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 [‚Ķ] 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 [‚Ķ]¬†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‚Ķ

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.


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://web.archive.org/web/20160911091351/https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/