Libraries and the EU Referendum

It’s no surprise that I’ve got some thoughts around the EU Referendum and subsequent…mess… and the relevance of information literacy to political engagement. Here, for what it’s worth, is my two penneth’s. I should probably add the caveat that I voted Remain and am doing very little in this post to attempt any kind of balance.

As the statement from CILIP states, “literacy, creativity, understanding and a respect for evidence” are “more important than ever”. Stéphane Goldstein has written about the issues around poor levels of awareness and understanding, exaggeration, misinformation, myths and fearmongering around the campaigning prior to the Referendum. Emma Coonan also wonderfully highlights the importance of information literacy and an awareness of the emotional as well as academic issues around our making sense of the world through the information we encounter.

If libraries had been doing more about supporting political knowledge and participation, would we have the mess we’ve got now? I don’t know. I do know there’s a lot of talk about how if 16 and 17 year olds had been able to vote then Remain would have won. My old neighbour, a maths professor, has done some modelling around Brexit and insists that if more of the younger age group had voted in general then there’d also have been a Remain result. My gut feeling, which is all I can muster right now, is that if more people had known what they were voting for, or what they needed to get out there and vote against, is that there’d have been a Remain result. A more removed and less biased angle is, I guess, “generally, people ought to know about things and vote for things based on a critical awareness of the issues at hand, so in principle, it is important to support the development of strong information literacy skills regardless of the outcomes of any voting”.

We have seen that people have regrets about not being more informed before they cast their vote. Other people who felt they were very well informed feel betrayed by the politicians they trusted, who they perceive never intended to keep the promises they made. Many people did not vote, and reasons for this include not feeling informed enough or knowing whose voice to trust in all the noise and confusion. What seems clear to me is that people need support to help them find information, filter through the masses of information, make sense of the information, understand the biases and limitations of the claims being made and the purposes of the types of information they are encountering, and then work out what decision they want to make and how to act based on these decisions. These skills and actions are part of what librarians refer to as information literacy.

But we’re not really doing much about it. I’m in the process of publishing work around the research I conducted in Scottish school libraries about what support school libraries provided during the Scottish Independence Referendum and General Election – although some schools do provide political information, much of it is to do with the workings of parliament and little more. Across the UK, political education in schools is minimal. Teachers and other staff, including librarians, feel extremely limited as to what they can do to support the development of political knowledge and awareness. These issues are also relevant to public libraries, where during my Masters research I found that library services are very restrained by what local councils are ‘comfortable’ with them providing in terms of political information, and where the overwhelming pressure to be ‘balanced’ often ends up in providing no information rather than take the risk of facing the wrath of extreme right-wing parties for refusing to house their materials and hold them in the same esteem as other political parties. I’m not alone in believing we’ve got some serious issues around neutrality in public libraries, and as I’ve mentioned, school libraries too. There’s a lot of empty rhetoric around how crucial libraries are for supporting democracy, but I see very little action. This is a systemic issue. Library and information services desperately need to overcome the challenges they face to engage in the important work of actually supporting people to make informed choices about how they participate in society and make decisions about how they vote based on knowledge and considered thought. The problem is, we’ve got a crippled public library system, ably brought about by the deprofessionalisation, remodelling and cuts to library services by not only the Conservative and Coalition governments but the Labour government before them. School libraries in state schools are, largely, on their knees, lucky to have a member of staff working in them, let alone a qualified or experienced librarian. It’s almost as if those in positions of power don’t want an informed and engaged citizenry with the agency to participate meaningfully in democracy. I don’t know to what extent this is true. Maybe we’ve just not done a good enough job of talking up the educational and  civic role of libraries and have been paying too much attention to how libraries can support business and entrepreneurship and so on. Whatever game we’ve been playing, I think we’re losing it, and I find it very worrying.

Anyway. The general gist of this post is that libraries need to do something about the state of political engagement, knowledge and understanding in the UK. It’s not only the role of librarians to do this work, and there are certainly many bodies interested in this issue. But we need to be at whatever tables are discussing it. I feel like I’ve been jumping up and down for nearly seven years shouting “we need to do something about democratic engagement” and even after doing Masters research, doctoral research and further independent research on the topic I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress. I want to do something. I don’t work in a library, and even if I did I wouldn’t be in much of a position to start anything from the bottom up. I’m not in any kind of decision-making position within CILIP, but if I was I’d be fighting hard to get CILIP to provide guidance for library workers who want to do something to support their users and wider communities to make informed and considered decisions. This is political work*. That means it’s ‘dangerous’ territory. Individual library workers can’t be expected to take the personal and professional risks that this entails without feeling adequately supported. Union membership and involvement in local networks can go so far, but won’t provide the advocacy necessary to enable substantive change to take place in our services.

We can’t keep not providing political information because our budgets are directed by perceived ‘demand’. We can’t keep being hyper-defensive about our ability to provide information during purdah, especially when there is so little clarity and consistency around what that actually means for public services in practice. We can’t carry on allowing teachers to take down our displays about political issues, or throw away the newspapers we stock that they disagree with. We can’t not bring political issues up when we’re teaching students about how Google’s algorithms work, or how the media and politicians work together to misdirect the public. We can’t not discuss how neutrality and impartiality are different things. We can’t carry on hoping that students will stop asking us, as respected individuals within our communities, about where we stand on political issues so that they can make sense of where they stand in relation to the people around them. I’m not suggesting it’s easy, by any means. And we can’t do it alone. We also can’t do it without robust and clear support from our professional body for us to engage in vital work around civic/citizen engagement in our workplaces. The likelihood is that the majority of library and information services across all sectors in the UK will be resistant to this kind of work. We need the support of CILIP to authoritatively challenge this resistance.

*But all our work is political work, like it or not.

(Image credit: CC Abi Begum on Flickr)


IFLA Limerick

A couple of weeks ago I presented at the IFLA Information Literacy Satellite in Limerick. As well as presenting, I had the opportunity to attend some really informative and useful sessions, some of which touched on critical pedagogy, critical theory, and citizenship.

Bill Johnston, Sheila Webber and Shahd Salha’s round table session in which Professor Johnston drew on Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed to discuss the possibility of a community of practice amongst librarians, educators and activists to support the development of citizens aware of the relationships between information and power.

Dr. Webber discussed the ways in which being considered an ‘active citizen’ in relation to health care necessitates a certain level of information literacy in order to make informed choices, but also how the notion of an ‘active citizen’ can be problematic when it comes to making informed choices which make the lives of healthcare providers more complicated (for example, questioning their recommendations) or which challenge the government’s decisions relating to collecting, storing and sharing data relating to you. Dr. Webber also drew upon Freire’s theories, noting that “attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building”, stressing the importance of involving people in the development of information systems and provision in order to best meet the needs and interests of those being served.

Dr. Salha gave a very interesting account of her doctoral research and ongoing work supporting Syrian activists. The works she does includes helping activists to develop information literacy skills such as learning how to use google maps and other tools to find safe routes across borders, helping people find the resources and information they need to work out what vegetables they can grow in contaminated soil in order to grow food to feed their families, and providing psychological support for activists affected by their experiences. This presentation really put information literacy work into context and provided a valuable example of how in this case it really is a matter of life or death.

The slides used in the presentations are below:

I thoroughly enjoyed all of the papers in the track my paper was presented in (Track 4: Information literacy models and theoretical approaches), but particularly relevant to my interests were ‘Crossing the Threshold: The Information Cycle as a Metacognitive Cultural Tool’ by Amanda Clossen, a librarian at Pennsylvania State University, and ‘Information Literacy in Early Childhood’ by Maria Henkel, a researcher at Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf. Sheila Webber blogged about both Amanda and Maria’s presentations, so I shan’t duplicate efforts!

You can read my paper about critical information literacy and the role libraries can play in helping young people to develop a sense of political agency (developing the identity of people with a right to have rights and the capacity to make decisions and to govern, not just to be governed) here for now, and hopefully it will be published in the conference proceedings. And here are the slides:

Another excellent session was the workshop ‘Transformational Information Literacy Instruction: Using Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Universal Design to Build an Inclusive Classroom Community’ run by Dave Ellenwood (University of Washington Bothell, USA), Althea Lazzaro (University of Washington Bothell, USA) and Rebecca Bliquez (Seattle University, USA). The session introduced us to the concepts of transformational instruction, culturally responsive pedagogy and universal design, and the organisers gave really informative and helpful examples of how they’ve used the ideas successfully (and more importantly, unsuccessfully). I took the handouts we used during group discussions home with me with the intention of reading up on them and using the templates to develop my own hypothetical information literacy instruction sessions! The resources are here on Althea’s website.

Information ‘Obesity’: an offensive metaphor?

I’m very conscious that I’m inexperienced about writing about this topic and am very keen to not be insensitive and cause offence. I’m very happy to be corrected about my use of language and am happy to make changes where necessary, so please either comment or email me.

I bought a book the other day on the recommendation of a senior colleague of mine who was making some recommendations for content I’ve not yet covered in my literature review in relation to concepts in information literacy. It’s Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness by Tara Brabazon. This kind of language is also used by academics like Drew Whitworth, whose book Information Obesity has played a central role in my engagement with concepts of critical information literacy. I want to briefly write about the problem of the use of this kind of metaphor in relation to information, because I find it offensive and I don’t think it’s helpful, but I’m not completely certain about the degree to which it is offensive (and I certainly don’t think it was intended to be) but would like to discuss it with people so I can work out where I stand.

I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the authors aren’t making valid or important points in their work, because an awful lot of it is completely spot on and I find it challenging and I do use a lot of it myself. However, it seems wrong to let the problem pass me by without saying something about it. I’ll certainly be including a critique of it in my literature review, and thought it was worth maybe opening up a conversation about it here because I haven’t come across many criticisms of this kind of language use so far.

For Whitworth, information obesity is defined as “a failure to turn information into knowledge, and thus use it to sustain our minds, bodies, lives and communities. But just as physical obesity is not simply the result of too much food, so information obesity is caused by more than just “information overload”.” He says that other factors responsible are:

  • reductions in the quality of information
  • problems with mental “fitness”, that is, a lack of skills, training etc. in the consumer of information
  • external pressures, whether from “information industries”, peers, or organisations within which we work, to consume information before we have properly judged its worth.

The problems associated with information obesity are:

  • a lack of creativity and flexibility in graduates or employees
  • plagiarism at school and university
  • the “dumbing down” of TV and other media
  • counterknowledge, such as conspiracy theories, creationism, health panics, and so on
  • an increasing lack of privacy and state control over information, instead of individuals having control over the information which is important in their homes, communities, environments, workplaces and cultures.

Similarly, Brabazon discusses the need for a “digital detox” (p.16) or “digital diet” (p.30), in order to encourage students to use better sources of information and improve their media and information literacy.

Writing about information obesity tends to draw links between unhealthy relationships with food and unhealthy relationships with information. This is problematic on a few levels. There is judgement about people who are fat or obese. It is presented as bad, dysfunctional and the opposite of the ideal state of being. It is presented as outside of the norm and outside of what it is to be healthy.

A common fatphobic stereotype is that fat people are intellectually inferior. Cecilia Hartley suggests that fat women are typically seen as “sloppy, careless, lazy, and self-indulgent” (2001, p. 65). The idea that laziness is a cause of information obesity seems to sit too closely to that. For example, in her closing statement Brabazon (2013, p.316) says: “if each of us spends less time eating and more time reading, then…we can fight for intelligence rather than ignorance, and wisdom rather than gluttony.” The juxtaposition of these ideas reproduces this idea.

The metaphor conflates issues of obesity, disordered eating, dieting, detoxing and unhealthiness. The assumption is made that people who are obese are obese because they eat too much, not because of other possible reasons. Being obese is bad and the solution to becoming good or ideal is dieting and detoxing. Dieting and detoxing are seen as mutually exclusive, which they are not. An example of the way concepts are conflated is this section of Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness:

“Returning to the metaphor of this book, consider the nature of fitness and exercise. I wrote much of this book while living in Eastbourne…I would go for daily walks along the coast. The terrain was flat and well-paved. It was easy. But there is a moment each day where I would make a choice between continuing on the flat surface on the promenade or turning right and commencing a 25 degree incline up to the summit…Going up the incline for 15 minutes is difficult…But once at the top of Beachy Head I view a landscape that was not revealed from the coast. Without the effort, the extraordinary vista would remain obscured.” (p.44)

The thing is, the metaphor of this book isn’t quite clear, because of the fact that health is possible at every size. The idea in this passage seems to be that making the effort pays off. This works in an information context, in that making the effort to find better quality information that isn’t always the first thing that turns up on google (or subject databases, for that matter) can pay off in terms of better information to produce better assignments. However, it doesn’t seem to work within the metaphor itself. There are other ways of getting up that hill, for example. But the value judgement here is that getting up there by walking is the only acceptable way of doing it. (Actually, this is making me think about the judgements that are made by librarians and academics – that unless you’ve sweated your way into the dusty journal stacks or searched through complex advanced search functions, the information you’re using isn’t virtuous.) The idea is that what you’re doing should be hard but that’s okay because the pay-off is a beautiful view. I don’t know, the “returning to the metaphor of this book” just sits wrong. The idea that the ‘fitness’ that is being sought cannot be achieved without daily walks up hills and the outcome is that you are no longer ‘obese’. It has also been pointed out to me that there is an intersection with disability, in that somebody might not be able to walk up the hill because for example they may use a wheelchair. This applies to the issues relating to information – a lot of information is presented in ways that many people may not be able to get hold of or use because of accessibility issues.

The point of challenging ‘information obesity’ is about making sure people use information properly/effectively. It feels unpleasantly ironic that this relates to the problem of “counterknowledge”, which includes health panics, and that the rhetorical device used, that of fat shaming, directly contributes to that. It also sits very uncomfortably that Brabazon talks about how as a result of writing a book that some people found offensive, she received unpleasant messages which were “invariably about [her] nationality, gender, body shape or qualifications” (p.4), but the central problematising metaphor for this book seems to stigmatise people because of their body shape.

I must say that both authors do discuss wider cultural and social issues regarding the causes of information overload, and talk about how it’s not always the fault of the learner that they have problems with sifting through an abundance of information and have values that run counter to those of academia. However, there isn’t an acknowledgement of social issues such as poverty, capitalism and mental ill-health that all have an influence on obesity. Brabazon does say that obesity is a moral panic rather than a real menace, and talks about how we live in a culture surrounded by and obsessed with food (p.52). Whitworth (2009) talks about how a culture of blame will not help to shift patterns of behaviour. There seems to be the idea, though, that instead of shaming individuals for their body shape, that we should teach them how to get rid of that body shape through exercise. This seems to me to be a reductive and simplistic presentation of issues surrounding obesity, its causes and ‘solutions’. It’s more complex than someone who is obese deciding to walk up that hill. It might work for some people, but there are far more issues at play that are not addressed for the sake of being able to use a metaphor. There is a repeated sense that ‘good’ information use and ‘good’ eating are a simple choice – salad isn’t as appealing as cake so we choose cake, for example (Brabazon 2013, p.60). There is no engagement with issues such as the affordability of healthy foods and relationships between obesity and socioeconomic status.

I think it’s really important to be conscious of the kind of language we use as information professionals, especially if we’re trying to encourage critical engagement with information. I’m not suggesting that the writers are deliberately trying to cause offence, I think it’s more likely that the metaphor seemed like it would be engaging and something that people could understand. The fact that the ideas aren’t developed far beyond being used as book titles, section headings and a basic concept of something to be overcome indicates that isn’t intended as a complete and well thought out criticism. However, I think it’s assumed that people will understand the metaphors used in section headings etc. and that their use is acceptable precisely because of the fat-shaming that is so dominant in our culture. I might have missed something huge, and am happy to stand corrected, but I think in the future we need to be more careful about our choice of metaphors because they can be powerful but incredibly unhelpful.


  • Brabazon, T. (2013). Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Hartley, C. (2001). Letting ourselves go: Making room for the fat body in feminist scholarship. In K. LeBesco & J. E. Braziel (Eds.), Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (pp. 60-73). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Whitworth, A. (2009). Information Obesity. Oxford: Chandos.

Post-script: I must admit that I have not read widely around the origin of terms such as information obesity, media gluttony and binge searching. I intend to read Wright, A. (2007) Glut: mastering information through the ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. I’m keen to read more, so if anyone has any library and information science related articles or books that use this kind of language that they could recommend, please do.

Image CC Attribution-Sharealike by Ted Bigham

Journal of Information Literacy

Just a brief post to mention I’ve got a paper in the Journal of Information Literacy, which was published yesterday. The paper was based on my LILAC Conference paper and is largely a literature review about critical information literacy, with some explanation of the methodology for my PhD research. The journal is online and open access, so you can read the paper here.

In the editorial, Jane Secker writes:

Smith’s paper, entitled ‘Towards a model of critical information literacy instruction for the development of political agency’ is thought provoking. Building on the fields of critical pedagogy and critical literacy, Smith argues that IL should adopt a critical approach in order to meaningfully engage with its democratic social goals. She further argues that critical IL could be of benefit to young people of secondary school age, in terms of increasing their political agency through increased critical abilities. The paper is based on an ongoing doctoral study, which promises to challenge our ideas of what and how we teach IL at school level.

It’s a bumper issue of JIL this time round, with some great papers from LILAC and a short piece on information literacy in public libraries and how although it’s not often recognised, public libraries make a contribution to information literacy education.


‘Towards a model of critical information literacy instruction for the development of political agency’
Lauren Smith
2013, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 15-32


Critical pedagogy is an educational movement which gives people the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and sense of responsibility necessary to engage in a culture of questioning. These abilities are of benefit to young people, increasing their political agency through heightened awareness of social injustice and the means by which to communicate and challenge this. A central feature of the critical pedagogical approach is critical literacy, which teaches analysis and critiquing skills. Critical literacy has been recommended by a number of authors as a valuable aspect to include in information literacy (IL) instruction. Critical IL could contribute to enabling the development of political agency and increasing meaningful and active involvement in democratic processes.

With the focus on the value of IL becoming increasingly important within library and information science (LIS), it is important to be aware of its roots, the problems yet to be overcome and to consider ways in which the concept can be developed. The paper argues that it is necessary for IL to adopt a critical approach in order to meaningfully engage with the democratic social goals of LIS and address some of the limitations of IL theories. The paper focuses on the ways in which the theory of critical IL may be of benefit to young people of secondary school age, in terms of increasing their political agency through increased critical abilities, channeling their perceived political cynicism and distrust into critical thinking and a sense of agency, increased political knowledge, efficacy and participation. It is suggested that libraries could contribute to critical IL instruction in partnership with young people and people in teaching and parenting roles, and that it is important for the LIS profession and discipline to embrace the inherently political nature of pedagogy and LIS practices to effectively apply critical theories.

Further research into the ways in which IL can contribute to democratic goals would be of benefit. A current PhD research project which explores a methodology for identifying the needs of young people in order to apply critical IL practices for political agency is introduced.

This paper is based on a presentation given at LILAC 2013.

Umbrella 2013

image of a rainbow coloured umbrella

Just a quick post to share my Umbrella 2013 presentation, ‘A critical approach to information literacy’, and to thank everyone who attended and got involved with it on twitter for being such a welcoming and interested audience. The presentation and ‘paper’ (which I turned into notes but didn’t stick to at all!) are here:

1. Introduction

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.

3.1 Origins

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.

4. Conclusions

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.

3.7 References

  • Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) (2000) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. American Library Association, Chicago, IL. [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • Cope, J. (2009) Information Literacy and Social Power. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.13-28. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • Cornelius, I. (2002) Theorizing information science in: B. Cronin (Ed.) Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST), Vol. 36, Information Today, pp. 393–425.
  • Day, R. E. (2010) “The Self-Imposed Limits of Library and Information Science: Remarks On the Discipline, On the Profession, On the University, and On the State of “Information” in the U.S. at Large Today”. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(2).
  • Doherty, J.J. and Ketchner, K. (2005) Empowering the Intentional Learner: A Critical Theory for Information Literacy Instruction. Library Philosophy and Practice, 8(1), pp. 1–10.
  • Elmborg, J. (2006) Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), pp. 192-199.
  • Eryaman, M.Y. (2010) The Public Library as a Space for Democratic Empowerment: Henry Giroux, Radical Democracy, and Border Pedagogy. Critical Theory for Library and Information Science, eds. G.K. Leckie et al., pp. 131-142. Libraries Unlimited, Oxford,
  • Foster, S. (1993) Information Literacy: Some Misgivings. American Libraries, 24(4), pp.344–346.
  • Gage, R. A. (2004) “Henry Giroux’s “Abandoned Generation” & Critical Librarianship”, Progressive Librarian, 23(Spring 2004), pp. 64-74.
  • Giroux, H. (2012) Education and the Crisis of Public Values. Peter Laing, New York.
  • Giroux, H. (2011) On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum, New York.
  • Giroux, H. (2010) Lessons to be learned from Paulo Freire as education is being taken over by the mega rich. Truthout [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • IFLA (2006) Beacons of the Information Society: The Alexandria Proclamation on Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • Jacobs, H.L.L.M. and Berg, S. 2011. Reconnecting Information Literacy Policy with the Core Values of Librarianship. Library Trends 60(2), pp. 383-394.
  • Kapitzke, C. (2003) (In)formation literacy: A positivist epistemology and a politics of (out)formation. Educational Theory 53(1), pp.37-53.
  • Keer, G. (2009) Critical Pedagogy and Information Literacy in Community Colleges. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.149-160. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • Kopp, B.M. and Olson-Kopp, K. (2009) Depositories of Knowledge: Library Instruction and the Development of Critical Consciousness. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.55-68. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • The National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • O’Connor, L. (2009) Information literacy as professional legitimation: The quest for professional jurisdiction. Library Review 58(4), pp. 272-289.
  • Pankl, E. and Coleman, J. (2009) “There’s nothing on my topic!” Using the theories of Oscar Wilde and Henry Giroux to develop critical pedagogy for library instruction. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. M.T. Accardi, E. Drabinski and A. Kumbier, pp.3-12. Library Juice Press, Duluth, MN.
  • Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) (2011) The SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: Core Model for Higher Education [Online] Available from: <; [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.
  • Whitworth (2013) The politically and socially empowering dimensions of information literacy. Chat Literacy Blog [Online] Available from: <; [Accessed 13 May 2013].
  • Whitworth (2011) Information literacy and noöpolitics. Information Literacy: Infiltrating the agenda, challenging minds, eds. G. Walton and A. Pope, pp.187-218. Chandos Publishing, London.


picture of a mug of tea. the mug says 'where there's tea there's hope'.

This post may well be incredibly vague, but I’d like to write it anyway for a few reasons – hopefully something I write might be of use to other people doing research in the same kind of area as me, people might have helpful suggestions, and I feel a bit of pressure (probably all from myself) to write something to keep this blog remotely up to date and have something in it about what I’m doing. So. This is a sort of ‘things I’ve learnt from fieldwork’ post, but I have to keep things vague for obvious reasons. I’ve applied the general idea that if someone involved in my research reads this post, it won’t give anything away, or cause upset, or influence the data I’m collecting.

I’m three weeks into a twelve week stint of fieldwork for my PhD. I’m in a secondary school with 1,000 students or so, from age 11 to 18 (years 7 to 13 in England). I’m focusing most of my research on people aged 14-16. For those who don’t already know, my research is about critical information literacy and political agency or, less elegantly, how young people form opinions and make decisions about political issues based on the information they encounter in all its forms, and whether they’d be in a better position to participate in political processes if libraries and educators taught them about how culture promotes certain views and approaches above other ones, and how they can use an awareness of this to address various forms of social injustice. I’m doing this because I want to address how librarianship needs to be more critical in its approach to information literacy, because we can help with a lot of the issues and need to stop perpetuating some of them.

I’m three weeks in and still finding my feet. I’ve written down some very general and quite specific things I’m learning, most of which is probably blatantly obvious, but I hope it might be at least a little bit useful to someone if they come across it when they’re in a blind panic about their research.

Some Things I Am Learning:

1) It’s nigh on impossible to describe your research

I’ve done elevator pitches at numerous training events, I’ve presented my work at conferences, I’ve written abstracts with incredibly limited word counts, I’ve bored the ears off my boyfriend’s friends at work parties, I’ve even, I’m fairly sure, managed to squeeze the gist of my research topic into a couple of tweets. I’ve done a fair amount of media interviews that have required me to discuss complex issues about libraries, local politics, and public services in a way that’s comprehensible and at least a little bit interesting and engaging. Put me in front of a year group, however, and I lose the ability to describe what I’m doing and what I want to find out about completely. I’ve written information sheets to go out with the consent forms and these seem to make sense on paper, but don’t translate well in speech for some reason. I’m fairly sure at one point last week I found myself describing it as “if people are thinking about stuff when they think about stuff”, or something along those lines. This is for a few reasons, one of which is that I really have been immersed in the academic language for a long time and what makes sense to me doesn’t make sense to people who haven’t been reading about critical theory. This is actually a problem that’s raised by Rex Gibson in Critical Theory and Education (1986) – critical theorists are buggers for using long words that are difficult to think about in an everyday context. Library theory’s similar – information literacy isn’t a concept that all teachers have necessarily heard of even though it’s (arguably) a central concept for librarians. On top of that, I’m using an ‘out there’ method as part of my research – repertory grids. It’s a faff to explain and is very much one of those ‘you’ll get it when you sit down and do it’ things that works fine when you actually do it but involves several stages that are hard to describe in words. And of course, when I’m describing it, one of my usual approaches is to give “for examples”, which I don’t want to do because it might alter the responses I’d get from participants.

2) Good luck getting consent forms back

When it’s difficult to explain your research and methods, it’s difficult to explain why participation would be great and valuable and not that time-consuming and so on. As I said, my research is based in a school, where paper forms are circulated regularly and get left and lost as a matter of course. I’ve tried several approaches to urging people to bring consent forms back because I literally cannot do anything other than observe if I don’t have permission from a legal guardian because they’re under 18. There are very good ethical reasons for this, especially because although my research carries few risks and is in no way dangerous and of course participants will be anonymised, it’s about political views and where people get information from, which is potentially something that guardians don’t want their children to be involved in, and that’s entirely fair enough. I’m taking the active consent approach rather than the passive consent approach because I think it’s really important for guardians to know about what I’m doing beforehand – and if the consent forms aren’t being brought back, I can assume that the information sheets aren’t making their way into the hands of guardians.

I’ve got a handful of returned forms and I’m still trying. That makes me worry about the time I’ve got left – I’d wondered about getting someone to circulate them before I got here, but they wouldn’t have been able to answer questions that people might have and I don’t think it would have helped. However, establishing and negotiating consent is an ongoing process, and as I have to alter my methods, I’ll keep talking to participants about what I’m doing and why. Kay et al. (Eds.) (2009) Researching with Children and Young People: Research Design, Methods and Analysis has been a really great source of recommendations for issues to take into consideration, like making sure potential participants don’t feel coerced into doing the research. It’s also encouraged me to do things like just ask the participants how they’d like to do something – would they prefer to have a chat as a group, or would they rather do it alone? Is this sort of thing hard to talk about, or is it fine? Would they rather stay after school or meet at lunchtime? These are decisions I’d had to make during the methodology design that don’t necessarily meet what the participants would prefer, and it’s no great shakes for me to change my plans. After all, what I want is lots of rich data, and that comes from the participants feeling comfortable and happy to take part, especially when part of what I want to know is what are the political issues that they feel most passionately about and see how they construct their world of political information.

picture of a consent form and a textbook about repertory grids

3) It’s about quality over quantity

At least, that’s my argument and I’m sticking with it. For the type of research I’m doing, a small sample isn’t the end of the world. Given my issues with consent forms, I won’t have a huge sample. I think this will be okay – I’m not trying to identify trends or to make generalisations across a large group. I’m trying to get a sense of individuals’ perceptions and how that connects to information literacy, and the majority of the data collection is qualitative. As long as I record my field notes and observations in great detail and write about my methodology transparently, hurdles and all, I’m hoping it’ll be acceptable. If I don’t have enough data from the fieldwork, I’ve written a couple of backup plans into my methodology and can bring one of those out if it’s needed.

4) Organisation is key

Key to a) keeping on track and b) keeping you on the rails. I’ve got a spreadsheet with a page for a Gantt chart, a page with daily timetables, all kinds of things. This helps me make sure I’m getting stuff done, reorganise my schedule when I need to so that I still have time to record what I need to, and also make me feel like I’m vaguely on top of things. I also have a page where I’ve got a chart in which I record all my activities on a lesson by lesson basis. It’s easy for a day to slip by without feeling like you’ve achieved anything even though actually you have got stuff done and you don’t need to be so hard on yourself, and it’s also easy to miss opportunities for getting hold of pupils when you’ve often only got a 20 minute window per day during registration period. Google Calendar continues to be a godsend, because it reminds me about things I need to do that aren’t fieldwork. Keeping track is helpful.

I’m finding NVivo really useful not only for typing up observations (and soon I’ll be transcribing interviews), it’s also really useful for daily memos and reflections on what I’m doing and how things are changing based on circumstances and the decisions I’m making. I can imagine this will be helpful when I’ve forgotten what I was thinking when I decided to alter a way of going about something and I need to write about it.

5) No, no, flexibility. Flexibility is key.

I’ve had to make so many amendments to my planned research methods for practical reasons that I’m quite glad I don’t have anything too set in stone. Being organised (in theory) helps me work out how I can reorganise, but being flexible makes it possible. Even in terms of a research approach, I’ve found that the way I think about things is changing as I learn more about the research environment and the participants. Sometimes, no amount of theory can prepare you for reality. (I promised you I’d be vague…)

6) School life is really tiring!

This is a bit whinge whinge moan but also practical. It’s important to look after yourself and pace yourself! I’m not a late riser so I thought I’d be fine, but good grief 6:30am starts are kicking my ass. There’s something especially draining about strip lighting and the way air circulates around school buildings that I’d forgotten about. It’s also really hard to regulate your temperature (increasingly so as the weather gets warmer) and really easy to forget about lunch (or as happens more often for me, eat your lunch at 10am because 7am is no time to put food in yourself). I get home shattered and I’m good for nothing, which is not great because I could really do with putting another couple of hours in in the evening. Early nights are my friends. As is tea.

picture of a mug of tea and a laptop

7) Doing something creative and/or destressy is really important

I’m worried about not collecting enough data. I’m worried about not collecting the right data. I’m worried about running out of time. I’m worried about doing something wrong. I’m worried about not being able to talk to the participants well. I’m worried about technical issues. I’m worried that I still haven’t got a proper neat and tidy literature review let alone a well-written methodology. I’m worried that I haven’t even started writing a conference paper that’s due in less than a fortnight (even if I do have a detailed plan carved out of the last productive anxiety streak). I’m worried about my cats in Glasgow even though I know they’re being very well looked after by my incredible friend. I’m worried that all of my friends have forgotten me and never liked me anyway. Inwardly, I’m a knot of anxiety. I really don’t know what I’d be like if I didn’t have knitting and spinning to come home to.

picture of a hand wearing a knitted glove

picture of a knitted shawl close up

I’ve made about 70 projects since last February, from facecloths to cardigans and elaborate shawls. I’ve tried as wide a variety of techniques as I’ve felt brave enough for (not onto steeking just yet…). I’ve also taken up spinning, which I swore I Would Not Do until I was a Grownup and had the time and money to devote to another craft. I was also a bit reluctant to go Full Yarny I think. However.

picture of a spinning wheel

This is my Joy. It’s from a second hand shop and is the victim of a terrible stain-job. It needed a bit of doing up, which helped me get to know how it works and what it needs. It’s very helpful when I’m feeling too shattered to do anything complicated. I can’t tell you how theraputic spinning is. It can be the complete opposite of course when you’re learning, but although I’m not very good yet, I have got to the stage where I can spend a couple of hours spinning merrily away making consistent yarn and drafting (badly) without it breaking and having to stop to set things back up again. I’ve started taking my drop spindle on train journeys for when my brain’s too fried for reading or knitting. It’s relaxing and the source of some interesting chats with passengers. Spreading the fibre love! (Yeah…I’m one of those now.)

As well as really enjoying the process, I also really enjoy the feeling of having made something. When I feel like everything’s going wrong, to be able to wrap myself up in a shawl that was a pile of fluff not very long ago, and feel like I’ve created something beautiful makes all the difference.

I guess all I’ve really said in quite a lot of words is that I’m finding it helpful to work hard but keep a sense of perspective. I’d love to know how other people are finding or found their first few weeks of fieldwork, because it can be quite an isolated and detached experience.

One Year In

A very overdue update on what I’ve been up to!

I’ve reached the one year mark in the PhD process and although there’s a very long way to go with a lot of hard work ahead, apparently I’m on track! My research topic’s altered slightly and become more specific, from the role of public libraries in supporting and encouraging democratic engagement, to the ways critical information literacy instruction can enable people to have political agency, which isn’t all that different in the ultimate goal of contributing to a stronger democracy, but is significantly different that I’ve got to connect the dots and make it clear that it does connect to the original proposal somehow.

So, I submitted a written report on my progress so far and where I’m going next, and yesterday I gave a presentation to my supervisors and another member of the department, who made really helpful recommendations and suggestions. It really wasn’t as terrifying or stressful as I was expecting! It was a positive experience and has re-enthused me after a bit of a difficult winter. I have a lot of work to do still, but this is where I am so far:

In terms of presenting on my work and library-related things, I’ve had some great opportunities in the last year, most of which I’ve already written about. Here’s the presentation I gave at the SHARP Conference in Dublin, and updated and gave to some Masters students in the department a couple of weeks ago:

What’s next? My fieldwork starts in April, so I’ve got to get my methodology up to scratch before then, I’d like to make more progress on my literature review and I’ve got a couple of papers to write for the LILAC and Umbrella conferences, both of which I’m really looking forward to. The LILAC paper will focus mainly on my methods/methodology and what I’m aiming towards, and the Umbrella paper is a discussion of professional issues regarding the responsibilities of library and information workers to engage with substantive, political issues in information literacy education. I’ve applied to present at another couple of conferences and I’m going to try for an ESRC internship for the summer/autumn.