This paper introduces the concept of critical information literacy; an approach to information literacy (IL) that embraces the political nature of education, and the necessity of a critical approach to pedagogy in order to empower citizens to meaningfully engage with democracy and challenge social injustice.
The library and information science (LIS) profession has a social responsibility to engage with issues of critical pedagogy, and although LIS often claims to serve democratic goals, it often falls short of its worthy claims. Several problems with IL practice are discussed, and the ways these can be overcome through engagement with critical pedagogical theory are explored. It is argued that IL has the strong potential to secure its place as a relevant democratic and educational tool in a learning society, provided that researchers and practitioners engage meaningfully in substantive issues of pedagogy, politics and professional jurisdiction. Some examples of the ways in which members of the profession are already engaging with critical pedagogy through critical information literacy in practice are identified.
The brevity of this paper does not allow for in-depth discussion of the concepts introduced, the complexity of critical pedagogy and the implications of critical approaches to information literacy, so further reading of sources referenced is strongly recommended.
2. Critical Pedagogy
Critical pedagogy is an educational movement which gives students the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and sense of responsibility necessary to engage in a culture of questioning. These abilities allow young people to challenge perceived inevitabilities of social injustice that they may have, and engage in meaningful participation and leadership (Giroux, 2010). Henry Giroux (2011, p.144) argues that civic education is the cornerstone of democracy, in which people must not only have the right to participate, but should also be educated in order to be able to participate. Giroux advocates for the necessity for critical pedagogy in education in order to “help students to develop a consciousness of freedom, recognise authoritarian tendencies, empower the imagination, connect knowledge and truth to power, and learn how to read both the word and the world as part of a broader struggle for agency, justice and democracy” (2012, p.116).
In order to enable people to possess the political agency advocated by critical theorists, education systems and educators, including librarians, must take a critical approach and challenge the frameworks and processes that prevent people from being able to see alternate perspectives and think critically. Although critical pedagogical theory has not yet widely been applied to LIS and very much remains on the margins of information literacy discourse (Cope, 2010, p.24), it has been recommended by a number of theorists within the discipline who believe it is an important area with which to actively engage, particularly with regard to information literacy provision (Elmborg, 2006; Eryaman, 2010; Gage, 2004; Kapitzke, 2003).
3. Information Literacy
Information literacy is an increasingly important area of work in LIS, often presented as the foundation of the profession’s educational jurisdiction (O’Connor, 2009, p.272). A number of frameworks for information literacy have emerged, including the SCONUL Seven Pillars Model, which is especially popular in UK higher education libraries, and the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, which are commonly used in the United States. Frameworks offer a means by which practitioners can assess individuals’ levels of information literacy, offering a useful, standardised set of performance indicators which can then be tailored to meet individuals’ or institutions’ needs. The SCONUL framework for example, offers a ‘core’ vision which can then be added to with a series of ‘lenses’ which represent different learner groups (SCONUL, 2011). Information literacy can be seen as a ‘cognitive schema’ – a way of thinking – which can offer continuity and a means to obtain resources (Whitworth, 2013), which are beneficial features. However, information literacy is an evolving concept, with some problems that need to be addressed in order for it to properly fulfil the role it claims to perform. A number of criticisms have been made about the aspects of the development of IL, which will be discussed below.
IL has been criticised for the nature of its origins. For example, Foster (1993, p.346) claimed that IL is “an effort to deny the ancillary status of librarianship by inventing a social malady with which librarians as ‘information professionals’ are uniquely qualified to deal”. Tyner (1998) suggests that the lack of a simple definition of IL, may in part be due to the idea that the IL as a concept exists as the result of a need of the library profession to market their role to the educational community. He suggests that this occurred as a result of the LIS community strongly feeling that they had been excluded from educational policy, particularly the US report A Nation at Risk (1983). Similarly, O’Connor (2009b, p.493) suggests that IL was a concept developed out of a reaction to the threats faced by traditional access-oriented librarianship roles. She suggests that IL legitimated the profession in that it created a more flexible, educational jurisdiction for librarians (p.499). This in itself is not necessarily negative and does not negate the value and relevance of IL (p.506), but does become potentially problematic when librarians make claims to teaching roles (p.502). The majority of librarians in the United Kingdom do not have teaching qualifications and have not studied educational theory. It could be suggested that this may be a contributing factor to why IL has not yet fully engaged with substantive issues such as pedagogical theories and limit the ability of LIS to best meet the needs of learners through IL provision.
Criticisms of the origins of IL do not mean that it is not a valuable part of library and information provision, but does suggest that practitioners and those writing about IL need to be aware of the background and rationale behind it, in order to question the practices and activities we encourage and discourage. Reflection and understanding of the sometimes reactive and defensive origins of parts of the discipline can help us to meaningfully define and articulate the role of IL in the future.
3.2 Theoretical Grounding
IL has been criticised for a lack of theoretical depth. Buschman (2007, p.1492) criticises LIS for being simultaneously both under- and over-theorised in approach, arguing that “LIS cast as a science has flattened libraries and information systems/products into objective and neutral entities studied without reference to context or power”, while suggesting that at the same time there has been “an over-theorised notion of power and domination proliferates within areas of LIS theory adapted from postmodern sources”. Similarly, Cope (2009, p.11) suggests that “LIS commentators tend to shy away from more complicated discussions of social and political power”, and Day (2010, p.2) argues that LIS research has shaky conceptual foundations.
Gage (2004 p.73) accuses the library and information profession as having become a “hollowed out reification of consumer society” which systemically fails to problematize issues of importance. This lack of deep engagement with critical theory has led to an overemphasis on a positivist approach (Kapitzke 2003, p.11), which critics argue impedes the development of critical reasoning (Pankl and Coleman 2010, p.6).
Doherty and Ketchner (2005) question whether the library profession is aware of the structures of power and hierarchy that it has built around information literacy tuition. They argue that “information literacy is not as empowering as the library profession would like to think”, citing Kapitzke (2003) who argues that “[f]ar from contributing to equitable education outcomes, this [information literacy] framework for school library research masks an exclusionary ideology”.
3.3 Skills-Based Frameworks
The ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards (ALA, 2000) represent an approach to information literacy education that a number of theorists find problematic. Pankl and Coleman (2009, p.8) criticise the ACRL Standards for “hindering the transformation of…students and inhibiting their impact on the world”. Webber and Johnston (2000, p.384) identify a step-by-step process approach to information literacy, which they suggest “facilitates the mapping of information literacy onto current assignments and class curricula, focusing exclusively on skills”, which they argue “reduces the complexity of learning and knowledge to limited and isolated units”.
Whitworth (2013) also criticizes standardised competencies, particularly the ACRL definition of IL which implies that information literacy is a linear sequence in which the learner deliberately engages, which he says fails to account for other ways and forms of engaging with information and learning. He also believes that standardised competencies have become cognitive schema; ways of thinking to which people are expected to conform, which promotes one way of thinking over others without allowing for the ways in which learners develop their own criteria for establishing what information is important and relevant in their own contexts.
The skills-oriented approach has also been criticized for isolating information from its social, cultural, historical, and technological contexts (Jacobs and Berg, 2011, p.386). Špiranec and Zorica (2010, p.142-143) suggest that adopting a skills-oriented approach “is a limited perception of [information literacy] as a neutral process which is entirely unaffected by any kind of social, political or historical background”.
This approach to information literacy emerges from the idea that information literacy is a problem needing to be overcome (Jacobs and Berg, 2011, p.387). Librarians see the ACRL standards as a solution, based on the assumption that students are lacking information literacy skills. As a result, information literacy is treated as the learning of “survival skills” (p.387). This is problematic, because it means that the focus of information literacy practitioners is on practical survival skills and more pressing information needs (Kopp and Olson-Kopp 2009, p.58), and not on more abstract goals such as the development of critical consciousness and the critical aims of IL according to the Alexandria Proclamation, which emphasises the need for IL to extend “beyond current technologies to encompass learning, critical thinking and interpretative skills across professional boundaries and empowers individuals and communities.” (IFLA, 2006).
3.4 Critical Information Literacy
Critical information literacy takes the theories of critical pedagogy and critical literacy, and translates these into the practice of IL. Whitworth (2011) argues that it is important to have a clear idea of what IL is for and an awareness of the conflicting views about this because it raises political challenges for LIS. He connects the concept of noöpolitics, which is interested in control over informational resources (Whitworth, 2011, p.191), to a critical approach to IL, and argues that in order to challenge the transmission of cultural hegemony (manipulation of culture by those in control in order to present social, economic and political injustice as inevitable). LIS needs to be aware of noöpolitical issues and equip learners with the ability to critique and scrutinise information in order to challenge and question the messages to which they are exposed.
Elmborg (2006) argues that in order to align themselves with the democratic values they invoke, libraries must engage in critical literacy and focus on the links between educational processes and the politics of literacy (p.193). This includes the need for educators to be aware of the ways in which schools and curricula themselves present and protect traditional, authoritative knowledge, whilst failing to “respect students as people capable of agency and meaning- making in their own right” (p.194). Elmborg (2006, p.195) argues that literacy must be looked at in a pluralistic, non-judgemental way, which with respect to information literacy requires IL practitioners to help learners to present information that meets the standards expected of their learning environment, but also to help them understand systems of thought, information flows and to be able to “critically evaluate the system itself” (p.196).
Critical information literacy puts to work the democratic ideals of LIS, which are frequently recited but often ignored (Buschman, 2007). The following section briefly details some examples of LIS professionals engaging with critical information literacy, which indicates that critical pedagogy may be having some positive influence on IL practice.
3.5 Critical Information Literacy in Practice
Pankl and Coleman (2009, p.9) recommend the encouragement of sharing and dialogue between students, which can be achieved through creating a space where students are facing each other and are not behind computer monitors. They also advocate the fostering of “intellectual curiosity” in students, which can be achieved through promoting research that is “relevant to the students’ personal and academic lives”. Cope (2009, p.25) says that classroom practices of critical information literacy “would entail a move away from the demonstration of technical search processes and simplistic claims that some sources are “authoritative” because authorities have decided that they are”.
Torrell (2009, pp.89-103) describes her application of critical library instruction in her library workshops. She aims to create situations in which students are enabled to identify when they are being manipulated by outside forces such as newspapers, and learn to be less uncritically willing to accept the authority of the written word. Contact zone pedagogy techniques are used to maximise student agency and engagement.
Although IL has contributed to an understanding of the role of the library and information professional and provided a rubric by which we can chart the performance and abilities of learners, it is vital for the LIS profession to view IL as a more meaningful educational device. If we are to consider ourselves as educators, we must engage with educational and pedagogical issues. If we are to consider ourselves as supporters of democracy, we must engage with political issues. The nature of information, knowledge and education is inherently political, and librarians must be able to justify the decisions they make and consider the political implications of the practices they choose. The decisions we make about our approach to education must be explicit and transparent; neutrality is not an option (Elmborg, 2006, p.193).
Engagement with critical approaches to information literacy would not only help librarians to justify the existence as a profession and demonstrate their values to the institutions in which they work and the learners they serve, but also contribute to the strengthening of democracy through providing citizens with the abilities to become active agents in society, motivated and able to participate through a sense that the information they are able to access, critique and understand can be used by them to effect real social change.
Taking a critical approach to information literacy is a complex task, which requires much reflection on the part of those involved. We must be conscious of the need to work within ethical constraints and to avoid interfering in the political lives of others, at the same time as working to ensure that we do not shy away from political issues concerning our educational values and wider ideals for society. Developing an overall policy for critical information literacy instruction and would allow the LIS profession to lay the groundwork for specific tuition based on the needs of learners within each learning environment.
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- Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) (2011) The SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: Core Model for Higher Education [Online] Available from: <http://www.sconul.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/coremodel.pdf> [Accessed 13 May 2013].
- Špiranec, S., & Zorica, M. B. (2010) Information Literacy 2.0: hype or discourse refinement? Journal of Documentation, 66(1), pp.140-153.
- Torrell, M.R. (2009) Negotiating Virtual Contact Zones: Revolutions in the role of the research workshop. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.89-104. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
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