Critical Library Instruction: Introduction

Critical Library Instruction began as good things often do—casually, and largely by accident. Alana mentioned to Emily in between sessions at the 2008 GLBT Archives, Libraries, and Museums conference that she was thinking about putting together a collection about critical approaches to library instruction. Emily, a recent addition to the board of Radical Teacher, a journal of socialist, feminist, and anti-racist teaching, found Alana’s timing and topic uncanny—as the first teaching librarian on the editorial board, these questions had immediate resonance. Emily mentioned her former colleague Maria, a librarian in Indiana with an extraordinary commitment to student learning, to Alana as a possible addition to the editing team. When Emily and Maria talked, the idea clicked. Alana and Emily met the following weekend at the Thinking Critically conference hosted by the Center for Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where they presented together on a wholly unrelated topic. Rory Litwin was there too, so Alana and Emily talked the idea out with him over a conference buffet lunch of meat salads. And now, nearly two years later, we’re holding this volume in our hands.

The three of us are practicing instruction librarians working in a variety of higher education settings: a branch campus of a large Midwestern university; a mid-sized private university in urban Brooklyn, New York, and a small liberal arts women’s college in the northeast. We all see ourselves as working librarians: we staff service desks and serve on committees; we teach 50 minute one-shot sessions for faculty who just don’t get it and multi-session courses for faculty who do; some of us are seeking tenure and others year to year contracts; and we all think about retirement plans and healthcare packages and domestic partnership benefits and the other nuts and bolts of contemporary late-capitalist working life. But we also all read, think, and write. Our work influences our thinking which influences our work; all three of us strive for praxis.

And praxis is what this book seeks as well. Ours is a profession that often splits working and thinking in two—theorizing goes on in LIS doctoral programs while front-line librarians concern themselves with “best practices” at the service desk. When we submitted a proposal to present some of the ideas in this book at the 2009 ACRL conference in Seattle, we struggled to imagine where we might fit in a program that demanded instrumentalist learning outcomes keyed to themes like Cast a Net! and Feel the Buzz! We wanted to get a group of librarians together to talk about the ideas that background critical practice in the classroom—from Freire’s models of liberatory teaching to Kapitzke’s criticisms of standards models to Elmborg’s blending of literacy theory and library practice. Would ideas that didn’t always lead directly to outcomes find a home in our profession?

We think they can, and must. We think there is a difference between teaching the catalog to “remedial” students and an information literacy that respects what each student brings to the classroom. Library faculty in both cases might use problem-based learning (as discussed in these pages by Elizabeth Peterson and Kim Olson-Kopp and Bryan Kopp), but the classroom approach and outcome will, we suspect, be different when a commitment to social justice is present at the front—or at the sides, or in the circle—of the room. In fact, we think of instruction work—especially when it is reflective, as Caroline Sinkinson and Mary Lingold model in these pages—as a kind of thinking-in-action.

The praxis approach modeled in these pages extends that of librarians who adapt approaches from other fields, disciplines, and communities of practice, and make these approaches clearly relevant and useful to library instruction. This volume joins library, information studies, and other scholars whose critiques of epistemological and classificatory practices inspire our conviction that such critiques are necessary and possible. Like them, we build on feminist (Haraway, hooks, Olson), postcolonial (Olson, Said, Stoler), queer (Adler, Anzaldúa, Butler, Drabinski, Roberto, Terry), disability studies (Davis, McCruer), and anti-racist/race-critical (Anzaldúa, Hammonds, hooks, Bowker and Star) frameworks to begin new ways of thinking and teaching in the library context.

Where these theoretical approaches frame out our big picture, the work of librarian-practitioners forms another point of entry for this volume. Elmborg & Hook’s Centers for Learning: Writing Centers and Libraries in Collaboration (2005) is an important predecessor to this collection, as its contributors describe productive collaborations with writing centers while also enacting a reflexive critical analysis of these relationships, and bringing scholarship in composition and rhetoric into conversation with information literacy and library instruction praxes. As they engage scholarship in composition and rhetoric, librarian-scholars have introduced their colleagues to genre theory (Simmons, 2005), the concept of the ethnographic contact zone (Elmborg, 2006), and theorizations of learning through dialogue and discourse (Elmborg, 2005; 2006), all of which have the power to transform our practice both in the classroom and at the reference desk. For example, we may help students learn about the discursive conventions (e.g., standards for establishing authority; citational practice) of a particular discipline or field by presenting scholars as members of a discursive community whose practices students can study, adopt, analyze, or, vitally, critique or resist.

Our collection is also informed by librarians and scholars who are developing a critical information literacy praxis. This move is itself informed by scholarship in critical literacy studies, which argues that we should understand literacy as more than a set of competencies; more than simply the ability to read and write. Instead of conceptualizing literacy as a “neutral, discrete, context-free skill” (Norgaard, 2003), something that can be measured by a universally-applicable set of standards, critical literacy scholars recognize literacy as a culturally-situated phenomenon, embedded within specific social, political, and economic systems, subject to (and potentially constitutive of) the power relations and ideologies that define particular moments in history (Luke & Kapitzke, 1999; Norgaard, 2003). They argue that our understanding of literacy needs to expand to encompass the multiple literacies students develop in response to new technologies and new media, including “visual literacy, electronic literacy, digital literacy, internet literacy, media literacy, technological literacy and multiliteracies” (Luke & Kapitzke, 1999, p. 2). They also suggest we attend to the larger contexts in which these technologies and media emerge, including global capitalism (more specifically, the shift to service- and information-based economies) and transnational cultural exchange (Luke & Kapitzke, 1999). Instruction librarians have found this framework useful for a number of purposes: teaching students not only how to find information, but also how to evaluate and contextualize it; helping students conduct research that matters to their personal experience and to the communities to which they belong; dealing with the changing nature of authorship, authority, and publication of content online; negotiating the gap between standards (e.g., the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education) and classroom practice; and making sense of (and in some cases, resisting) the privatization of information through subscription- and fee-based licensing and access.

Finally, we are indebted to the work of librarians and scholars who have established the relevance of critical pedagogy to library instruction. We are not the first to imagine ways in which the critical-pedagogical interventions by Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Peter McLaren, and Ira Shor can contribute to a library instruction praxis that promotes critical engagement with information sources, considers students collaborators in knowledge production practices (and creators in their own right), recognizes the affective dimensions of research, and (in some cases) has liberatory aims.

We enter into these conversations as both scholars and workers. This volume, then, seeks to disrupt the boundary between theory and practice that we name in order to limn, and invites thinkers to talk about what they do, do-ers to talk about what they think, and all of us to continue to develop a critical praxis of critical library instruction. We’ve divided the book into five sections that resist this artificial separation, inviting readers to read across and against differing approaches. In section one, we offer a conceptual toolkit for critical library instructors. Bringing together voices that emphasize theoretical orientations, we think these chapters will jumpstart the librarian seeking new ways to conceptualize library instruction. Section two functions as a classroom toolkit, gathering together chapters that blend theoretical approaches with concrete lesson plans and classroom strategies. This section is aimed at the teacher who has a class later this morning. In section three, authors discuss approaches to critical library instruction in specific institutional settings, including service learning programs, community colleges, and in partnership with high schools. Focusing on what’s possible in particular environments reminds us that our instruction is always grounded in context. Section four offers strategies for teaching from a range of alternative media, rather than relying on the library catalog and scholarly databases as texts for rote, instrumentalist lessons about authority. By switching up our sources, we can encourage critical engagement with all kinds of materials, including the web resources we traditionally decry and the scholarly sources that too often get an easy pass. Finally, section five aims to directly critique problems of institutional power that necessarily limit what it is possible for librarians—even critical ones—to accomplish, recognizing our precarious and contested position within broader distributions of power, resources, and control.

We end deliberately with a contribution from Cathy Eisenhower and Dolsy Smith. Challenging the idea that a critical approach to library instruction is possible or even desirable, we think they point to the next realm of inquiry. Given the commercialization and privatization of higher education and the elision of public and private lives, work and leisure time, what hope is there for liberatory library instruction? Or is the obsolescence we so often institutionally feel somehow our most valuable asset? Theirs is a provocative piece that challenges us to rethink the purpose of this entire volume, precisely the kind of instability we think lies just underneath what might at first appear to be stable formations of knowledge, theory, and practice. Like most of our contributors, we think learning happens in dialogue rather than once and for all, and we hope this collection of provocative challenges to contemporary practice begins more of that.

August 2009
Maria T. Accardi, Louisville, Kentucky
Emily Drabinski, Brooklyn, New York
Alana Kumbier, Somerville, Massachusetts

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