Keeping Up With... Critical Librarianship

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Kenny Garcia.

Kenny Garcia is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at California State University - Monterey Bay, email: kengarcia@csumb.edu.

What is Critical Librarianship?

On May 16th, 2007, Sanford Berman sent a proposal to the Cataloging Policy & Support Office of the Library of Congress that recommended a new subject heading, Critical Librarianship.[1] Berman applied the recommended subject heading to Librarianship and Human Rights by Toni Samek. As of June 5th, 2015, critical librarianship does not appear as a Library of Congress subject heading. This act, though, exemplifies what critical librarianship embodies. It places librarianship within a critical theorist framework that is epistemological, self-reflective, and activist in nature. According to Elaine Harger, librarians that practice critical librarianship strive to communicate the ways in which libraries and librarians consciously and unconsciously support systems of oppression.[2] Critical librarianship seeks to be transformative, empowering, and a direct challenge to power and privilege.

Librarians have a rich history of practicing critical librarianship. Toni Samek states that critical librarianship is rooted in the U.S. progressive library movement and intellectual freedom rhetoric of the 1930s.[3] It is reflected in our profession both within professional associations with the creation of the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table in 1969 and outside of formal associations with the formation of the Progressive Librarians Guild in 1990 and #critlib Twitter discussions and unconferences that began in 2014.

Why Critical Librarianship in Academic Libraries?

Critical librarianship in academic libraries can support critical thinking, information literacy, and lifelong learning skills in students. According to Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, librarians and scholars that are incorporating a critical information literacy praxis into their teaching and learning practices are reflecting on their pedagogy beyond standards, competencies, and outcomes.[4] This process involves self-reflection on pedagogical theory, teaching practices, and assessment of the student and teacher. It is the process and not the product that we have to be more mindful of. Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins argue that librarians, when applying a critical perspective in their work, consider the historical, cultural, social, economic, and political forces that interact with information in order to critique, disrupt, and interrogate these forces.[5] Information is not neutral, thus the way that information is presented by librarians adds meaning and context for students. There is power and privilege in the ways in which information is presented and processed by instructors and students. The dialectical relationship between students who can access the information and those without access is separated by pay walls, skewed algorithms, and hegemonic authority controlled vocabulary. If we dig a little deeper into the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, we would find that authority, information, information creation, research, and scholarship are constructed and contextual.[6]

Critical thinking, information literacy, and lifelong learning are not meant to be all-inclusive expressions nor signify importance over other aspects. These are aspects of critical librarianship that I have professionally engaged with the most. There are other components to critical librarianship in academic libraries as well. Some examples are diversity, information ethics, access to information, commodification of information, labor, academic freedom, human rights, engaged citizenry, and neoliberalism.[7-8]

How is Critical Librarianship Being Practiced?

Academic librarians and library staff have applied a critical lens to the various assignments that library staff and faculty take on in academia. Beyond critical information literacy, academic librarians and library staff are challenging regressive conceptions of gender identity in cataloging, excavating queer of color AIDS activist and trans archives, researching the misrepresentations of women, girls, people and culture in commercial search engines, documenting microaggressions in librarianship, and developing a diversity standards toolkit for academic libraries and librarians.[9-13] The gender binary, which classifies people into a male or female category, cannot account for the various gender expressions that people identify with. The excavation of queer and trans of color archives pushes its visibility to the forefront of activist movements and queers postcolonial and civil rights struggles. The misrepresentations of women, girls, people, and culture in commercial search engines centers around advertising without reflecting on the impact this has on those directly affected. The act of naming and calling out microaggressions confronts the implicit ways that power and privilege impact those directly affected. Diversity in academic librarianship imparts a commitment to supporting underrepresented librarians and library staff, as well as serving the diverse student bodies at every academic institution. These are a few examples of how critical librarianship is being practiced in academic libraries.

Conclusion

Critical librarianship has always been embedded in the library profession. It is the inflection of critical theory in library and information science. Librarians have engaged with critical librarianship within professional organizations and outside of it. Critical librarianship includes the development of critical thinking, information literacy, and lifelong learning skills in students, as well as engagement with diversity, information ethics, access to information, commodification of information, labor, academic freedom, human rights, engaged citizenry, and neoliberalism.

It’s hard to see where critical librarianship in academic libraries will take us next. I hope critical librarians will continue to collaborate with each other and other critical scholars, support activist and critical work being done outside of library spaces, and institutionalize critical efforts in order to sustain transformative experiences. The shifts in the various ways information is codified, reified, and shared will impact how librarians will respond. When a collective response is based on social justice, sí se puede.

Notes

[1] Sanford Berman, letter to Cataloging Policy & Support Office, Library of Congress, May 16, 2007. Accessed June 8, 2015. http://www.sanfordberman.org/headings/critical.pdf.

[2] Mark Hudson, “Progressive Librarians Guild Midwinter Meeting,” ALAConnect, January 21, 2012. Accessed May 20, 2015. http://connect.ala.org/node/166009.

[3] tara, “Critical Librarianship: an interview with Toni Samek,” the unofficial bcla intellectual freedom committee blog, November 13, 2007. Accessed May 20, 2015. https://bclaifc.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/critical-librarianship-an-interview-with-toni-samek/.

[4] Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, “Introduction,” in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier. (Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2010), xi.

[5] Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins, “Introduction,” in Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis, eds. Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins. (Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2013), 3.

[6] Association of College & Research Libraries, “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” February 2, 2015. Accessed June 17, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

[7] Sveta Stoytcheva, “Steven Salaita and the Critical Importance of Context: Contingency and the ALA Code of Ethics” (presentation, Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 31-June 2, 2015). Accessed June 9, 2015. http://oksveta.com/miscfiles/stoytcheva-capal15.pdf.

[8] Maura Seale, “Enlightenment, Neoliberalism, and Information Literacy” (presentation, Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 31-June 2, 2015). Accessed June 5, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/12818745/Enlightenment_Neoliberalism_and_Information_Literacy.

[9] Amber Billey, Emily Drabinski, and K. R Roberto. 2014. What's Gender Got to Do with It? a Critique of RDA 9.7. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. 52, no. 4: 412-421. Accessed June 8, 2015. http://scholarworks.uvm.edu/libfacpub/19/.

[10] Nicci, “Welcome Che Gossett: BCRW’s Community Archivist and Student Coordinator,” Barnard Center for Research on Women, October 30, 2014. Accessed June 8, 2015. http://bcrw.barnard.edu/blog/welcoming-che-gossett/.

[11] Safiya U. Noble, “Interdisciplinary research in critical digital media studies," Invited Paper at the Association for College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2015 Conference, April 1, 2015. Accessed June 8, 2015. http://safiyaunoble.com/2015/04/01/invited-paper-at-the-association-for-college-and-research-libraries-acrl-2015/.

[12] Microaggressions in Librarianship. Accessed June 18, 2015. http://lismicroaggressions.tumblr.com/

[13] Martha Parker, Althea Lazzaro, Latrice Booker, and Tarida Anantachai, "ACRL's Diversity Standards Toolkit," Association of College and Research Libraries, June 6, 2015. Accessed June 17, 2015. http://uark.libguides.com/acrldiversitystandards.

Recommended Resources & Readings

Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, eds. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2010.

Maria T. Accardi. Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2013.

Stephen Bales. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2015.

Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins, eds. Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2013.

Alfred Kagan. Progressive Library Organizations: A Worldwide History. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015.

Nicole Pagowsky, “Introducing #critlib Chats!,” Nicole Pagowsky (blog), April 3, 2014. Accessed May 19, 2015. http://pumpedlibrarian.blogspot.com/2014/04/introducing-critlib-chats.html.

Robert Schroeder, ed. Critical Journeys: How 14 Librarians Came to Embrace Critical Practice. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2014.

In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Accessed June 9, 2015. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/

Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies. Accessed May 19, 2015. http://libraryjuicepress.com/journals/index.php/jclis/index.

Journal of Radical Librarianship. Accessed May 19, 2015. http://journal.radicallibrarianship.org/index.php/journal.

Progressive Librarian: A Journal for Critical Studies and Progressive Politics in Librarianship. Accessed May 19, 2015. http://www.progressivelibrariansguild.org/PL_Jnl/jnl_about.shtml.

Progressive Librarians Guild. Accessed May 19, 2015. http://www.progressivelibrariansguild.org/.

Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. Accessed May 19, 2015. http://libr.org/srrt/.