Reflective practice and critical reflection recommended reading

I was recently asked by colleagues for some recommended reading on reflective practice in general and critical reflection in particular, and as several people asked me to share this I thought I would do so here.

Reflective practice in general

Schön, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner. New York, NY: Basic Books.

A¬†classic text, and¬†one that should be seen in Sch√∂n’s context of time, place, and employment. Heavily critiqued and interpreted¬†in the last 30+ years; I’d argue understanding reflection-in-action vs. reflection-on-action remains core to effective reflective practice and that¬†this is still a challenging work¬†when considering professional technical skills for practitioners.

Finlay, L., (2008) Reflecting on reflective practice. Available at:

For me Finlay is the best starting point for a review article on reflective practice. Written for the Open University PBPL CETL (which dates it if you remember CETLs…) but presenting, effectively, a wide-ranging literature review on reflective practice useful to anyone. Very helpful for an overview of different approaches or ways of doing reflective practice.

Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective practice : writing and professional development. 3rd edn. London: Sage.

A useful overview of reflective writing. Its utility to you may depend on your view of the importance of narrative, but worthwhile if you have any intention of writing reflective pieces on your experience.

Brookfield, S. (1994)¬†‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenology of adult critical reflection’,¬†International Journal of Lifelong Education,¬†13¬†(3) pp.203-216.¬†doi:10.1080/0260137940130303

An interesting exploration of negative aspects (the ‘dark side’) of critical reflection for¬†adult learners. Recommended reading for how to avoid or overcome these issues in practice. Sadly not¬†available OA or free-to-read.

Argyris, C. (1991) ‘Teaching smart people how to learn’,¬†Harvard Business Review, (May/June). Available at:¬†

On challenges of applying Argyris and¬†Sch√∂n’s single-loop vs. double-loop learning¬†to professional practice.

Drucker, P.F. (1999) ‘Managing oneself’,¬†Harvard Business Review, (January). Available at:¬†

Not pitched as about reflection, but contains useful nuggets on ways of thinking about development. Warning: contains some problematic ideas and sweeping statements.

Critical reflection or critical reflective practice

I take critical reflective practice¬†to mean¬†particularly the ‘two stage’ approach of analysis and deconstruction followed by reconstruction and change¬†developed and articulated in the 2000s by Jan Fook, Fiona Gardner, and Sue White, alongside contributions from many other researchers. Their particular combination of theoretical underpinning and practical method is the one I prefer because it chimes with¬†in with my own values and preferred approach to thinking about professional practice.

These researchers scaffold their approach with four theories, this list is paraphrased in part from Gardner (2014) and Fook and Gardner (2007):

  • Reflective practice itself, including an idea of experience or practice knowledge that I would describe as praxis, eg. articulated in¬†Fook and Gardner (2007 p.24), “[R]eflective practice can be seen as a process of researching practice theory, by developing it directly from concrete practice”
  • Reflexivity, emphasizing a consciousness of how users perceive themselves and us, and how we perceive ourselves and each other¬†in¬†context as practitioners and¬†researchers
  • Postmodernism and deconstruction, in this case particularly emphasizing concerns with attitudes to and influences of power
  • Critical social theory, including an emphasis on social justice as a concern

One challenge for us is taking these ideas out of their original context of health and social care and making them applicable to library and information professional practice. Personally, I think this is entirely possible as the idea of praxis implies:

  • Applying theory to practice deductively
  • Creating theory from practice via inductive formation of knowledge and new theories of practice

My¬†point, is we needn’t wait for someone to write the ‘Critical reflection in library and information science’ textbook but can work on these ideas immediately. ūüėČ

Gardner, F. (2014) Being critically reflective. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gardner’s is my favoured¬†introduction to critical reflection¬†concepts and methods. It’s written to work for students and both new and experienced practitioners, providing practical examples while referencing more complex texts for underpinning theory, some of which are below.

Fronek, P. (2012) Jan Fook: critical reflection. [Podcast]. Available at:

Fook, J. (2006) ‘Beyond reflective practice: reworking the “critical” in critical reflection’,¬†Professional Lifelong Learning: beyond reflective practice,¬†Leeds, UK, 3 July.¬†Available at:¬†

This conference keynote and podcast can be combined with Gardner’s book on critical reflection as an overview for ‘core’ reading.¬†Jan Fook’s keynote for a medical education¬†conference¬†includes both the ‘what it is’ explanation and a retheorizing of critical reflection. I really like her summary on p. 14 for the focus on the political aspects:

“In reworking a theory of critical reflection, I would now articulate critical reflection as involving the ability to understand the social dimensions and political functions of experience and meaning making, and the ability to apply this understanding in working in social contexts” (emphasis in original)

The podcast interview is meant as an overview – Jan Fook’s style and enthusiasm are¬†compelling, start here if you are unsure about where to dive in.

White, S., Fook, J., and Gardner, F. (eds.) (2006) Critical reflection in health and social care. Maidenhead: Open University.

Lehmann’s chapter 14 particularly interesting as this links a reflective writing approach to critical reflective practice; the ‘five questions’ she poses are also very useful for¬†unpicking underlying assumptions.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practicing critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University.

Other than Gardner (2014) I think this is the best introduction containing a more detailed explanation of the theory plus a plan for how to carry out practical reflective conversations as a group.

Vince, R. and Reynolds, M. (2002) ‘Organizing reflective practice’,¬†Organization Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities, Copenhagen,¬†Denmark, 28-30 April.¬†Available at:¬†

I include this here as Vince and Reynolds link reflective practice¬†to critical management studies as a way of developing a model moving beyond¬†Sch√∂n. Their overall view of ‘collective reflection’ is a useful expansion of, and critique of some limits in¬†Sch√∂n’s work.

Ghaye, T. (2005) Developing the reflective healthcare team. Oxford: Blackwell.

Does what it says: the focus is on team-based reflection in healthcare, from a UK context. Much of what is here is generalizable and I think this is a particularly good starting point for managers or leaders looking at ways of developing reflective teamwork.

Critical theory and praxis

A major attraction for me to critical reflection was¬†how Fook, Gardner, and White combine ‘traditional’ reflective practices with¬†critical theory. With that in mind I¬†wanted to include a few suggestions for starting points I think are useful in this area that may help in understanding the above. Lauren’s recommended reading¬†list below includes these and much, much more: everything from critical theory ‘big names’ to specific library and inform¬†recommendations.

Generally I’d also recommend¬†Foucault, but struggle to pick¬†one particular work. If pressed I’d include Discipline and Punish due to the focus on power and how disciplinary mechanisms were extended to the 20th century (Taylorist, Fordist) workplace, and the classic chapter on panopticism. It’s what I’ve recommended to my team as a starting point.

Leckie, G.J., Given, L.M., and Buschman, J. (eds.) (2010) Critical theory for library and information science. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

In my opinion the best general introduction to how critical theory can be applied to library and information work.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

A foundational work on praxis and critical pedagogy, quotable and inspiring. Of its time and place (citations include Lenin and Mao) so should be taken as a starting point for developing ideas.

Day, R.E., (2000) ‘Tropes, history, and ethics in professional discourse and information science’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51 (5), pp.469‚Äď475.¬†doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(2000)51:5<469::AID-ASI7>3.0.CO;2-B

Free-to-read preprint available at:

Reading lists from our community

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory’,¬†Lauren Smith, May 16. Available at:

This blog post links to¬†Lauren’s critical theory in LIS reading list¬†(Google Doc) but is worth reading for additional background and the wonderful top ‘All-Time Must-Read Critical Theory in LIS texts’ list.

Professional identity, impostor syndrome, and performativity: thoughts on #radlib15

Image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC-BY. Available at:

Last weekend I attended the #radlib15 event organised by Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) in Huddersfield. I wanted to draw some threads between sessions I attended, and follow up on a few things left unsaid on the day. RLC has come a long way in a few years and is evolving, but importantly it has maintained a safe space for discussions in LIS that are not happening elsewhere. My thanks to the organizers at RLC for their work.

Professional confidence and professional identity

During the day, I felt two discussions on impostor syndrome and team working were linked by points made about professional confidence and identity, questions about radical perspectives on management, and ideas about the presentation of an authentic self.

Elly¬†O’Brien recently wrote a compelling¬†article problematizing¬†impostor syndrome and professional confidence which helped inform the impostor syndrome¬†session, with¬†Elly’s article referenced at the beginning. I agree with Elly’s points about the unhelpful librarian tendency towards self-deprecation, and I¬†think Kevin nailed¬†it when he¬†called out this “syndrome” as a political creation¬†exerting power on the subject:

About lacking confidence, a point was raised in discussion about whether there is a psychological disconnect between our presentation of identity online, and our true or authentic selves:

I think Simon’s point on¬†the marketized self is good, and I would expand on it and generalize from it. From a Marxian viewpoint anyone who is worker is compelled to sell labour as a commodity, representing a market relationship between the self’s potential for labour (labour power, Marx’s¬†Arbeitskraft)¬†formed from our own living bodies, and capital.¬†In a¬†sense under capital that marketized self is no more or less than¬†one’s real self as it is reflected and understood by capital. This situation is deeply problematic.

Performativity in online identity

On Twitter, Chris followed this with a point and a question about authenticity in our online selves:

I’ve been thinking about a similar question about online identity since I read Ned’s blog post about creating online identity last year, especially his points about “consistent voice” and¬†advice on not “adjusting who you are for other people”. Here I draw a line to the session on teams and teamwork and library managers as a potentially radical subject, relating them using¬†Judith Butler’s concept of performativity.

Butler originally applied her Foucauldian reading of performativity in developing an analysis of gender, arguing that identity can be brought to life or made real by repeated and consistent use of authoritative speech, as:

There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; [‚Ķ] identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.
(Butler, 1999 p.33)

There is a subtle point here. Butler is not simply¬†suggesting that if¬†we¬†talk as if we¬†have identity x, we will have identity x, as in the “fake it till you make it” suggestion that was raised¬†in the impostor syndrome session, but that performativity¬†is:

[T]hat reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains
(Butler, 2014 p.2)

I argue online identities of LIS workers are¬†performative in the way that our use of language itself reifies, by repetition of authoritative speech, those¬†identities that we create online rather than being something authentically constructed or a mere result of “being oneself”. For example, the identity of¬†“an efficient, competent subject¬†librarian”, or “a grounded, authentic manager”,¬†created¬†exactly by the¬†discourse of¬†those¬†individuals on social media platforms like¬†Twitter.¬†I would expand this to include identities we create as¬†managers, in that management is fundamentally performative:¬†expressing power by a mode of authoritative speech,¬†a case of actions embodied in “Doing things with words” (Learmonth, 2005).

On¬†the broader question raised of library¬†management as potentially radical, I¬†have written before about¬†authenticity in management and leadership at Radical Library Camp (the original RLC unconference in 2013) where I facilitated a discussion.¬†In hindsight¬†I’m not satisfied with that perspective, because I don’t see much difference between what I described and straightforward good management.

Instead I think we need to¬†approach management¬†and leadership from a critical perspective, and that there is¬†space for a¬†critical management studies (CMS) view of¬†library management as Kenny Garcia suggested on the #radlib15 hashtag.¬†CMS is something¬†like a critique¬†of management informed by Frankfurt School critical theory; to provide¬†LIS¬†focus¬†I’d add in critical perspectives on information management and information literacy, and perhaps a¬†Marxian lens to analyze information as a commodity in a marketized society.¬†For much more development of the latter, I recommend¬†Lawson, Sanders, and Smith (2015).

This is something I’m very interested in developing in future, so if you are interested in a CMS plus LIS mashup let me know.


Butler, J. (1999) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2014)¬†Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”.¬†Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge.

Lawson, S., Sanders, K, and Smith, L. (2015) ‘Commodification of the information profession: a critique of higher education under neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1), eP1182. doi:10.7710/2162-3309.1182

Learmonth, M. (2005) ‘Doing things with words: the case of “management” and “administration”‚Äô, Public Administration 83(3), pp. 617‚Äď637. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00465.x

Photo credit

Sunset Flowers. Huddersfield‘ header image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC BY.

Information as a commodity – at #radliblon

I pitched this session at the Radical Librarians Collective (formerly Radical Library Camp) unconference in May following encouragement on Twitter from other delegates. I wanted to open a discussion on information as a commodity using the analysis in Capital Volume One as a starting point to provide theoretical perspective. I hoped for free-flowing discussion about problems this relation introduces into information work Рif indeed what I proposed was a reasonable analysis.

Commodities and the labour theory of value

Commodities in Marxian economics¬†are products of human labour¬†that have a value. They are typically sold or exchanged on the market and¬†can be physical goods, or intangible services.¬†Marx presents¬†various ‘cycles’ of¬†capital in his analysis, describing how money and commodities circulate by processes of exchange and how this introduces various contradictions that, Marx argues, lead inevitably to crises.

The notation takes a little getting used to. One of the simpler cycles in Capital volume 1 is:


The hyphen means an exchange has taken place. Money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are then exchanged for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1976 pp. 247-257).

Marx really gets into the idea of cycles of capital in Capital volume 2. More complicated but relevant to our interests as workers is the cycle of:


The ellipsis indicates interruption – here, capital moving from circulation into production.¬†Money (M) is used to purchase¬†commodities (C) in the form of means of production, and labour. These are used in a process of “productive consumption” (P) that forms extra value to produce new commodities (C’) which are sold for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1978 pp. 109-143).

I like the approach used here because it recognizes the¬†central importance of living labour in the production¬†process of society as a whole. Important to the labour theory of value is the idea¬†invested¬†capital is ‘valorized’ with added surplus value from the labour process of the workforce above and beyond the cost of their own labour. One¬†sobering¬†implication¬†of this cycle is that the labour power, that is our own time and energy, is¬†also a¬†commodity.

Information as a commodity

John Feather (2008 p. 109) states plainly information is a commodity:

Information is a commodity which is brought and sold. However difficult it may be to define how it acquires value, the fact of the commodification of information cannot be denied.

Marx’s examples are of their time and place so there is a lot about linen,¬†iron, and corn, and less about intangibles like information. I read Feather’s comment as¬†a rational and dispassionate¬†statement of fact about life¬†in the¬†information society.

The session took place in the venue’s library so¬†I gave an example of a¬†book on the shelf (a single author monograph)¬†as a commodity that was produced for sale. No-one would¬†disagree¬†the pulp, card, ink etc. that makes up the print book are commodities and it follows¬†the content created by the¬†author’s intellectual process is also treated¬†this way.¬†Removing¬†the print book, if we present the same information in the form of an¬†ebook¬†we would still have a commodity.

Commodification and commoditization

A former BT phone box containing books in rural Essex.
A former BT phone box containing books, in rural Essex.

Straying from classical Marxian economics, information can in another sense be commoditized. To avoid confusion I use these meanings:

  • Commodification means making something¬†saleable that wasn’t before
  • Commoditization is the process of a product¬†becoming a simple commodity, where there is little to differentiate different¬†brands and suppliers

In the commoditized sense above, information becomes¬†independent of its intellectual meaning. The RLC session wasn’t focused on this meaning, but I mentioned it as I find expressions of this idea particularly dangerous. It can justify thinking along the lines of closing libraries¬†because the simple commodity ‘information’ can be delivered in other ways, for example books sold cheaply in¬†supermarkets.

Commodities and information work

What does this cycle of exchange, valorization of intellectual work, and commodified information mean for information workers? There were thought-provoking points made in discussion of which I will give a flavour as I was trying to facilitate rather than takes notes.

Dan Grace spoke about the idea of the knowledge commons, and how commons being enclosed and commodified is the start of a process of turning knowledge commons Рshared by all Рinto something exploited for private gain. Following the RLC conference Dan recommended The wealth of the commons edited by Bollier and Helfrich (2014) which is focused on resistance to this process. It is naturally enough Creative Commons-licensed and available online.

Charles Oppenheim noted that information has special characteristics related to its intangibility, for example:

  • It can be copied without loss of content. With digital media the¬†marginal cost of making extra copies¬†approaches¬†zero.
  • More than one person can own it without depriving¬†others of it, it is¬†not¬†“used up” in the way¬†goods and¬†services are.

Information is not like widgets rolling off a factory production line. Copyright is central as it represents an artificial limit on copying that, however originally intended, can be used to exert control over intellectual work. This introduces a contradiction in information work for the library worker who may oppose such control but have a responsibility of enforcing copyright in their workplace. We reached no easy conclusions about this particularly thorny problem.

I speculated on the “copyright¬†judo” of copyleft approaches such as Free and Open Source Software and Creative¬†Commons licenses. These approaches use copyright law as a lever to ensure enduring openness and freedom to use information-as-commodities for¬†whatever purpose the user wishes. The question is, does co-opting¬†these¬†levers for our own use get us far enough? Arguably not, as this approach still perpetuates control of intellectual work and existing hierarchies of knowledge creation.

That said, access is powerful in itself because knowledge in our minds Рversus information on a page or represented as bits Рcannot be subject to copyright or otherwise controlled. In higher education there are drivers from Hefce (2014) and others to provide open access to the quintessential commodity made in higher education, research.

I believe this driver is strong enough to make this process part of a changed institutional approach to the research lifecycle as a whole, but a more subtle reading of the policy includes the implication academics as knowledge workers should be more sensitive to issues in licensing and copyright of their intellectual outputs.

In discussion Stuart Lawson shared a proposed declaration for LIS professionals to make their own work open access wherever possible. Since the RLC event Stuart and others have worked on finalizing the LIS open access declaration.

Overall I felt the analysis worked, and discussion provided interesting food for thought around the characteristics that make information special and how its flows are limited or encouraged. The LIS open access declaration is a particularly inspiring professional statement of intent and I hope many library workers sign up.

Photo credit

Ever Conquest (Evergreen Container Ship) at the Port of Los Angeles – Pictures from the Sprit Cruises 1-Hour Harbor Bay Cruise (San Pedro, California) – Saturday November 2, 2013‘ by Flickr use Corey Seeman (license CC BY-NC-SA)


Bollier and Helfrich (eds.) (2014) The wealth of the commons. Amhurst, MA: Levellers Press. Available at: (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Feather, J (2008) The information society. 5th edn. London: Facet.

Hefce (2014) Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Marx, K (1976) Capital volume I. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin.

Marx, K (1978) Capital volume II. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.