Information literacy: social class perspectives — at LILAC 2024

close photo of purple petaled flower during daytime

Introduction

This blog post follows on from a panel discussion at the LILAC 2024 conference, Information literacy : social class perspectives. Our panellists were: Jennie-Claire Crate, Darren Flynn, Rosie Hare, Ramona Naicker and Andrew Preater.

For our panel we asked LILAC attendees and others who could not attend to respond to four statements or provocations about social class and libraries with their comments and ideas. The Padlet is open in read-only mode: link to Padlet from our panel session.

In the session we drew on themes from the Padlet to inform discussion and explained we would follow up to address more of the questions and comments via a blog post which we hope will continue to spark additional conversations. We could not cover every comment without writing a post five times as long as this, so have summarised and grouped comments and ideas into themes under the original provocations we used in our panel session.

Do you agree that if you care about equity and social justice then you should include critical theories within your information literacy practice?

There were several responses in the comments, panel discussion and follow-up conversations at LILAC about our argument for the necessity of critical theories.

We chose critical theories as a term suggesting there are multiple critical traditions. However, within information literacy practice critical information literacy (CIL) is the critical approach that is most fully theoretically developed and it is CIL we centre in our work. CIL represents the application of critical pedagogy to information literacy practice and, as this approach ultimately has its theoretical roots in Critical Theory (CT), used here in uppercase to denote Frankfurt School Critical Theory, it is both radical and aligns with the social justice agenda mentioned in our provocation. We agree with the Padlet comment that CT can be employed performatively, which we take to mean employed in a shallow way for the sake of surface appearance, and we view critical librarianship not as a style to be chosen from a toolbox of different approaches in the classroom, but a thoroughgoing approach underpinning all aspects of our practice.

One unanticipated reading of our provocation is shown in the Padlet comments that we are arguing for teaching CT to students, rather than use these theories to inform our approach i.e. our practice. We agree with the Padlet comment that it is “possible to fold critical theory into our teaching as care, love without needing the ‘right’ terminology. We don’t need the discourse to value each other and respond with humanity“.

We had anticipated we might receive pushback, or unwillingness to engage with critical approaches based on a perception of these ideas being difficult, and our provocation was designed with the hope of eliciting discussion about this, and counter-arguments—as in the Padlet comment above. In the article we developed our LILAC panel from (Flynn et al., 2023) we wanted to demonstrate that working-class thought, theory and mind are not limited compared with that of librarianship’s middle-class population. We do not view our engagement with theory as limited to consumption and repetition of middle-class scholarship, but a field which we aim to enrich and transform with the development and creation of new theory.

We repeat our request to our readers from that article: “We ask those middle-class readers who find our engagement with theory challenging to keep in mind that this work was formed through our intellectual lives which are rooted in our working-class lived experiences within the academy. We also ask them to reflect on why they may wish to dismiss working-class critical theories of work and educational environments which were designed for their comfort” (p.164).

Presenting theory as too difficult, language as impenetrable, or asking for definitions of words which can be looked up online is a strategy of refusal and an excuse we do not accept. The idea that we expect students in higher education to engage and grapple with new, challenging and unfamiliar ideas is commonplace and something we agree with. We argue the same thing is true for us as lifelong learners. Refusal to engage with the meaning of critical ideas reflects privilege and falls short of the expectation we have of colleagues who hold an advanced degree in our field, or equivalent experience. What we mean by this expectation is that we know holders of a Level 7 qualification such as the library PgDip or masters have demonstrated they have “conceptual understanding that enables the student to evaluate critically current research and advanced scholarship in the discipline,” and can “continue to advance their knowledge and understanding, and to develop new skills to a high level” (QAA, 2024 p.24).

We believe we can trust in our colleagues’ ability to look up the meaning of any terms that are unfamiliar, and think about how theory might be applied to their practice. We know it requires a level of engagement and vulnerability to understand that you may be an absolute beginner, or may never reach deep expertise, but the work is still necessary.  

This is hard work, and is supposed to be hard because any work that focuses on how different people have been oppressed over the years will involve unpacking the feelings, knowledge and assumptions you hold within yourself, and looking in the mirror at how you’ve benefited from certain privileges—especially as a white, middle-class person. This is the hardest work, because you have to be fully honest with yourself and to be progressive implies this is work that is never finished. There is a real need to sit with our discomfort.

We can, in our practice cite and utilise authors who do this sort of theoretical work without recourse to over-complex language such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Gloria E. Anzaldúa. This also connects with the strengths in knowledge that working-class students bring to academia, as bell hooks writes, “Importantly, one need not be either intellectual or academic to engage in critical thinking. Everyone engages in thinking in everyday life” (p.187). Engaging with CIL benefits our teaching practice as its theoretical body of knowledge helps open students’ eyes to structural inequalities, preparing them to handle diverse perspectives and challenges in a pluralistic society. Adopting a critical approach to information literacy strengthens teaching, but also facilitates meaningful dialogue among students from varied social class and socioeconomic backgrounds, fostering empathy and a collective commitment to tackling social justice issues.

We observe librarians are unaware of how middle-class librarianship is. How do you think this permeates our teaching environments as a form of shared knowledge?

This comment in the Padlet demonstrates an excellent example of the kind of reflective praxis that this work involves, and shows how critical self-reflection isn’t an academic exercise but a necessary part of our professional growth: “I’m a white extremely middle class librarian serving a population that is mostly not white and mostly not middle class and until I started examining that and working on myself, I wasn’t serving that population properly. I’m still working on it but I’m much better and it shows in the better way I can advocate for my students.” This work does not involve throwing our hands up and despairing at how we aren’t getting it perfect straight away. We all have certain privileges we need to examine before we are better able to understand and work with the various forms of capital and community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) that students bring to education settings. This work enhances our professional practice, but also ensures we are genuinely meeting the diverse needs of our student population, rather than perpetuating outdated and exclusionary standards.

In the comments for this provocation there is a theme about assumptions colleagues make about common—meaning shared—knowledge staff and students have, which is in fact knowledge common to the middle class. This knowledge informs our assumptions about what information literacy actually is, and how and what we teach. Librarianship inherits the middle-class norms and values of the academy and our colleagues, and one challenge to ourselves is to ask what our responsibility, or ability is to influence and change this. This is work that lies outside ourselves, that implies change in a wider social system based on hegemonic norms, values and assumptions. Attempting to influence that system can be a deeply frustrating experience. Hegemony means the dominance of a social group based on the cultural outlook or worldview of a ruling group, such that it becomes viewed as a natural or inevitable cultural norm. These frustrations act individually, as the needs and perspectives of our working class colleagues are overlooked, and structurally as this reinforces a cycle of marginalisation within our educational settings and curtails innovation in librarianship. We argue that we can at least be prefigurative in those areas that we can influence: we can always, at least, role-model the approach and behaviours we wish to see as the future norm.

There is a Padlet comment, and were contributions in the LILAC panel from librarians from outside the UK about our class system. The panel was speaking from a perspective of experience limited to the UK, and we welcome reflections from those—particularly of working-class origin—who had not grown up here. This is an ongoing conversation and, as stated above, this work is never finished.

We ask if you feel uncomfortable reflecting on classism and class privilege in your work and information literacy practice, to ask yourself why that might be?

A key theme we draw from responses to this provocation is the discomfort felt by our colleagues of working-class origin who have attained middle-class income or other markers of status due to social mobility, and work in middle-class environments such as higher education where a sense of difference or ‘not fitting in’ is still felt by those who have crossed this divide.

We do want to draw a distinction between social class and socioeconomic status (SES), which are often conflated. Both of these concepts describe social stratification but SES considers socioeconomic factors such as employment, income and education level whereas social class relates to sociocultural factors and one’s relationship to social power (Manstead, 2018). SES can change rapidly throughout one’s life, whereas social class is inherited and relatively stable throughout one’s life course. This means that those of working-class origin who have experienced this migration will have improved their SES, but retain their position in terms of social class.

These feelings of dislocation are familiar from research on sociology of education and social mobility, described by Teresa Crew as “a set of dislocating symptoms produced by the reconciliation process between a working-class identity and the hierarchically organized field of academia” (2020, p.32). We also saw in the Padlet comments and panel discussion mention of imposter phenomenon, meaning feelings of intellectual phoniness (Clance and Imes, 1978) based on class position, including being driven to imitate middle-class social mores to better fit in.

Conversely, this understanding of difference can inform and enrich our interactions with our students and provide moments of critical reflection. In the Padlet there are some breakthrough critical reflections on one’s own class privilege and intersectional identity, which represent positive moments demonstrating growth and understanding. There is a need to sit with the discomfort of these realisations that, as in the comment which references Robin DiAngelo (2018), “Even though my family was impoverished, I only realised that I am privileged on account of my skin colour after reading ‘White Fragility’”, and It hurts to start realising that you are in fact the oppressor in some circumstances, when you are used to seeing yourself as the oppressed”.

This work is intersectional: we argue for an intersectional politics of class rooted in critical self-inspection. Unpacking your own class privilege needs to include and be informed by inspecting your privileges around race, disability, sexuality, gender identity, neurodivergence and other aspects or facets of identity. We reject hard-right and Conservative reactionary discourses about the white working class: librarianship remains a very white profession with less than 5% of the workforce identifying as a global majority ethnicity (CILIP, 2023) and this needs to be improved. This monoculture—the dominance of white perspectives in librarianship—is reflected in these workforce demographics and also influences the research and scholarship within our field, often sidelining the diverse experiences and needs of global majority communities.

If you identify as middle class, what steps could you take in terms of allyship or as an accomplice to challenge social class elitism in your information literacy practices and workplace?

The problem of classism in higher education is an embedded, complex structural issue that must be met structurally and as such, we do not aim to present quick tips which we know will not affect meaningful change.

One thing we consider a key practical step is working on one’s self to gain the type of breakthrough critical reflections we describe above, which are rooted in understanding one’s own positionality and privilege. Positionality means one’s social location in terms of facets of identity, and one’s social and political context. Again, this work can be some of the hardest to do, because it is thankless: nobody will pat you on the back or give you a gold star for your good allyship. Many who do attempt to complete social justice work in their workplaces experience pushback, as their colleagues become uncomfortable when a mirror is held up to the practices that have served them well for years. For those who are middle-class or who have migrated into the middle class via social mobility, these actions may be viewed as a betrayal by their peers who do not want to cede their unearned benefits of class privilege. Overcoming people-pleasing as a profession that is made up of 75% women (CILIP, 2023), where women are predominantly socialised to be accommodating and amenable, is difficult work involving significant reflective practice and vulnerability.

We can however utilise the privilege we do have to improve things, where we can. This can include everyday actions of solidarity, as one comment in the Padlet reads, “Call[ing] out the bullshit from my fellow middle-class colleagues”. This still comes with some measure of risk, even for small actions, as colleagues’ reactance and hurt feelings can be out of proportion to the action being taken. As one action of recognition and solidarity we can bring to our professional practice and share, if we have these, working-class lived experiences with working-class students and colleagues. We also can work on sympathetic or empathetic understanding of others’ experiences, and work against our own immediate assumptions. Related to this, we can work on our assumptions about our students’ knowledge of unspoken rules—the so-called hidden curriculum—and our assumptions about previous experiences of libraries from their previous educational experiences. It is crucial to acknowledge that individuals from minoritised groups often face additional hurdles and have often had to work harder to overcome these systemic barriers to achieve their current position. We need to continually challenge our assumptions about what students know, and how they interact with us and our collections. We can also call out snobbery around colleagues’ assumptions based on students’ outward markers of social class such as fashion, accents and dialect. Importantly, as Teresa Crew (2020) explains in her research on working-class academics; making the hidden visible works as both a strategy for challenging assumptions and classist microaggressions (p.88) and in terms of connection with students by sharing understanding rooted in shared lived experiences (pp.118-120).

We are stewards of our libraries and learning spaces, and can work to develop them into places of welcome rather than of exclusion. One person who commented on the Padlet and works in further education said, “I have noticed that a lot of students seem hesitant to come in and ask if it’s “allowed” to sit at a table or use a PC,” and that deliberate relaxing of rules that has led to more positive student behaviour as, “it no longer feels like a place where there is an unwritten assumption that everyone knows how libraries work and that there is an expected way to spend your time there”. This comment, and discussion from an audience member at LILAC about their work to mitigate fear felt by students who had not used libraries before, reflect approaches to reduce feelings of library anxiety, which are feelings of inadequacy and lack of skill when confronted with the size and complexity of academic libraries (Mellon, 1986). In our article, we also identify as one cause the architectural scale and grandeur of academic library design that prioritise middle-class tastes and preferences (Flynn et al., pp.171-172).

Finally, there is a comment on the Padlet that makes a structural point about reducing barriers to entry and progression to senior roles within the profession, as “Despite recently introducing apprenticeship positions in the library, we still ask for postgraduate qualifications for more senior roles but don’t offer financial support to allow junior colleagues to pursue these.” Employers in our sectors already use the Level 3 Library, information and archive services assistant standard as an alternative to hiring graduates into library assistant roles (which is classified as a non-graduate role by the UK government). We acknowledge this standard can be misused by employers, for example by paying apprentices less for the same work as other staff.

One near-future possibility for our workplaces is using the Level 7 Library, information and knowledge professional standard as an alternative to current qualifications like the PgDip or masters, anticipated later in 2024. Introducing these to our workplaces does require positional power and senior leadership support, alongside this it is crucial that leaders and hiring managers give genuine equivalence to this route as there is a risk the cultural capital embodied in postgraduate qualifications leads to disadvantage for those coming via the apprenticeship route. Our sector has generally not done well at keeping up with qualifications frameworks, recognising non-academic routes or expressing parity of esteem (Fair Library Jobs, 2023). However, advocating for these apprenticeships, responding constructively to sector consultations about apprenticeships in our sector and raising awareness of these as an option in our workplaces—including helping dispel myths—is open to all of us. By creating pathways for individuals from diverse backgrounds to enter and advance in our profession, we not only enrich our libraries but also demonstrate practically our commitment to inclusivity and equity.

Conclusion

As a panel we want to extend our grateful thanks to the contributors to our Padlet both ahead of time and in the session, and those who contributed on the day at LILAC. Your thoughts and ideas made the discussion as rich as it was—thank you.

As we said on the day to our colleagues and friends of working class origin in the audience, we have done this for you. We wanted you to feel seen and recognised, because we know this is not the norm in librarianship. We hope we met this goal in our session and have represented the same spirit in this follow-up piece. Moving forward, we encourage each one of us, regardless of our class backgrounds, to continue these conversations in our own libraries and communities.

References

CILIP (2023) Workforce mapping 2023. Available at: https://www.cilip.org.uk/page/workforcemapping (Accessed: 15 April 2024).

Clance, P.R. and Imes, S.A. (1978) ‘The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention’, Psychotherapy, 15(3), pp.241-247 [Online]. doi:10.1037/h0086006.

Crew, T. (2020) Higher education and working-class academics: precarity and diversity in academia. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

DiAngelo, R. (2018) White fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Fair Library Jobs (2023). On qualifications – part 1. Available at: https://fairlibraryjobs.substack.com/p/on-qualifications-part-1 (Accessed: 18 April 2024).

Flynn, D., Crew, T., Hare, R., Maroo, K., and Preater, A. (2023) ‘They burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why’: Stories at the intersection of social class, capital and critical information literacy – a collaborative autoethnography,’ Journal of Information Literacy, 17(1), pp.162-185 [Online]. doi:10.11645/17.1.3361.

hooks, b. (2010) Teaching critical thinking: practical wisdom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Manstead, A.S.R. (2018) ‘The psychology of social class: how socioeconomic status impacts thought, feelings, and behaviour’, British Journal of Social Psychology, 57(2), pp.267-291 [Online]. doi:10.1111/bjso.12251.

Mellon, C. (1986) ‘Library anxiety: a grounded theory and its development’, College & Research Libraries, 47(2), pp.160-165 [Online]. doi:10.5860/crl_47_02_160.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (2024) The frameworks for higher education qualifications of UK degree-awarding bodies. Available at: https://www.qaa.ac.uk/docs/qaa/quality-code/the-frameworks-for-higher-education-qualifications-of-uk-degree-awarding-bodies-2024.pdf (Accessed: 15 April 2024).

Yosso, T. J. (2005) ‘Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth’, Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), pp.69-91 [Online]. doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006.

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 misrecognition—sometimes styled (mis)recognition or mis/recognition in the literature—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.

https://twitter.com/chelseaheinbach/status/1290361635412959232
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 leadership—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.

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.

https://twitter.com/edrabinski/status/717053814373793792 [deleted tweet]

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.