What’s your take on critical librarianship?

Marcel, a black domestic shorthair cat with pale green eyes, sits on a printed out and highlighted copy of Archie L. Dick's article 'Library and information science as a social science: neutral and normative conceptions'.

This blog post is modified from a talk I gave for #CityLIS at City, University of London on 19 March 2018.

This seminar explored the idea and the various meanings of critical librarianship as a concept, practice, and area of intellectual enquiry. Critical librarianship is multifaceted and includes a body of scholarly work that employs critical frames for theorising libraries and information; activist and social justice-oriented stances within library work; online communities and discussion spaces such as #critlib chat; and more. Its focus on scholarly thought and theory has been criticised as removed from the practical concerns that confront library workers and the communities they serve, whereas its more practical suggestions and ethical approaches are sometimes read as just good librarianship. Here I will give my view on what I think critical librarianship to be, and what I think it has to offer in practice.

A comment on terminology, below I am using ‘librarianship’ interchangeably with ‘library and information science’ (LIS), ‘critique’ interchangeably with ‘criticism’, and will prefer ‘library workers’ to ‘librarians’.

Context

At this point I discussed how our economic system tends to introduce market logics and measurement techniques into many or perhaps most areas of human activity. Rather than recount this, I will recommend the recent exploration and critique of this trend applied to education presented in Professor Roger Brown’s lecture Neoliberalism, Marketisation, and Higher Education – University of West London public professorial lecture.

In our context, libraries and library workers have struggled to maintain and demonstrate relevance and have repeatedly sought to emphasise the value of libraries primarily based on a market logic. This includes for example comparative usage statistics for library services, and a recent focus on the value added by our basic disciplinary expertise of information literacy.

You may know of CILIP’s campaign about information literacy related to fake news and political information. Facts Matter is rooted in an approach that values critical thinking and reading of political information so broadly I support it; the issues I raise today are more rooted in the question of what facts are. In my view, fake news, the concept of post-truth and the absurd notion of alternative facts don’t sit in the same dialogical space as facts or meaning-making do intrinsically. They are more about a constant steady drip of propaganda, influencing at scale, and the expression of a prefigurative practice for particular political causes—especially far-right or fascist politics.

Critique and the critical

I want to spend some time discussing what we actually mean by the critical, because this is a contested term with multiple meanings. I’ll present a particular view of this using a frame based on critique as method—a method to direct and inform action that carries social and ethical implications beyond the technical execution of library work. I also want to address how we can pay critical attention in practice, here we will focus on critical reflection. First let’s stop for a minute to inspect and problematise the word ‘critical’ and the basis of librarianship as discipline.

Historically, and regrettably in my view, librarianship has attempted to define itself and prove itself as a social science—based on positivist and post-positivist ideas and quantitative methods.

Critical…

Thinking
Reading
Literacy
Pedagogy
Reflection
Theory
Librarianship?

Readers will have heard of at least some of these concepts and certainly will be familiar with concepts like critical reading and thinking in more depth. I explained the to audience that as students, I am certain you read critically within the LIS literature; I am sure you think critically about theory and ideas; I am confident you reflect on practice.

A common position in our discourse is a focus on critical thinking and reading as the critical. Stereotyping, this means forming judgements as to what is true and correct, about what is factual in positivist terms following an objective and neutral process of evaluation. This can present broader ideas of criticism as similarly naive, as a negative dialectical approach or as something that is not much more than a practical tool for problem-solving. I will describe an approach based on a different concept: that critique is about the questioning of social norms and cultures that shape and constrain our day-to-day approaches and work.

“Critical thought and its theory…”
Horkheimer, 1972 p.210

This is rooted in critical theory (sometimes presented with a capital C and a capital T). As a school of thought critical theory maintains that ideology is a principal obstacle to human liberation and originally sought to radically critique both the fabric of society and traditional theoretical approaches that came before. Critical theory in the mode of Adorno, Horkheimer and other thinkers of the Frankfurt School sought to identify and lay bare these ideologies. Note that this school of thought is reasonably left-wing.

“Critical theory is like any language; you can learn it, and when you learn it, you begin to move around in it.”

Ahmed, 2017 p.9

I would like us to take a wider view than Frankfurt School critical theory applied to librarianship. Sara Ahmed’s use of metaphor here resonates with me in how she describes the slow process of discovery and understanding that allows us to explore new disciplinary areas and “move around in” them. My point in citing this is that critical theories and approaches are something we can all gain understanding  and knowledge of, whatever our educational groundings or backgrounds.

“Without a vision for tomorrow, hope is impossible.”

Freire, 1997 p.13

Before we move on, let’s spend a little time with Paulo Freire and critical hope. Freire is an inescapable influence within critical librarianship, in large part due to the influence of critical pedagogy on contemporary critical information literacy teaching practice. Freire championed a radical, anti-colonial ‘problem-posing’ method of education intended to consciously shape learners and lead them to develop critical consciousness with which to overcome oppression. For Freire, hope is a foundational requirement for education because it is hope that drives people to pursue completeness as human beings: to explore, interrogate, to question, and to learn. As library workers, we understand leaning as a lifelong process and this pursuit is not something that ends at school-leaving or graduation.

Where is the critical librarianship?

Examples of critical practice applied in the form of practical actions abound, and library workers enact critical practice even if it is not explicitly framed in the language of critical librarianship. I want to reiterate this practice element here, and give some examples of the importance of action.

Emily Drabinski’s point here is about the everyday ways in which we remake structures and systems by thinking about them and questioning them day by day. (The comment “Me too!” is agreement with the quoted tweet.) How about some more comments from practitioners?

“I use theory literally every day to inform the shape of the searches I perform, the summaries I produce, and the support I give to [social services] practitioners.”

Smith, 2018

Lauren Smith develops information services for social services practitioners across Scotland. She explains here this is a necessarily theoretically-informed practice at all levels, with theory utilised daily in practice in all aspects of work. In this way theory is applied in an integrative approach, there is no pause where the practitioner steps outside into a realm of theory to cogitate before returning back to the everyday world of practice.

“It is assumed that taking a critical perspective in a corporate information role is impossible because ones workplace goals are aligned with those of the organisation. However […] organisations hire information professionals to uphold standards of authoritative research, ethical resource use and high information literacy. Of course it can be difficult to challenge organisational hierarchies, and you may not get the support you need to do so, but this is actually true of all information work.”

Schopflin, 2018

Katharine Schopflin explains that the role of information professionals within organisations always implies that we maintain an ethical stance related to the standards of our profession—that is formally what we are hired to do, regardless of the sector or industry we are working in. Of course, we see how tensions can and do emerge in some work environments.

Practitioners coming from critical positions are often offering us a reading against the grain of dominant cultures in workplaces and professional contexts. This can be the case in public sector or publicly-funded environments as much as corporate information roles, which may be due to funding and resourcing pressure as much as an ideological position (funding choices are, of course, themselves ideological positions). As Alan Wylie points out here, many public library workers have enough to do just keeping libraries running and operating effectively in environments where critical approaches are not particularly valued by their leadership.

As an aside, I personally believe one of the most valuable things managers can give teams is the time and space as well as the supportive context to do such thinking alongside the day-to-day.

Critical librarianship, a developed theoretical frame

This quote refers to an analysis of one information literacy journal, Communications in Information Literacy, that showed the most common theoretical frame used was critical information literacy (Hollister, 2017). It’s surprising and exciting to see reports like this. However, this can overstate the extent to which library workers more widely adopt critical practices, as it is specific to one context: application of critical pedagogy to information literacy practice in North American academic libraries.

“Our work […] must be critically informed, dialogically inventive, and messily entrenched within the systems we are working to change.”

Almeida, 2018 p.254

I would like to make a case for more widely-embedded critical approaches in practice. This is Nora Almeida’s view from the recently-published The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship (Nicholson and Seale, 2018). I agree with this as it feels like a solid justification for the critical rooted in the effectiveness of what we do in practice; and in how practice is “messily entrenched” (a wonderfully #critlib term) in our work and lives rather than something to do as an optional add-on to real work. This talk is not about practical tips for your CPD, especially given that I want to stay true to the theoretical basis of critical reflection discussed below, but I do want to explore the value of critique compared with the hundreds of other things you could spend time on.

“By critique I am referring to that praxis that refuses and thus disrupts a calcified and definitive way of understanding difference, subjects, and subjectivity.”

Dhamoon, 2011 p.239

In this article Rita Dhamoon introduces a idea of critique as a practice or praxis (with an x) of refusal: a disruptive, and, we can imagine, a necessarily confrontational approach that aims at creating change for a particular direction and purpose. In the talk I argued that critique can aid in development, in inculcating resistance, and in improving equity and equality. Here I am imagining critical thought supporting and aiding progress toward and the achievement of our goals, rather than as a tool we draw from our toolbox for day-to-day problem-solving. I argue critique offers a unique set of dialogical methods for approaching our work broadly—within and outside workplaces, and in practice more broadly.

Praxis‽

So, praxis ‘with an x’. In the talk I defined this as an integrative approach to critically thinking about and actively engaging with the world based on theoretically-informed reflection and action. In this I drew on Freire (1997) and Arendt (1998); for me a framing that includes both elements of critical thinking and reflection is key. I feel ‘reflection’ as a word does us disservice in the image it creates in our minds of contemplative mulling-over that does not necessarily go anywhere, hence I emphasise here action based on deepened insight.

At this point I asked the audience to consider, does anyone think they already take this approach in practice? My suspicion is that many of us do.

Critically reflective practice

I would like to relate this specifically to reflective practice, as that is one way we can embody a critical approach in what we do.

“The development of insight and practice through critical attention to practical values, theories, principles, assumptions and the relationship between theory and practice which inform everyday actions.”

Bolton, 2014 p. xxiii

This is a definition of reflection from Gillie Bolton. The critically reflective question to drive toward deeper meaning and understanding is to always ask why. The key point to pick out is about “critical attention to practical values”. What Bolton does here is a useful rhetorical reframing that may benefit you in practice. I find that often when I discuss theory in general terms I find that it is more relatable instead to talk about values. It is more alive, more rooted in experience, and is something we can all relate to no matter what we read.

“Critical reflection involves asking what questions, issues or ways of thinking have been privileged by whom and for what reasons? This type of reflection aims to address concerns about the influence of powerful groups by acknowledging and surfacing different interests and agendas.”

Smith, 2011 pp.217-218

Linking reflection to action is the enactment of critical practice, with a central element in critical attention to and examination of our underlying values, assumptions, and beliefs and linking these with our political, ethical, and social contexts. This may seem overly-introspective at first; but at this point I want to bring in Elizabeth Smith’s perspective relating power and privilege to the social in reflective practice. This is very much an outward-looking approach that situates our work within multiple, necessarily social, contexts of which we need awareness to form balanced judgements.

“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”

hooks, 2003 p.xiv

As good as this may sound, there are dangers here linked to the negative aspects of critical reflective practice. bell hooks cautions here about critique fermenting a world-weary cynicism that leaches hope, and rather than transformative change leads to an acceptance of “dominator culture,” which is to say the dominant or hegemonic practices that reinscribe inequality and oppression.

A fundamental here is the link with how we reflect on practice and shape it in action. In my view, the strategic critical moves to make are those that work at or work towards transforming rather than reforming. At this point I cited Archie Dick (1995) who describes a progressive, transformative, and explicitly Foucauldian current in librarianship that is noticeably well-aligned with contemporary critical librarianship. Here I paraphrase from Dick (p.229), this camp argues for:

  1. Critique of our own approaches and practices in stock selection, cataloguing and classification to highlight assumptions and biases. Brought up to date, we could add algorithmic bias in search and discovery.
  2. Raising the critical consciousness of library workers in understanding non-neutrality of libraries.
  3. Library educators to appreciate and critique power relations within LIS theory.
  4. Pushing back on “creeping marketisation” of libraries, especially that based on the notion of information as a commodity.

Power and questioning critically

I’d like to deal with some aspects of power, for this I will briefly drop into Foucault’s work. I realise that like Freire, this is a very #critlib citation. However, I have found Foucauldian methods of analysing power transformative, and wanted to provide a worked example as well as a caution.

“Power relations are rooted in the whole network of the social.”

Foucault, 2000 pp.345

One temptation, and risk, with Foucault is to get caught up in an idea that power is a fully installed and instituted force, and one that saturates or permeates all social relations. Confronted with such a force individuals can appear helpless or cast adrift, which isn’t what Foucault meant to do. In our chapter on critical systems librarianship, Simon Barron and I use a Foucauldian approach as a lens to ask questions about power applied to library information systems where one actor, the library, logs data concerning the online activity of another, such as a student or staff member (2018, pp.103-104).

Here I paraphrase from the analysis in this chapter; using Foucault’s method we ask:

  1. What are the relative positions of power, privilege, and technical knowledge of the actors involved, that permits one to act upon another?
  2. What are the objectives pursued by the actor in this power relation?
  3. How is power exercised? For example, surveillance and associated chilling effects, or the implication of disciplinary action based on institutional policies.
  4. What institutions are at play that determine the site of power? For example, legal structures or accepted institutional practices.
  5. To what degree are power relations rationalised and elaborated? For example, what technologies or technological refinements are brought to bear in exercising power and are they highly finessed and refined?

Such questions can do a lot of useful work when asked in different contexts about our practice, and to me feel much more approachable when reworked using everyday language and examples.

Ultimately, I feel a critical perspective is something we can all develop and understand by a combination of conversations and listening, experiential knowledge, and also reading texts. Personally I have found critical approaches most helpful when dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity in management and leadership situations, particularly when there is not an obviously correct answer or path. In such situations we rarely have an established playbook to work from, and almost never a handbook to guide us. This is where there is value in taking a critical and reflective approach that combines theoretical and practical knowledge from others’ experience with our own analytical judgement.

“If you are in the game of hegemony you have to be smarter than ‘them’.”

Hall, 1992 p.267

I will finish with a reading recommendation implied by this citation. This is out of context but was too tempting not to cite as my number one recommendation is to read widely within and beyond our discipline, but be smart and selective in how we focus our reading. Stuart Hall here is talking about several competing traditions in intellectual theoretical work in marxism (I will follow Hall’s lowercase usage here), however, I think it works for other spaces where we contest power and confront hegemonic forces.

Acknowledgements

My grateful thanks to the community of #critlib and librarians informed by other critical traditions for ‘the discourse’, and their ongoing helpful suggestions and recommendations.

References

Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a feminist life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Almeida, N. (2018) ‘Interrogating the collective: #critlib and the problem of community’, in Nicholson, K.P. and Seale, M. (eds.) The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice, pp. 238-254 [Online]. Available at: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/ny_pubs/233/

Arendt, H. (1998) The human condition. 2nd edn. London: University of Chicago Press.

Barron, S. and Preater, A. (2018) ‘Critical systems librarianship’, in Nicholson, K.P. and Seale, M. (eds.) The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice, pp. 87-113 [Online]. Available at: https://repository.uwl.ac.uk/id/eprint/4512/

Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective practice. 4th edn. London: Sage.

Dhamoon, R.K. (2011) ‘Considerations on mainstreaming intersectionality’, Political Research Quarterly, 64(1), pp. 230-243 [Online]. doi:10.1177/1065912910379227

Dick, A.L. (1995) ‘Library and information science as a social science: neutral and normative conceptions’, The Library Quarterly, 65(2), pp. 216-235 [Online]. doi:10.1086/602777

Foucault, M. (1981) ‘The subject and power’, in Faubion, J.D. (ed.) Power: the essential works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. New York, NY: New Press, pp.326-348.

Freire, P. (1997) Pedagogy of the heart. London: Bloomsbury.

Hall, S. (1992) ‘Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies’, in Grossberg, L., Nelson, C. and Treichler, P.A. (eds.) Cultural studies. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 277-286.

Hollister, C. (2017) ‘Ten years of expanding the information literacy landscape’, WILU 2017, Edmonton, AB, May 23-25. doi:10.7939/R3X63BJ8M

Horkheimer, M. (1972) Critical theory. New York, NY: Continuum.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. New York, NY: Routledge.

hooks, b. (2003) Teaching community. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nicholson, K.P. and Seale, M. (Eds.) The politics of theory and the practice of critical librarianship. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice

Schopflin, K. (2018) Twitter direct message to Andrew Preater, 18 March.

Smith, E. (2011) ‘Teaching critical reflection’, Teaching in Higher Education, 16(2), pp.211-223 [Online]. doi:10.1080/13562517.2010.515022

Smith, L. (2018) Twitter direct message to Andrew Preater, 3 March.

Why don’t libraries share the results of UX work?

While conferencing at ELAG 2016, Simon made this suggestion for improving collaboration among libraries doing user experience (UX) work on their systems:

I’ve been thinking on-and-off about the question implied in Simon’s second tweet – the reasons libraries do not generally share results of user experience testing of their systems. Below I discuss some of these, which are drawn from examples from people with first-hand knowledge from academic libraries.

“Not all libraries…”

I know many libraries do share their results and analyses, whether more formally in articles, books or book chapters and conference presentations, or more informally in blog posts, conversations, and social media. I am extremely grateful for any and all sharing of this type.

What about libraries that are doing such work but not reporting it? When I know about such work, though it requires extra effort I have had good success asking colleagues about their findings. People are usually generous with sharing – sometimes surprised in the interest, but delighted to be asked about their work. In my experience the trick to doing this effectively is:

  • Knowing that others have been doing something in the first place, for which an active stance towards professional networking helps enormously.
  • Finding the best way to engage colleagues on their terms, and making it easy for them to help you. If you’re nearby offer to visit, or set up a video chat; ask for an hour of conversation rather than anything in writing or a presentation. Manage the time and conversation effectively: focus on what you are asking about; be explicit about asking for honest opinions; always ask about lessons learned.

Why we don’t share

Time and money

By this I primarily mean a lack of time and money to refine the work into something publishable by traditional routes, such as a peer-reviewed journal or presenting results at conferences. I think this is a huge barrier, and I have no simple answers. There is an huge qualitative difference between libraries that invest time and money in this way and those that do not, which is only really apparent with experience.

There are alternative routes. For me the actuality of dissemination and sharing always trumps the esteem in which a particular route of communication is held. Some of the most effective project communications I have seen are blog posts that summarize progress and demonstrate the momentum and trajectory of the work simply with clear and engaging text. This is the kind of work I or a team member would expect to do as part of internal project communication, so text can be reused with reworking for an outside audience.

For events, workarounds such as unconferences and similar events are a lower-cost approach, but these aren’t without issues. Events with no registration fee still favour those privileged in various ways. Even if one can attend unconferences these don’t always attract an audience with enough specialist knowledge, or are not promoted in a way that will attract such an audience. This may sound contrary to the Open Space Technology principle that “Whoever comes [are] the right people” (Owen, 2008), but in practice OST principles depend on a lot of work behind the scenes and careful management on the day to be effective.

Culture

By this I mean the overall stance of the library towards engagement with their sector and understanding of the value of sharing, as a cultural factor. Having a budget for conference attendance and other development activity is not enough if your workplace does not value this type of professional engagement in and of itself, or does not have confidence in staff ability or value the work. In practice this may manifest more subtly in general discouragement and ‘lack of permission’ from managers in the organization, or not sending staff operationally involved in project work to events to speak and network with peers.

Competitive edge

I have heard an argument that we should not give away findings that could help competitors elsewhere in our sector, sometimes scaffolded by belief that as contemporary universities exist in a competitive market they should behave more like private companies. I disagree with the ideological foundation of this argument, but it is logical in acknowledging the reality of a market that has been deliberately created and fostered by government. At Library Camp in 2012, Liz Jolly and I argued that:

Universities have a culture of sharing both internally and externally, and also between those working in the same disciplines across institutions. Furthermore, both within and without higher education, librarianship is a particularly collaborative profession.

(Preater, 2012)

We could remove some of the ideological focus, and simply ask if the investment of time and effort to communicate our work might be less worthwhile than the other things we could spend it on. Above I argue that communication strategies in projects or otherwise should provide you with reusable material, but looking at this strategically I think skipping communication is ultimately detrimental to your library.

To be sure, there are benefits to individual staff in building their professional profile and to the library in being seen as a place ‘where things happen’ and viewed as forward-thinking, including in recruiting and retaining staff. Additionally though, I see an advantage in shaping the speed and direction of thinking as a form of technological leadership in the sector, creating the ‘discursive formation’ (in the sense Foucault describes, for example in part II of The archaeology of knowledge, 1972) of user experience rather than waiting for others to do so.

In communicating our work and engaging our community in discourse we define the content of the discursive formation, of the body of knowledge, in what is still a relatively new and not yet fully-established area. Communication has power in and of itself in bringing in to existence this body of knowledge, and while the practice of user experience is contested, early movers are able to establish how the ‘truth’ of this practice is created and sustained, in our particular context.

For me this idea explains some of the meaning behind practitioners such as Andy Priestner stating, two years ago, that “UX in libraries is a thing now” (2014, emphasis mine), and from experience I would gauge this kind of engagement as putting you between two to three years ahead of libraries that are not doing so.

External validity or being ‘too special’

In this I include disbelief in the external validity of the work, or belief in the necessity of such validity as a precursor to sharing. ‘External validity’ means the extent to which the findings from particular research can be generalized beyond the specific context of the work. I first heard this argument when I was a participant in a library usability study, and naively asked the librarians how they were going to share their results – turns out they weren’t. Some libraries are indeed unusual in themselves, or attract an unusual user base, or both, but there is also a cultural aspect to this problem. Without deliberately maintaining wider awareness, we can lose perspective and end up believing it ourselves: thinking our service is ‘very complex’ or our situation ‘highly unusual’ when it is not particularly so.

My counter-argument is the commonalities between library services and membership mean ideas and concepts are often very transferable. Include some caveats or ‘health warnings’ on your results by all means, but let us weigh things up. Let us include you in our ongoing analysis. This is one reason I value making the theoretical underpinning of the approaches we use in our work explicit when describing what we are doing.

Fear of criticism, lack of confidence in the work

In this reason I include anything in the general space of a wish not to have one’s work critiqued, research methods problematized, or particular choices judged by others in the community. Perfectionism on our part can also play into and amplify this. All engagement in professional discourse includes some measure of risk-taking as there is implicit openness to criticism: speaking at a conference or using a platform or network where replying is easy invites replies. Criticism is tempting as it can be relatively easy for a clever person to say something high-impact. You could do as Ian suggests and start a blog and turn off the comments, but people can (and do) comment on your work elsewhere…

I experienced this recently (with my manager and her manager in the room) when a recording of a user from a piece of UX research was shown that could be interpreted as strongly critical of my project team’s work. This was extremely difficult to accept at the time, but on considered reflection seeing an interpreted piece of feedback was valuable, as it spurred ongoing development and provoked questioning of design choices that had seemed well-founded based on our research.

My recommendation is to trust your judgement if you are on top of your professional development, spend adequate time reflecting-on-action, and test your ideas by taking a critical stance toward your methods and work – including opinions and perspectives from peers. On this subject I recommend Elly’s post on ‘professional confidence’ (O’Brien, 2015). This is a great post that really bears re-reading as part of reflective practice in judging our own expertise and focusing where best to develop skills.

Concluding thoughts

Simon is right in that there is no central location for sharing results of our user experience work. I would love to see something like this created, with low or no barrier to entry so all practitioners could contribute. I think for academic libraries a space on the helibtech wiki could be a good starting point for collaboration. This is a slightly selfish request as in my workplace we maintain a list (a wiki page) of reports, presentations, industry white papers and so on about systems user experience, and used these in developing and shaping ideas for our ongoing research and development.

Absent such a location, I want to encourage practitioners to share their work. We want to hear what you have to say – share your methods, results, and conclusions where you can, as doing so contributes to and shapes discovery user experience as a professional practice.

References

Foucault, M. (1972) The archaeology of knowledge. New York, NY: Vintage.

O’Brien, E. (2015) ‘Professional confidence and “imposter syndrome”‘, Elly O’Brien, June 29. Available at: https://ellyob.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/professional-confidence/

Owen, H. (2008) Open space technology: a user’s guide. 3rd edn. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Preater, A. (2012) ‘Free and Open Source software and cultural change, at Library Camp 2012’, Ginformation Systems, 15 October. Available at: https://www.preater.com/2012/10/15/free-software-and-cultural-change-at-libcampuk12/

Priestner, A. (2014) ‘Why UX in libraries is a thing now’, Business Librarians Association conference, Leicester, 11 July. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/AndyPriestner1/why-ux-in-libraries-is-a-thing-now-36899649

Feelings on critical systems praxis, for #critlib

I wrote this to reply to the ‘recommended writing’ suggestion by Kevin Seeber for the December 15 2015 #critlib chat on #feelings. I very likely won’t be at the chat itself, so I haven’t quite addressed the questions as posed.

Why practice critical librarianship?

I understand #critlib to mean critical theory approaches to library work as a whole so will say something about why I find this interesting, and why I think it is important and useful in the undertheorized area of library systems. In this piece I understand #critlib, the idea of critical librarianship, and other critically-informed stances within librarianship as similar approaches.

I found out about #critlib chats when I was already aware of #critLIS, a critical theory reading group at the University of Sheffield iSchool. The students involved in #critLIS tweeted some of their discussions and I read the things they talked about. I could only join in minimally but what I saw of their discussion seemed thrilling in how they brought social critique to information work, but also intimidatingly erudite in the works referenced.

Later I attended a discussion on critical theory in LIS at an RLC event in London. On reflection, at the event I think the whole critical theory ball of wax was explained in problem-posing terms, which was both more useful, more challenging, and achieved more than a lecture on the same subject would have. At that session Kevin and Lauren didn’t offer grand solutions, but instead many new lenses with which to interpret and inspect practice and some practical ideas too (Smith, 2014). I realized I had some reading to do; fortunately, critical librarians (by all means imagine the ‘smiling cat face with heart-shaped eyes’ emoji here) are inevitably generous with suggestions.

Reading a text is learning the relationships among the words in the composition of the discourse. It is the task of a critical, humble, determined “subject” or agent of learning, the reader.

Reading, as study, is a difficult, even painful, process at times, but always a pleasant one as well. It implies the reader delve deep into the text, in order to learn its most profound meaning. The more we do this exercise, in a disciplined way, conquering any desire to flee the reading, the more we prepare ourselves for making future reading less difficult.

Freire (1994, p. 65)

I quote Freire’s view from Pedagogy of Hope on the challenges of engaging with reading, as though I disagree with his presentation of study as an “always […] pleasant” struggle the last part chimes with how I feel on trying to be “an agent of learning” in understanding social critique and develop a #critlib approach with no background in theory. To be clear this is a personal reflection: I’m not telling anyone to do this, and I’m aware I speak from a position of privilege.

In discovering new these areas there is joy in exploring new contours of practice, and opening new discursive spaces. Given new tools for sensemaking, the materials of practice feel new themselves. I value #critlib most in providing a space to create and shape professional discourse, to disagree from a position of inclusivity and respect, and fundamentally to help us develop a reflexive praxis: that is, critically-informed action.

Well, how about it? I found Freire’s explanation of the simultaneous nature and equivalence of reflection and action particularly formative in doing this:

“[M]y defence of praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously. A critical analysis of reflection may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the infeasibility or inappropriateness of one or another form of action […] cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action.

Freire (1996, p. 109)

Working through the implications of this allowed me to reframe reflection not as an introspective after-the-event mulling over, perhaps somewhat time-wasting given there is “real work” to getting on with, but something central to action itself and part of an overall method of praxis.

So, this is why I participate in #critlib and RLC. I want to see the loop between theory and practice closed in ways that appreciate it is not just the job of LIS academics to develop theory and practitioners to employ it, but that theorizing from our practice and experience should be an accessible process for all of us.

Theory in an undertheorized field

One of Kevin’s questions for the chat asks if we think #critlib is “worth it,” that is, does talk about theory make any difference to your own professional practice, and more broadly? I argue yes, but…

I think #critlib starts with a set of challenging positions to work from rather than a set of agreed ideological fixed ideas or ‘how to’ guides for library work, management, and leadership. Even if someone wrote such a thing, the texts we read and discuss are steeped in and reproduce ideologies and this would remain a problem to grapple with.

#critlib offers multidisciplinary ways of seeing and interpreting our practice that are necessarily critically informed and framed in terms of inclusivity and diversity, but that might not be applicable to practice in straightforward ways. This bears analysis of our situation, and for me, giving up the idea of applying #critlib with a particular framing ‘context’ as this term obscures a great deal. I’m indebted to Clarke’s work on grounded theory (2005, pp. 71-72) in understanding this last point.

In my view systems librarianship is relatively undertheorized and ahistorical in its understanding of thought and practice; not obviously fertile ground to develop #critlib. As the head of a systems team I see systems as occupying an important nexus in two areas often claimed neutral in various ways: libraries and technology. Of course neither are neutral, when put like this it’s laughable to suggest they are, but it’s easy to slip into such positions by default if we don’t interrogate our practices and how we utilize technology.

It can be easy for systems workers to think if we are satisfying the requirements of library staff as clients and library users as customers that’s enough, and we needn’t over-think the technology we employ beyond compliance with law (such as data protection legislation), our professional ethics (such as CILIP’s Code of Professional Practice), the standards of our employers, and so on. I’ve heard very reasonable positions voiced in the profession that this is “just good librarianship”.

I argue that this is not enough and our response should be non-neutral as our technology and information management is non-neutral. But to exaggerate for hyperbolic effect, critically-informed ethical approaches are more complicated than lazily rejecting every new idea as “problematic” while maintaining our own comfortable, compartmentalized silos. A systems approach to #critlib (#critsyslib?) means delving into our underlying assumptions by using reflective practice as a technique, taking critically reflective and reflexive approaches in our implementations of new systems and technologies.

For me developing a critical systems praxis means reject instrumental or mechanistic approaches to information, its storage and indexing, its use and understanding by our users, and the stack of technologies that underpin all of these things. A #critlib perspective would mean taking critical approaches throughout systems work including in selection, procurement, and implementation of new technologies and systems, and using critically-informed methods in researching them and in directing their development. For managers and leaders in systems it means role-modelling positive behaviours, and taking an authentically #critlib stance in what we do in our work, including for example line management and hiring practices.

I struggle with these things and cannot claim to do all of them or that my team do all of them, yet, but referring to the Freirean equivalence of reflection and action, taking on #critlib viewpoints and approaches begins the necessary perspectival shift to move towards a critical turn in systems praxis hence, why I #critlib.

References

Clarke, A.E. (2005) Situational analysis: grounded theory after the postmodern turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2nd edn. London: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of hope. Reprint, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (part three): critical theory’, Lauren Smith, 16 May. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/