Critical Information Literacy

I’ve been taking an online course from the ALA called Introduction to Critical Information Literacy: Promoting Social Justice Through Librarianship. It has been really interesting, and even though I had a basic understanding of critical information literacy, and have been interested in social justice all my life, the class discussions and assignments have opened my eyes to new ideas and possibilities.

The idea of critical info lit is to work with students to put research in context in terms of whose voices are included or excluded, what power structures prevent participation in or access to research, what inherent biases exist in publishing,  and in librarianship’s frameworks, like cataloging and classification, and so forth. Even though I do some cataloging, it’s mostly from existing records, not from scratch (also known as original), so I haven’t noticed that there are a lot of words missing from the Library of Congress Subject Headings — mass incarceration, for example, as I used The New Jim Crow in one of my assignments.

There’s been a lot of conversation online about whether libraries are neutral — they aren’t, of course. Nothing humans do is neutral, when you get down to it, which is ok, as long as we think about how we’re biased and who it’s impacting. For example, some core principles of librarianship are to make information and services available and accessible to all, and to welcome everyone — which are biases, even if they are well intended, and as public librarians know they sometimes upset patrons who wish “everyone” wasn’t quite so inclusive.

Since this was a class aimed at college and university librarians, we also looked at peer review, which as you know I have been looking at critically anyway (see my last post about Retraction Watch) at work and in my courses for the MSc in Science Communication & Public Engagement at University of Edinburgh. The more I learn about it, the more I wonder if it can be fixed, especially since people deeply involved in trying to make it better agree that it might not ever be.

We talked in this course about fake news as well, and interestingly, how our desire to teach students to question everything has led to more and more people questioning legitimate sources. I maintain that if the questioning is systematic and is meant as a way to test whether a source or an article has been produced in a way that strives to be factual, accurate, and clear, and isn’t a kind of ‘trust no one’ questioning, this won’t happen. I prefer to tell students to think carefully about everything — they’ll be able to tell whether something is unfair, misleading, inaccurate, or biased if they think.

And we talked about zines, something I hadn’t really thought about much. I know of them, but hadn’t thought of zines being in libraries, or turning up on works cited lists. But zines are, like letters, diaries, blogs, and other first person accounts, primary sources. They often tell stories that have been left out or haven’t yet been discovered by mainstream researchers. One of my classmates offers the option for students in a composition class to create a persuasive zine rather than an essay, using many of the same rhetorical techniques. That seems like a pretty creative idea to me. I like the fact that zines could be an entry point into scholarly conversation for people who don’t feel like they belong in that conversation.

For our final project, we had to create a zine about the class. Below is one of my pages.

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Civil rights in libraries

This Fourth of July holiday weekend I’ve been thinking about our country. Specifically I have been examining how little I really know about racism and other types of bias (directed at women, transgender people, native American people, muslims, immigrants) in America. Not that I don’t know it exists, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person and until the most recent national elections, I bought into the “it gets better” narrative. Look at the progress we’ve made, I thought. A black president! Better protections for women, transgender kids in school. Support for refugees. It was easy for me, a privileged white professional, to assume that the rash of police shootings of unarmed black people was a blight on progress, not a sign that the progress I felt proud to support was really like a shiny coat of paint on a rotting porch — it covered up what had never been fixed underneath.

For me, that’s been the most eye-opening realization these past several months — not that our government has changed direction, but that institutions and systems of all kinds — political, commercial, social — and also communities of all kinds are hobbled by implicit bias. And that seems overwhelming, especially when I’ve seen myself as part of the solution, not just because I tried to raise my kids to do better, because I vote, pay attention, write letters, and sometimes protest, but also because I am a librarian.

What does that have to do with anything? If you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian over the years you know that I was a public librarian before I moved back into academia, and I have frequently championed the role of libraries as places of radical hospitality, the last public institutions truly open to all. Our professional organization, the American Library Association, actively works for the freedom to use libraries without fear of government intrusion — ALA and its members has for over a decade spoken up about immigrant and refugee rights, resisted the Patriot Act, spoke up about hate crimes, and more recently, opposed both the rolling back of protections for transgender students, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Librarians are the good guys! Right?

In the most recent ALA magazine, American Libraries, there is an article about the Tougaloo Nine, and several other protests during the civil rights era where black people, often students, tried to use white only public and academic libraries. I knew in a I-learned-it-in-school kind of way that libraries were segregated like everywhere else, but these articles really grabbed me. These were librarians who told black students they had to go and couldn’t use the library or read library books. I cannot imagine ever denying anyone a book. Through this little thought experiment, picturing myself in that situation, I realized I have never really truly learned about the civil rights era struggles. I’ve read about that time, sure, I have shaken my head and wondered how on earth the South (because I always think of it as the South where institutionalized racism was born and where the vestiges of that infect society, another false perceptions I am trying to correct) could have been like that. I’ve felt ashamed that people were so terribly mistreated in my country.

But I’ve never placed myself in the stories. I’ve never tried to imagine wanting a book and ending up being beaten my police. I’ve never tried imagining denying someone that book. Not that imagining is experiencing, I don’t mean that at all, but imagining is stronger than just learning. I hope that making the mental leap to put myself right into someone else’s perspective will help me break down the implicit bias I, like all Americans, carry. I hope it makes me a better librarian, better able to truly serve every person who comes through our doors. I’m grateful that my professional association walks that walk, provides members with information about challenges to freedom, and expects that standing for “liberty and justice for all” is a part of what we do.