settlers of catan library card

Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory

Part Three of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

This post is about the session pitched by Kevin Sanders, about the lack of critical theory on Library and Information Studies (LIS) courses, which is particularly unusual for postgraduate courses, in which students are usually expected to be able to demonstrate that they can critically engage with their subject. Kevin suggested that there isn’t much by way of critical theory present on reading lists and within modules on courses relating to LIS, and that perhaps this might be a by design rather than accident on the part of departments to ensure that students of LIS remain what Foucault described as “docile bodies”; that is…kind of…workers who are easy to control and unlikely to challenge authority, as a result of how academic institutions and wider society act to make people submissive. The absence of critical theory may suggest a lack of desire to expose students to materials that may raise consciousness of issues of social justice and how this relates to library and information work.

What is critical theory?

A good place to start is by briefly defining critical theory, which Kevin and I attempted to do on the day, but perhaps not very well. However! The power of the blog means I can use other people’s words to explain (perhaps) more effectively:

“The rise of critical theory is usually identified with the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), formed in 1923 and associated over the years with the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany. The institute was the home of what became known as the Frankfurt School of social thought/critique. Particularly under the leadership of Max Horkheimer during the 1930s, the institute became a focus for the radical critique both of the fabric of society (including the economy and its attendant sociopolitical formations) and the social theories that were purported to be explanatory of social phenomena.” (Leckie and Buschman 2010, p.viii)

The early critical theorists of the Frankfurt School covered a wide range of topics but were broadly united in neo-Marxist ways of approaching problems. The term doesn’t just cover the members of the Frankfurt School, but also includes people writing in France, slightly later, who tended to focus on moving the critique of political economy towards a broader critique of society and culture. It also covers later generations of writers up to the present day who…think I said on the day something like “people writing about problems in society relating to social justice and inequality, and working towards understanding how structures of power are the cause of the problems”. It now exists in a lot of disciplines, including: education, literary studies, philosophy, management, communication /media studies, international relations, political science, geography, language studies, sociology, and psychology (Leckie and Buschman 2010, p.ix).

Why is critical theory important in LIS?

There are very many good reasons critical theory is important in LIS, which we didn’t discuss all of in detail in the session but include:

  • Theories from other disciplines are being increasingly adopted by LIS research and practice, such as business studies, marketing and psychology. However, critical theory exists which challenges the theories and practices of these areas, and neglecting to consider these means that we fail to address the failings of the theories we’re taking on uncritically;
  • To make itself seem like a ‘legitimate’ area of research and its own field of practice, LIS places itself within different disciplines, such as education and social science. There are “debates and the progressions of thought” (Leckie and Buschman 2010, p.xi) in these fields which LIS has not kept up with, but needs to in order to maintain its place in those communities of practice.
  • Most importantly (I think), engagement with critical theory enables people working in all areas of library and information to respond thoughtfully to current events such as public spending cuts, internet filtering, surveillance, government and market use of big data, censorship, the marketisation of higher education, and changes to all areas of education that place emphasis on assessment and teaching to the test. Leckie and Buschman (2010, p.xi) talk about how the area of library technologies is massively undertheorised, which is really worrying given how keen to adopt new technologies and approaches libraries often are.

These benefits aren’t just beneficial for LIS research, but are issues that need to be thought about by practitioners and acted on in practice in the decisions we make in policy and in everyday engagement with the individuals, communities and societies we serve.

Why isn’t critical theory included on LIS courses?

Some suggestions were made about why there isn’t much critical theory on LIS courses, including:

  • The desire for students to be uncritical of the problems within LIS as a whole, particularly the neoliberal, marketised routes being taken by universities, professional bodies and other institutions related to libraries and information work;
  • The perceived ‘difficulty’ of critical theory – there was some doubt about whether all the students given a place on LIS courses would be able to engage with the material, and even if they have a high enough standard of English to be able to read and write about the course content (and whether the standards expected of LIS students is lower than on other Masters courses – this will be explored in a later post). Issues were also raised about the reluctance of departments to fail students, and that critical theory assignments may be more likely to see lower marks than other, ‘easier’ modules;
  • The emphasis of many LIS courses on vocationalism – many students see LIS courses as a means to an end, they ‘need’ the qualification to serve as a tick-box on a form for job applications which require a ‘qualified’ candidate, and therefore there is increased pressure on departments to teach skills for the job rather than theories for the profession.

I want to read some critical theory, where should I start?

There isn’t a huge amount of writing specific to critical theory in library and information studies, and what there is tends to be from the US and is therefore not always applicable in a UK context. However, I’ve made a google doc of Critical Theory in LIS Recommended Reading on a google doc. It’s open for anyone to edit, so if there’s anything I’ve missed that you think would be of value for people new to the topic to read, please do add it. The other day I also came across a bibliography for content specifically focusing on critical pedagogy (theories about the method and practice of teaching) put together by two of the people involved in the twitter #critlib discussion group, which runs at horrible o’clock in the morning for UK-based people but is always worth catching up on afterwards.

john cusack in high fidelity

(In the style of John Cusack) my Top Five (okay fine seven) All-Time Must-Read Critical Theory in LIS texts are:

  1. Leckie, G.J., Given, L.M. and Buschman, J.E. eds., 2010. Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Discipline. Oxford: Libraries Unlimited.
  2. Leckie, G.J. & Buschman, J.E. eds. (2009) Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches. 1st ed. Westport, Libraries Unlimited.
  3. Gregory, L. & Higgins, S. eds., 2013. Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis. Sacramento, Library Juice Press.
  4. Elmborg, J., 2006. ‘Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice.’ The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32 (2), pp.192–199.
  5. Buschman, J.E., 2005. ‘On Libraries and the Public Sphere.’ Library Philosophy and Practice, 7 (2). Available from: <http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/libphilprac/11>.
  6. Day, R.E., 2000. ‘Tropes, History, and Ethics in Professional Discourse and Information Science.’ Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51 (5), pp.469–475.
  7. Greene, M. and McMenemy, D., 2012. ‘The Emergence and Impact of Neoliberal Ideology on UK Public Library Policy, 1997–2010.’ Library and Information Science, 6, pp.13-41.

I’d say that pretty much anything by any of these people, and most of the stuff published by Library Juice Press is well worth a read.

How can we make critical theory in LIS happen?

A few suggestions from the session and chats afterwards:

  • If you’re on a LIS course, ask for it;
  • If you were on a LIS course, contact your old department and recommend it if you’ve benefited from engaging with it after your course;
  • If you’re a doctoral researcher, volunteer to teach on courses where there isn’t much critical theory and get it in there;
  • If you want to do doctoral research, consider applying critical theory to your work, and apply for funding (advice about which I’m always more than happy to share);
  • If you’re a practitioner who might have opportunities to do research in the field, have a look at how critical theory has been applied to action research and other ‘in the field’-based research projects;
  • Blog about the stuff you’re reading. Propose papers to journals. Journals are often not keen on purely theoretical papers, but if you’re a practitioner and have experience or examples to furnish your use of theory and vice versa, I think they’d love it;
  • If you want to get involved in Radical Library Collective local events, let us know and we can put you in touch with people local to you who might also be interested in meeting up and talking about stuff they’ve been reading;
  • Follow the Sheffield University Critical Reading Group hashtag #critLIS on twitter (livetweeting from reading group meetings from 11am on the last Wednesday of the month);
  • Start a reading group wherever you are!

References

Leckie, G. and Buschman, J. (2010) “Introduction: The Necessity for Theoretically Informed  Critique in Library and Information Science” in Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Discipline. Leckie, Gloria J., Given, Lisa M., Buschman, John E. (Eds.) Oxford: Libraries Unlimited.

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12 thoughts on “Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory

  1. Eric Phetteplace (@phette23)

    While I agree that the vocational nature of a lot of LIS schools is partially responsible for the lack of critical theory (it was for me, personally), I take offense at the equivalence between vocational education and tick-box credentialing. I work at a school with many vocational programs and our graduates leave prepared to work in specialized fields; they’re obtaining skills and knowledge, not a mere checkmark. It’s also pretty easy to argue that many degrees—including ones steeped in theory—are used to check off job app requirements. The critique is not unique to vocational programs in the least.
    Great post. Will be reading some of your recommendations.

    Reply
    1. Lauren Post author

      That’s a really fair comment; although I think in this instance the discussion was about LIS specifically rather than other vocational courses, it’s also important not to assume that all vocational programmes lack depth.

      Reply
  2. Rosie Hare

    A really interesting post and I think you’ve just given me an idea of what I can look into for my Research Methods module that I’ll be starting in September. I’m nearing the end of my PG Dip (will be finished in January) and I can’t afford to continue on with the dissertation stage just yet. Partly because of financial reasons and partly because I’ve been sickened off by how disappointing the course has been for me. I’d love to do doctoral research but I may go back to my undergraduate discipline of History rather than stick with LIS as a career choice. We’ll see.

    Would love to attend a RLC at some point if there are going to be others, as it sounds like there were a load of great people and great discussions there.

    Reply
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