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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Geeking out on assessment

It’s “intersession” — that golden time between semesters when we can catch our breath, catch up on projects like weeding and shifting in the stacks, and assess how the previous semester’s library instruction went. I love geeking out on assessment, and this semester is fun because last summer we redesigned our information literacy rubric and our assessment plan.

I’d been to some assessment programs and conferences, and had been thinking a lot about frustrations we’d had. I asked my boss, library colleagues, and faculty, “What are we trying to find out?” To me it seemed what we really want to know is whether our vision — that students can seek and use information effectively and responsibly — is being fulfilled. In assessing student work from first semester freshmen through seniors in their capstone research classes, we want to see if they can define their information need; find sources that meet the requirements of the assignment, evaluate the credibility of their sources; use those sources to provide background and examples, support or refute an argument, or illustrate a method of researching or interpreting information; and cite their sources both in text and in a bibliography.

In the past we’ve rated these things on a scale. But I played devil’s advocate last summer and asked “Do we really care that freshmen aren’t as good at this as seniors? What does that tell us that’s useful? Don’t we actually just want to know whether they can do these things or not by the time they graduate?” Our formal assessment will now focus on the capstone research courses in each major, and we’re informally assessing lower level classes in order to give programmatic feedback to the faculty, such as “Hey, everyone in this class used Shmoop as a source, maybe you should add something to the syllabus next time, and we should add something to our library instruction session, about choosing more rigorous sources.”

My boss pointed out that in many cases the answer to whether students can do these things is going to be “sort of.” That was a fair point, so we rate each of the criteria we’re assessing as yes, somewhat, or no. If we choose somewhat, we write a few notes explaining why, like “Most of this presentation’s sources are credible, but the student cited abcnews.co.com which is a fake news site.” (That was a fake news site, which seems to have been taken down, thank goodness.)

I’m about halfway through my portion of the senior capstones for the fall semester, and worked on the freshmen and sophomore presentations last week. So far the feedback from the library team is that the rubric is much easier to use, and I think we’re able to see patterns even without using a rating scale. It’s definitely gratifying to see that the seniors, for the most part, can seek and use information effectively and responsibly.

When we lead library instruction sessions we often worry about whether we’ve “shown them everything” or if we’ve forgotten some key resource, tool, or strategy. I think as long as we keep our eye on the long game — that by the time they leave the university, they know how to determine what information they need, where to find it, whether it’s “good” in terms both of being both helpful to their need and reliable, and how to credit the information’s creator, then we’re doing fine. The details matter, but the big picture is even more important. Because once our students are information literate, they’ll be able to adapt those skills to the changing information landscape they’ll face in graduate school or at work.

That’s worth geeking out about, and it’s also immensely gratifying. And, it’s at the heart of everything we do as librarians, from ordering, processing, cataloging, and shelving materials, keeping our website up to date, creating user friendly signage and policies, and promoting our services and resources to the whole campus community. I’m looking forward to looking over the assessment results, meeting with faculty and the library instruction team, and “getting to yes” on every assessment criteria in the future.