Although each student values both a good grade and creative expression to varying degrees, none seems to follow either a simple neoliberal desire for economic success, nor a idealistic Freirean vision of cultural transformation. In a similar vein, these students each used mediation to learn both “the grammar of information” and the skills and mind-sets needed to create their own meanings out of the information they found.
In idiosyncratic ways, each student found a way to “create works written with the authority that flows from understanding information’s political, social, and economic dimensions” (Patterson, 2009, 358). The students in this study seemed to consult mediators not from a position of supplication, but from a keen understanding of their needs and shortcomings in the cognitive, emotional, and procedural aspects of information seeking. Although these students are still grappling with the basics of search mechanics and computer literacy, they all seemed to be highly capable of identifying who would have the skills or expertise required to help them. By attending to their stories and experiences of information seeking, our students may eventually teach us how to best guide them to a critically conscious mind-set that will empower both information seekers and the communities in which they live and work.
And that, dear readers, is why critical librarianship matters. The secret to remaining a relevant and transformative cultural resource in the information age is to serve our community as best we can, listen to how they really use the information and skills we provide, and to keep transforming ourselves to become more helpful to users and to the communities in which we all live.
How to incorporate Critical Librarianship into your library
First, thank you to the four of you still reading my manifesto! Second, now that I’ve explained what critical librarianship is in something resembling plain English, AND argued for why you should care about it, here’s where the rubber hits the road. For the most part, our libraries are not run like collaborative socialist utopias. Libraries do have power structures (laughably feeble though they may be at times), and generally feature a leader or leaders sitting atop those structures. I’m actually not sure that’s a bad thing. After all, we must ensure we have enough power and position within larger power structures to serve the world as it is, not the world as we would like it to be. However, the fact that libraries have leaders, and that we leaders are just as limited and flawed as everyone else on the planet, makes it all the more important that we attempt to create an environment where the least privileged among out staff and patrons can use our libraries as a space to transform themselves and our communities. Here’s some simple ways to get started.
First, Listen to your patrons. I could get into boring detail here, but it’s really simple. Hang out at the reference desks, take a lap around the stacks and study spaces, and lurk on social media. If you’re feeling really frisky, put together some surveys or focus groups. Don’t go in with an agenda, keep your mouth shut and try to understand how your patrons engage with the library, with information, and with the library world. Possible approaches to serve them more effectively will become clear. At the same time, spend some time Learning the basics of Critical Librarianship. A good start would be to read the following resources. All are short, and none are painful (except perhaps to a leader’s ego):
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paolo Freire
- Radical Cataloging: Essays from the Front, Edited by K.R. Roberto.
- Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice, by James Elmborg (THE article that launched Critical information literacy)
- Critical Literacy for Information Professionals, Edited by Sarah McNicol (Yes this is the book I’m featured in, but the other chapters are quite good)
- Most importantly, spend some time at critlib.org and reading the #critlib twitter hashtag. These conversations paint a picture of how librarians are experimenting with the ideas of critical librarianship in their practice.
Of course, none of the above arguments and resources matter much unless you lead with humility. Like any other leader on this planet, we are inherently flawed, don’t know it all, and will inevitably screw up in ways that hurt our library and our patrons. However, our best chance to minimize the damage we do is to acknowledge that we have screwed up, and will almost certainly do so in the future. That’s why I’m not one of those leadership writers who goes in for buzzwords and unthinkingly borrowing ideas from the business world. Now I’m no Marxist either–Library leaders could learn a thing or two from the business world, and I’m sure I’ll talk about those issues in due course. However, we are NOT businesses and pretending we are will lead to irrelevance and decline.
Libraries serve their patrons, not their profit margins, and if you disagree about that you’re in the wrong line of work (or at least the wrong leadership website). Libraries exist to help our patrons and communities transform themselves for the better. That is why critical librarianship is such an important framework to understand. If you cut through all the jargon, “critlib” comes down to listening to people, being empathetic, and working together to improve the world through information and conversations. If you’re unsure how to have those conversations, I’d invite you to scroll down a little bit and join my mini-course. I talk about having the kinds of hard conversations with superiors, team members, and patrons that lie at the heart of Critical Librarianship. And if you watch the course videos closely, you’ll notice that I refer to all of those people AS PEOPLE. Not problems. Because every person we engage with as librarians has something to teach us, if we only take the time to listen.
Manifesto done. See you next week…