Diving into critical pedagogy: an alterative view of information literacy

January 6, 2015, 3:50 pm

A few months ago this PowerPoint slide appeared in my Twitter stream:


 It lingered with me for weeks.

I had never considered a library instruction program taking on matters such as dehumanization, colonizing media, or the economic contradictions in our environment. In all the libraries I’ve worked we struggled to have enough people to cover the core instructional load and I could not have imagined a program focused instead on a social agenda.

My view of information literacy has always been pragmatic and conservative: find, access, evaluate, and use a variety of materials. When I was an instruction librarian at George Washington and Georgia Tech my emphasis was on serving engineering disciplines where the focus was on journals, patents, industry standards, and handbooks.

alloysTypical reference questions were about identifying suitable alloys for high temperatures. The type of resistance I dealt with was mechanical or structural and not political or social. For me it boiled down to helping people get the accurate information they needed for whatever they were working on.

Therefore this concept of info lit as a social movement didn’t make sense—it was so far outside of my scope of experience. The publications I read and the conference sessions I attended were more about how to be an effective teacher (and a good sci-tech librarian) rather than how to be a radical.

My first thought: it must just be the Europeans! The tweet was from the European Conference on Information Literacy (ECIL) and I figured that they probably had a different perspective. Maybe in the United States we place a greater emphasis on function, utility, and productivity rather than social prerogatives?


My next thought: it must just be library school instructors! The academic side of the profession is so theoretical and idealistic—they are probably out of touch with what’s really happening in libraries.

I discovered that I was wrong on both accounts. American librarians have been incorporating critical pedagogy into their information literary practices for years. I just didn’t notice.

This is a foundational article from 2004: A Radical Step: Implementing A Critical Information Literacy Model via Troy Swanson

Here is another important piece of the conversation from 2006: Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice via James Elmborg

I found this book (from 2010) to be helpful: Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. It tackles critical pedagogy from many perspectives and includes insight and case studies from librarians who found ways to introduce these ideas into class sessions.

There is also a weekly twitter chat (#critlib) that seeks to:

 “Engage in discussion about critical perspectives on library practice. Recognizing that we all work under regimes of white supremacy, capitalism, and a range of structural inequalities, how can our work as librarians intervene in and disrupt those systems?”

I have never heard librarians talk about libraries in that way. I had missed the entire conversation. My flavor of info lit was helping students learn to use the tools and resources necessary for their entry into the engineering profession. One of the core challenges I faced was getting their attention. How could I get time with students to help them learn about the information of their discipline? How could I convince faculty that library instruction had value? When the critical pedagogy discussion emerged over a decade ago I was focused on marketing –  not social impact.

The Year Ahead
While I missed the rise of critical pedagogy within the domain of information literacy I don’t think I’m alone. Over the last several months I’ve been closing my knowledge gap by reading authors such as Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Ira Shor. I had never experienced these thinkers before. They are refreshing and invigorating.

Over the next year I’m aiming for ten to twelve posts on this theme: interviews, observations, reflections, and other content. I’m not exactly sure where it will lead but that’s the point. I invite you along on this journey with me: critical pedagogy


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