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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PLA 2014 impressions, the first post

I got back late last night from Indianapolis and PLA 2014, my first. My synapses are still firing furiously. Everything you’ve heard about learning as much in the hallways at a conference as you do in the sessions is true. I went to very informative sessions, but looking over my notes this morning, I realized the random jottings I stored on my phone as I chatted with people in lines, at meals, and between sessions are a fascinating trove.

I’ve read about some of the things I learned at PLA in professional journals. But meeting someone who is acting on an idea — be it  putting “the community” at the top of the library’s org chart or  or using Twitter to forge partnerships or embedding librarians on community service boards or putting cutouts of staff’s faces on recommended reading– is more powerful than reading about those same ideas.

I need to do some post-conference processing, culling my notes for ideas I want to put into action with our own local twist, allowing them to percolate. And I need to think about the best way to communicate all the exciting things I’ve learned to my colleagues without sounding like a jerk who doesn’t appreciate what we’re already doing or an impractical dreamer who wants to implement a bunch of changes at once.

But mostly what I need to do is remain infused with the joy I felt at PLA. What we do is awesome. What we do is community-building. What we do is hope-fueled and potentially narrative-changing. What we do can fill in the broken spaces in our communities, in our lives and the lives of those we serve. What we do is empowering — people can learn and grow and be their best selves because of the books and services and programs and presence we offer.What we do is shepherd the most egalitarian places in America. Our libraries when they are at their best are the very best of what our society can be.

And I feel delighted and grateful to be a part of this profession.

As I headed to work today I looked forward to the task opening session speaker Bryan Stevenson charged us with:  being fueled by conviction in my heart for the ideas in my head. Thank you to all the incredibly talented, smart, engaged, generous, kind librarians I met for inspiring me and sharing ideas.