Should librarians challenge the status quo? An interview with Laura Saunders

June 5, 2015, 2:53 am

Should librarians challenge the status quo?

I decided to ask a professor. Laura Saunders is an Assistant Professor at Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, where she teaches and conducts research in the areas of reference and instruction, intellectual freedom, and academic libraries. She also has a strong interest in social justice issues related to libraries.

You’ve mentioned online that libraries should challenge the status quo. Tell me about that.
I think there are a lot of issues and challenges that libraries could weigh in on and hopefully influence for the better.  Perhaps most important is thinking about our communities and the ways in which we serve (and fail to serve) them. While the mission and ethics of libraries center on equitable services, in reality the research shows that certain demographics use our services much more heavily than others.  In many cases, communities in the lower socioeconomic ranges, with less education, who speak languages other than English, and so on, are the ones that do not use the library.  It is essential that we ask ourselves why these communities are not using our services.  Is it because our staff doesn’t speak the languages or reflect the demographics of our communities?  Is it due to a real or perceived lack of resources related to the needs of these communities?  This is especially important during a time when libraries are being pressured to demonstrate their value.  For which community(ies), exactly, are they providing value?

In addition there are issues around publishing and access: traditional publishing models tend to limit overall access due to very high prices (and the fact that for some research publications, institutions end up essentially “paying twice”— first paying the salary and providing the resources for the scholar doing the research, and then paying to access the journal that publishes the research). Publishers also have a lot of control over what gets published, which is usually driven by perceived market.  At the moment, this is resulting in a lack of books with diverse primary characters.  Libraries are a pretty big part of the publishing market, and they can try to use their position to influence some of these practices.  Librarians can also work with scholars and writers to raise awareness around open access models.

We also have to be aware of social/community inequities with regard to access to information and education for information literacy. Access to information is a human right, and is necessary for informed decision-making and full participation in a democratic society.  However, access alone is not enough.  People also need to develop the skills to critically evaluate and use information.  Librarians need to advocate for greater access and more education.

Finally, we need to reflect on our own practices and think about the way the profession can and should change.  For instance, we need to consider the ways in which our collection development and selection policies might silence certain voices, how certain cataloging practices might reinforce certain social stereotypes, and how policies might be developed and/or applied to limit rather than promote equitable services and access, and then work to change these structures.

Critical pedagogy and critical information literary have been gaining a lot of momentum in librarianship. What do these concepts mean to you?
I think critical information literacy has to do with moving away from task and process-based approaches to information literacy where the focus is on basic competencies of retrieval and access and moving toward critically engaging with information.  Critical information literacy includes thinking about how information is produced and disseminated, and critically evaluating information and its sources.  It means understanding that information comes from and exists within power structures and examining what that means in terms of bias and credibility.  It also means digging deeper when evaluating information to go beyond an author’s credentials or whether an article was peer reviewed and to consider issues like funding bodies, research methods, etc.

Critical pedagogy involves an approach to teaching which requires both the student and the instructor to engage in critical reflection. Rather than a “banking model” of education, in which the instructor simply transfers, or “deposits,” facts into the students’ knowledge base, critical pedagogy requires that students and instructors work together to question existing structures and assumptions and to construct meaning.

How do we apply these concepts in the classroom? I’m thinking about the practicing librarian who is excited about critical theory—how does she implement this?
This is a great question.  I just “attended” a fantastic webinar run by Emily Drabinski through SLA in which Drabinski described working with students in library instruction sessions to think about how knowledge is organized and how the ways in which classifications systems name things surface certain assumptions and ideas.  For instance, the fact that a searcher might need to search at least three different subject headings to find all the material related to African American women in the catalog, while white women are not even named.  This suggests that “white” is the norm, and any other designation is “other.” This is a great example of how librarians can encourage students to think about and question the dominant systems of knowing.

What about the librarian who aspires to teach critical information literacy but the instructor just wants her to demonstrate databases and show traditional search skills?
This is definitely a tough situation. The faculty member really controls the classroom, making the librarian a guest in that space.  However, I think that most faculty and librarians really share the same concerns about student knowledge and learning, and are often working toward the same goals. If librarians engage faculty in conversation about these concerns and goals, they discover that critical information literacy really fits the faculty member’s intention for a library instruction session better than a more traditional session would. I would suggest beginning by asking the faculty member what they want students to learn, know, and/or be able to do at the end of the session, tying in to an assignment if relevant, and then discussing how a critical information literacy approach could move students towards those goals, using specific examples whenever possible.

Tell me about your background. How did you get into librarianship? How did you get into critical information literacy?
I have always been interested in education. My original intention was to be a high school English teacher.  However, I found that library science allowed me to continue with my interest in education and teaching while reaching out to all different age groups and working in many different subject areas. Information literacy was a perfect fit.  I discovered the concept of critical information literacy during my PhD program and I was immediately excited by the way it moved us beyond skills such as searching and really focused on the critical thinking and evaluation skills that are so necessary for using information effectively for decision making.  Around the same time, I took a course on teaching and learning that introduced me to the writing of Paolo Freire and the idea of critical pedagogy. Taken together, critical pedagogy and critical information literacy seem to address many of the most fundamental social justice issues of our time, and I am excited to be able to have any small part in that work.

Should librarians promote a political or social agenda?
I think it would be naïve to suggest that libraries don’t have a political or social agenda.  While as professionals we can make every effort to put aside our personal beliefs and to develop collections that represent different points of view and ideas, I agree with writers like John Swan and Robert Jensen among others who suggest that neutrality within the profession is a myth.  By not taking a stand or making an active decision, we are passively supporting and furthering the status quo.  Better, then, to be transparent about our ethical and moral positions on questions such as censorship, intellectual freedom, equitable access, etc., and work to support those positions.

Any thoughts on the ACRL IL Framework?
I think that, as a theoretical framework, the new ACRL IL Framework has a lot of potential.  It definitely moves us beyond the basic task and process-based skills that seemed such a large part of the original competencies to focus more on critical thinking and larger concepts.  However, the original ACRL competencies had really begun to make some headway in the world of higher education—being discussed and endorsed either explicitly or implicitly in accreditation standards, research policy documents, etc. I think the challenge is to find ways to incorporate the new language and conceptualizations without losing the progress that we’ve made.


Information Literacy as an Outcome
Laura wrote Information Literacy as a Student Learning Outcome: The Perspective of Institutional Accreditation. One of the things I found interesting was her exploration of  the impact  we can have across the course, program, and institutional perspectives. I like the idea of shaping outcomes that align with different campus entities. For example, we can pinpoint how we advance the general education program or how we support the College of Engineering through the lens of accreditation. Her book has given me a lot to think about.


from: Information Literacy as a Student Learning Outcome: The Perspective of Institutional Accreditation


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