Widening participation praxis and library leadership

Book cover of the edited collection 'Critical Librarianship', in the series Advances in Library Administration and Organization (ALAO). Edited by Samantha Hines and David Ketchum.

I recently had a book chapter published in the collection ‘Critical Librarianship’ in the series Advances in Library Administration and Organization (ALAO), edited by Samantha Hines and David Ketchum. My chapter is titled ‘Widening participation praxis and library leadership’ and is about the role of academic libraries in cultural recognition and misrecognitionā€”sometimes styled (mis)recognition or mis/recognition in the literatureā€”of students from what are termed widening participation (WP) backgrounds.

This post is a brief reflection on this writing, with some additional thoughts on developments since I submitted the first draft of the article in March 2019.

Obviously I am team ‘love praxis!’ all the way, and aiming to keep praxis ‘with an x’ alive in LIS scholarship in 2020.

In responding to the call for papers for ALAO, I wanted to address the editors’ suggested theme of social justice in library management and leadershipā€”interpreted specifically as it relates to widening access and participation in English higher education. In this area English universities have regulatory requirements in terms of improving access to courses, of attainment of students, and of progression of students into employment.

In the LIS literature there is relatively little attention paid to the role of libraries in WP as a political project which promotes social justice and social mobility; more common is librarianship’s contribution to liberal WP strategies which can elide or even exacerbate issues of social injustice. Working on the ground in academic librarianship, the feeling can be very much one of WP work being something that happens ‘elsewhere’, especially if there is a view that this work is concerned mainly or solely with access to courses and activities that support and promote this.

Liberal WP strategies represent a rational response to the metricisation of WP by government which regulates and funds the sector. However these approaches are also rooted in cultural difference and misrecognition within libraries as academic spaces, especially in comfortable acceptance of deficit models of WP students. The area of deficit models is one I’ve returned to over and again during and after writing this chapter. Writing the bulk of the chapter in early 2019, I had thought of myself as a ‘good Bourdieusian’. Based on my own experience of higher education and as an education worker attemping to promote equity and social justice in my work, I accept Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the forms of capital in three fundamental guises: economic, cultural, and social; and my understanding of library work is informed by the relationship of libraries and our collections to these forms and our role in the reproduction of in/equality in education.

Bourdieu’s work is too influential within the sociology of education for librarians not to know about, however Gurnam Singh’s insight into the limitations of Bourdieusian thinking has helped me understand the potential for these analyses to reproduce deficit model thinking about our students. For Singh, a social and cultural capital frame represents a development from a simple deficit model based on academic knowledge and skills, but is still one in which students are understood as lacking in social and cultural capital.

It is easy to see how a deficit approach could be combined with a model of education that reimagines Paulo Freire’s banking model of education, based on transmission of white, middle-class cultural and social capitals to students previously lacking in these. Mindful of this, two ideas became central points in my chapter: that deficit models should be radically reframed or inverted, such that we understand middle-class education professionals as those in deficit, and that library workers can recognise the cultural and social capital that WP students bring with them to higher education.

In terms of the literature, I found limited but often startling vignettes from sociology of education such as the diary fragment by Aisha that I quote in the chapter (p.28). Aisha is one of Penny Jane Burke’s research participants quoted in her book The right to higher education. I considered this example significant, because we can see how, based on a library worker’s actions and speech a student internalises and reproduces a deficit model of WP within herself.

Despite limited examples in the literature, on raising this idea with academic friends and colleagues I saw immediately recognition of the idea of libraries as spaces of social and cultural mis/recognition, both in their own experiences of libraries in education settings and from their students’ experiences. Two contrasting themes emerged for me from these discussions: a real need and expectation for libraries to be a nurturing space for exploration and affording safe intellectual risk-taking, contrasted with feelings of exclusion, marginalisation, and unwelcome based on lived experiences. On this subject I am especially grateful to attendees at the Working Class Academics Conference 2020 for sharing their experiences in our pre-conference sessions, this conference provided a uniquely supportive and trusting space.

In attempting to create linkage between WP as a political project and Critlib movement, it is certainly Penny Jane Burke I have leaned on most heavily as a theorist. For me, it is Burke’s identification of WP as a social justice project, and of critical and feminist pedagogies as a practical way of enacting and delivering that project where I see the strongest potential for developing critical practices of WP within library work and LIS theory and scholarship. However, this is also a space of challenge as by definition critical approaches to WP constrast with liberal approaches, and critical librarianship constrasts with hegemonic or mainstream approaches. Critlib movement is not simply suggesting new, optional styles for teaching or new toolkits for collection development, but aims to intervene and disrupt structural inequalities.

One hard lesson from both critical theory and our sector’s statistics showing differential outcomes for different student groups is that practices of higher education and within it, academic librarianship are not inherently those of social justice. These discussions about classed experiences of libraries and reflection on theory bring into sharper relief the differences or gaps between library workers’ personal and professional values as we espouse them, and values as we really enact them in our practice. In terms of tactics or practical next steps, Baharak Yousefi’s analysis and discussion on “the disparity between what we say and what we do in libraries” would be my first recommendation.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) & R. Nice (Trans.). Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York, NY: Greenwood.

Burke, P.J. (2012). The right to higher education: beyond widening participation. Abingdon: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M.B. Ramos, Trans.). London: Penguin.

Yousefi, B. (2017). On the disparity between what we say and what we do in libraries. In Lew, S. & Yousefi, B. (Eds.), Feminists among us (pp. 107-125). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice. Available at: https://summit.sfu.ca/item/17387.

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