Putting Critical Information Literacy into Context: How and Why Librarians Adopt Critical Practices in their Teaching

Image by flickr user jakecaptive (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image by flickr user jakecaptive (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

In Brief

Critical information literacy asks librarians to work with their patrons and communities to co-investigate the political, social, and economic dimensions of information, including its creation, access, and use. This approach to information literacy seeks to involve learners in better understanding systems of oppression while also identifying opportunities to take action upon them. An increasing number of librarians appear to be taking up critical information literacy ideas and practices in various ways, from cataloging to reference. But what does it mean to make critical information literacy part of one’s work? To learn more about how and why academic librarians incorporate critical information literacy into their classroom instruction, I interviewed thirteen librarians living in the United States. This article describes why and how these individuals take a critical approach to teaching about libraries and information, including the methods they use, the barriers they face, and the positive influences that keep them going.

In these days of mass surveillance and the massive transfer of public goods into private hands, citizens need to know much more about how information works. They need to understand the moral, economic, and political context of knowledge. They need to know how to create their own, so that they make the world a better, more just place.

– Barbara Fister, “Practicing Freedom in the Digital Library: Reinventing Libraries” (2013)



Like many other librarians who teach, I stumbled upon my newfound job duties having no formal training or experience as a teacher. I led the students brought in by their professor through a maze of databases, books, and services within the space of one hour as best I could, and students were often sympathetic but uninterested. Even at this early stage in my career, while students quickly packed up their belongings and filed out of the library classroom, I couldn’t help but wonder if something crucial was missing. I realized I was having difficulty squaring the big reasons I became a librarian–to advocate for and widen people’s access to information, to find ways to contribute to the well-being of communities through a commitment to social responsibility, to fight as one of the last holdouts in a society where “sharing” and “free” are becoming endangered terms–with my primary responsibility as a teacher of, as one student put it, “how to do the library.”

I eventually found what I was searching for, but it took some time. I started to learn about the work that had been taking place in critical information literacy, and critical librarianship more broadly, that had been occurring for decades. I looked into examples of radical librarianship and activism that were sometimes mentioned fleetingly in my MLS program but more often absent altogether, like the efforts of Sanford Berman to identify and update or remove derogatory and harmful Library of Congress subject headings (1971), the Radical Reference collective (Morrone & Friedman 2009), and the Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG), founded in 1990. This long tradition of social justice work being done in and outside of libraries by all types of librarians led to my discovery of critical information literacy. I have briefly addressed some of the many inspirational books and articles of critical librarianship and critical information literacy (Tewell 2015), but the most impactful works for me personally were by Maria Accardi, Emily Drabinski & Alana Kumbier (2010), James Elmborg (2006), Heidi Jacobs (2008), Maria Accardi (2013), and Robert Schroeder (2014). Many of these are from Library Juice Press, a publisher specializing in library issues addressed from a critical perspective.

Critical information literacy aims to understand how libraries participate in systems of oppression and find ways for librarians and students to intervene upon these systems. To do so, it examines information, libraries, and the work of librarians using critical theories and most often the ideas of critical pedagogy. As stated by Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins, critical information literacy “takes into consideration the social, political, economic, and corporate systems that have power and influence over information production, dissemination, access, and consumption” (2013). Inspired by the books and articles I had been reading, I started using different critical information literacy approaches in my classes. As I tried these methods I became increasingly interested in how other librarians made critical information literacy part of their teaching. Having firsthand experience making critical information literacy “work” as a teacher and seeing students truly engaged with their learning and topics that matter to them was very transformative for me. Seeing the change that critical information literacy can make, and the ways it deepened how I approached my interactions with students, led to me being passionate about its potential.

I interviewed 13 librarians working in a variety of academic institutions, living in different regions within the United States, and with varied ages, ethnicities, genders, and ablednesses, to see how they practice critical information literacy within library instruction. I spoke with them by email and via Skype, and asked questions about how their teaching is influenced by critical information literacy, what barriers they faced, what benefits they saw, and what factors allowed their teaching to continue or even flourish. In her recent book Critical Information Literacy: Foundations, Inspiration, and Ideas, Annie Downey argues, “Critical information literacy looks beyond the strictly functional, competency-based role of information discovery and use, going deeper than the traditional conceptions of information literacy that focus almost wholly on mainstream sources and views” (2016). At its core, critical information literacy is an attempt to render visible the complex workings of information so that we may identify and act upon the power structures that shape our lives. How this may actually be done within our libraries is what I wished to investigate in this project.

How librarians learned about critical information literacy

Critical information literacy has become better known due to the efforts of many that started writing and thinking about it years ago. This shift from the margins toward the center that critical approaches to librarianship have made is observed by librarian Emily Drabinski in a recent keynote (2016). The interviewees I spoke with learned about critical information literacy in a variety of ways. How you learn about something can in many ways shape how you come to understand it, so I wanted to address this first to set the stage for other questions.

Most interviewees learned of critical information literacy from a colleague either in their workplace or at another library, coupled with an article or book related to the subject. This is described by one librarian who was searching for readings that discussed the cultural aspects of information literacy. Upon reading an article by Cushla Kapitztke recommended by a colleague, this librarian said, “the whole world stopped around me. And I just was just blown away, and I’d never read anything like it…it really spoke to me.” Indicative of critical information literacy’s growing popularity, two interviewees learned about the topic at conferences and unconferences, such as the first #critlib unconference. Though three interviewees discovered critical information literacy during their MLIS programs only one did so through a formal class, while one was through a self-directed research paper and another was by preparing a bibliography while working as a graduate assistant. One librarian’s critical practice at her diverse public university was informed by her background in anthropology, and she identifies the Ferguson uprising as the point where she began discussing social justice issues in relation to information in her classes. She soon after found that library workers were discussing these issues on Twitter at the #critlib hashtag and “realized after the fact that what I was doing fit into this CIL [critical information literacy] approach that was already in place.”

Coursework in areas other than librarianship was key for some interviewees, who learned about critical pedagogy or critical theory before finding an article or book related to critical information literacy. One librarian learned about critical information literacy while doing research for doctoral coursework after having read Paulo Freire and in particular Myles Horton, whose work with poor and undereducated people in rural Tennessee caused her to draw connections with her own work with underprepared students: “Importantly, the community (i.e. students) identified the skills they needed to learn. I began to see information literacy as one of those skills that is truly fundamental to living and working today. This idea really pushed me past what I had previously thought information literacy was.” Other librarians related their educational backgrounds in English, Women’s Studies, and Social Studies as priming them for the ideas of critical pedagogy as applied to information literacy.

A majority of interviewees learned about critical information literacy relatively recently, between 2011 and 2014. Yet three librarians, at a community college, four year university, and liberal arts college, mentioned they had already been practicing these same types of ideas before learning about the term, showing that one may very well use critical information literacy approaches without being aware of the name: “CIL felt like a natural extension of what I had already been doing, and I imagine I’d be practicing critical librarianship/IL even if it weren’t something of an established subfield of information literacy.”

How critical information literacy can be incorporated into classes

To gather a sampling of ways these librarians brought critical information literacy into their teaching, I asked them about a time when they incorporated critical information literacy into a class. The interviewees shared a wealth of examples for single sessions and credit-bearing courses, and a few of my favorite examples follow, which I appreciate for their creativity, applicability to a variety of settings, and potential for involving learners with critical concepts. It is important to note that librarians’ identities shape the ways they are able to pursue their work. What one librarian with marginalized identities may be able to discuss in terms of politically-oriented topics with students or negotiate with course instructors in terms of class content will differ from librarians with privileged backgrounds. Librarians with marginalized identities are more likely to face challenges in actualizing their critical information literacy practice.

One interviewee at a regional public university campus described an activity that asks students to explore library databases and present them to the class. This easy-to-implement idea turns the tables on lecture-dominated library instruction, and asks students to not just be involved, but to share their knowledge. As this librarian described:

When I do this activity, I don’t even turn on my projector to show [students] stuff on the screen to get them started–I just have them jump right in, even if they don’t really know what they’re doing. Relinquishing control of the demonstration disrupts the teacher/learner hierarchy of power and places power in the learner’s hands…it shows [students] that they have knowledge that is worth sharing and that they, too, can have power to speak and guide and teach. Their voice matters. The idea, of course, as it that this leaks out of the walls of the classroom and into their lives and worlds.

Another librarian at a small college discusses power with students in terms of viewpoints represented within a database. “I love to talk about the role of power in information structures with students. One of the best ways to do this is to talk about what and who is and is not represented and why.” This librarian continues, “One way I’ve done this is to do a pre-search in a database on a topic with a bit of controversy and see if I can get a results list that is eye-opening…I had students look at the results list and evaluate the first 3-5 results and then we discussed their evaluation process…we talked about how information is created and who does the creating, including looking at who was funding the research in the peer review journals and who had ads in the trade journals.” This idea uses a database and the sources within to generate conversation and dialogue, and relates the evaluation process to the students instead of an external checklist.

One interviewee began a class discussion with a role-playing scenario: “Instead of simply demo-ing a database, I facilitated a role-playing activity in which [students] assumed the roles of scholars, and we then had a discussion about who gets to be a scholar and thus who has a voice in the literature. This was all new to them, and I think they were able to both understand what ‘the literature’ is and problematize academia in ways they hadn’t before.” She further explained, “when I did show them how to use a database, I was able to bring to their attention to the ways in which information organization (subject headings) are also problematic, particularly when it comes to gender identity and sexuality…I think this one-shot was critical in that is not only allowed students to peek ‘behind the scenes’ (as far as how information is produced and organized in academia), but it also troubled these processes.”

These ideas sometimes come in flashes of brilliance, but more often they are the result of trying something small, revising it, and trying again. One librarian at a large research university began by carefully considering the language she used and how she applied her authority as a teacher. She followed these reflective practices by asking discussion questions regarding whose voices are missing from discovery systems, whether Google or a library catalog, and found that students responded to these questions with interest. This then led to the more intentional creation of instruction sessions centered around critical topics and discussions. Several interviewees mentioned they had been unsure whether they were “allowed” to do this type of instruction, particularly those librarians who began thinking about critical information literacy a few years ago when literature and conversations regarding the topic were scarce. Starting out small may help with these feelings of uncertainty, even though, as two interviewees pointed out by relating examples of when their classes did not go as planned, all teaching is difficult and critical information literacy instruction can be particularly demanding due to the emotional investment it often requires.

How classroom methods are used to practice critical information literacy

With an understanding of the ways critical librarians taught classes using a critical information literacy approach, I was curious whether they found that particular teaching methods were conducive for doing so. Their responses revealed a number of commonalities as well as some unique ideas. Looking over these different methods, they demonstrate that critical information literacy has the potential to uncover and question some very big issues and norms while simultaneously being something that is very do-able.

Creating opportunities for interaction between the librarian and students was a frequent goal. Nine interviewees mentioned class discussions as their teaching method of choice. One librarian spends a great deal of effort fostering discussions, stating, “I spend more time now developing the questions I am going to ask than any other part of my planning because if you don’t ask the right questions, the conversation never reaches the level it needs to.” Another librarian at a comprehensive public university carefully centers student questions: “One method I use when I teach many of my classes for graduate students or doctoral students is I base the class on their questions…I give them time to talk amongst themselves about what they want to know, then I ask them. I write their questions on the board and tell them I’ll base the class on these questions, and that they should ask more if they have them.” This method “shows the students I want to try to answer their questions – they are the most important. It also parallels the kind of work they will see the librarians do with them at the reference desk or in individual research consultations.”

Certain activities and teaching techniques were shared by interviewees, including the Jigsaw Method which one librarian has “experimented over the past several years…using small groups that then convene into a larger group to guide conversations about exploring databases and evaluating sources–and not just evaluating, but collaboratively developing criteria to evaluate,” and activities that range from “group work exploring a variety of sources surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin to acting out a scholarly debate on the coming out process.” Others had success using search examples to introduce critical ideas, such as prison abolition or Black Lives Matter. “I always try to use a search example/keywords/ideas that, hopefully, will expose students to a set of results that gets them thinking about an important topic,” one interviewee stated. For example, in an online tutorial one librarian used the research question, “How does air quality affect women’s health?” which is relevant to their student population in terms of geography, health, and economic disparity, but also draws attention to the gendered dimensions of environmental racism.

Another method for teaching critical information literacy is adapted from Paulo Freire’s concept of problem-posing, wherein teachers and learners co-investigate an issue or question of importance to them. One librarian at a small college described a successful example of problem-posing in library instruction, noting that she has “started asking the faculty to help me think of a problem the class could work on together, which I think is the best thing to have happened for my teaching in a long time.” Noting that it took her a great deal of time to reach the point where she is confident in asking faculty for something in exchange for helping their students, she describes an example:

[We looked into] when a specific law was passed and who the primary players were in passing the law. This sounds simple, but there was misinformation all over the place about this law. The Wikipedia entry was wrong and had been cited over and over so the wrong date was starting to appear as the “official date.” This was wonderful for our purposes because we had conversations about source type, government documents, how information gets perpetuated, sourcing and evaluation, etc. Essentially, we are able to problematize information consumption and dissemination with this one little question. The students were very into it.

A small but meaningful change to a common part of library instruction–an overview of the services a library provides–was described by one interviewee: “Instead of telling students about the services that we have, I might actually have the students find one or two things that they didn’t know about the library, and share with each other.” This is a way to “change the expectation that I’m going to be the person standing there and telling them what they need to know. That they can also, you know, construct their own knowledge. And perhaps learn, with maybe my guidance, learn from each other.” More than a third of the librarians I spoke with found that reflection was key to their instruction. “Allowing students time to reflect or posing questions that ask them to consider how/if the lesson is meaningful to them is an important part of the classroom experience for me,” one person affirmed. “Ideally, it adds a small jolt to their experience and communicates to students that I’m here for them, that I want to be useful and a purposeful addition to their classroom, not some intruder with my own agenda.”

The difference in critical approaches to IL does not always relate to the method, and is instead more likely to be based upon the social and political orientation of one’s instructional aims: “My set of methods haven’t changed that much since I started to shift to a more critical focus, it’s the topics that we are discussing that have shifted.” One interviewee describes what worked and what they would like to further pursue in a credit-bearing course, which corresponds to the demographics of their institution:

[A] discussion that went fairly well but that I would like to explore more next year revolved around the idea that publishing academic stuff is a mechanism for someone or a group to gain/earn authority or academic legitimacy. I had walked students through the peer review process, why it is important yet flawed, who engages in it and why, etc. Then, because another course outcome dealt with understanding “the disciplines,” we moved to the history of Chicano/a studies and its struggle for legitimacy in the academy. One of the ways in which it contributed to academic discussions/developed a canon and thus gained legitimacy in the world of higher education, was by establishing its own scholarly journals. My class discussed this a bit, but I’d really like to make this the focal point of my course next year.

How theoretical understandings inform the practice of critical information literacy

In order to better understand the various ways the librarians I interviewed thought of critical information literacy, I asked if there were theoretical or conceptual understandings that influenced their work. I clarified that these could be theories, ideas, or writings related to education, social justice, libraries, or other things meaningful to them. Many interviewees conceived of their teaching aims in terms of critical pedagogy. As described by Lauren Smith, critical pedagogy argues that “learners can only truly learn to think critically if they are also able to challenge the problems within power and knowledge structures in their educational environment as well as the wider world” (2013, p. 19). For Alana Kumbier, “Critical pedagogy offers tools we can use to denaturalize and evaluate phenomena that are often understood as inevitable, like economic or cultural globalization, or natural, like a binary sex/gender system, or just accepted, like the authority of an encyclopedia entry” (2014, p. 161).

Many interviewees cited readings that influenced how they thought about the goals and realities of formal education–what one person referred to as the “classics” of critical pedagogy. “While I was in grad school we read Freire, and Giroux, all those sort of classics. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, I loved too…If someone else were to say to me, ‘Oh, I’m sort of interested in this critical pedagogy, what is this about?’ those would be the things I would pull off my shelf with excitement and say, ‘You have to read these!’” This same interviewee was also influenced by critical race theory, finding it extremely useful for ideas about building inclusive classroom environments. Critical race theory was discussed by four interviewees, and the Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education (Lynn and Dixson, 2013) was mentioned as one key resource in this area.

Feminist pedagogy was another area of theory and practice that inspired critical librarians. “For critical pedagogy and theory, I really respond to Freire, Mezirow, Shor, and hooks,” one interviewee replied. “And then feminist pedagogues who have problematized critical pedagogy like Jennifer Gore, Elizabeth Ellsworth, and Patti Lather. I like the critiques of critical pedagogy by these authors because they address the fact that it is really hard to pull critical pedagogy off in our institutions.” Maria Accardi’s 2013 book Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction was mentioned by four interviewees as directly informing their practice, particularly feminist pedagogy as an educational approach that “honors student experience and voice, has social justice aims, and is attentive to power dynamics in the classroom.”

One librarian’s upbringing and personal sense of social justice fundamentally informs her work: “I think I am primarily motivated by a strong inner sense of social justice more than anything. I learned about Paulo Freire and the banking method and conscientização [critical consciousness] and all of that…which helped to align my already innate social justice framework with the educational environment. But that sense that I am here on this planet to help make it better was already inside of me…my social justice framework is profoundly informed by my Catholic upbringing and education.” Another interviewee found student rallies and local issues on their campus, such as the cutting of positions in the university’s Ethnic Studies department, to be impactful on a personal level. The academic disciplines interviewees studied as undergraduate or graduate students were also highly influential, whether literature, cultural studies, anthropology, or journalism.

How critical information literacy is beneficial

As bell hooks writes, because “our educational institutions are so deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more rewarded when we do not teach against the grain” (1994, p. 203). Why do librarians teaching against the grain choose to do so? What impact might this approach to teaching make? One question I asked interviewees was whether they find critical information literacy beneficial. The reasons they gave were largely related to the engagement they saw with students as well as their own newly discovered or rediscovered commitment to their work as librarians.

Brian Kopp and Kim Olson-Kopp argue that “the development of critical consciousness in a library setting depends first and foremost on humanizing, or putting a face on, research, and grounding it in the realities which shape it” (2010, p. 57). For the librarians I spoke with, having a basis in critical information literacy enabled them to be more engaged teachers who were able to bring their whole selves into the classroom. “I don’t think I’d still be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t learned or figured out that I could use critical information literacy in the classroom, because I would be so burned out and bored by point-here-click-here teaching,” one interviewee states. Another librarian found the demands of this type of teaching has made them a better instructor: “It forces me to be self-reflective and challenges me to go outside of my comfort zone of knowing exactly what to do in front of a class. I’m definitely uncomfortable when I don’t have a concrete plan, but I believe that it really does benefit students more when I’m not following a rote plan and can instead allow for diversions.” These benefits of critical information literacy for instruction librarians are related to those for students, in particular fostering a sense of purpose and meaning.

Critical information literacy’s “student-centered emphasis” was influential for one interviewee, which has “meant moving beyond simply discussion or inquiry-based learning, and really bringing the students’ needs or knowledge or perspective to the fore, as much as possible.” Sincerely valuing student knowledge and the perspectives they bring, as well as finding ways to make this knowledge a meaningful part of classes, was discussed by several librarians. This focus on student-centeredness and its effects is described by one interviewee:

When classes are conducted in critical ways I think students get to hear their own voice and hear their own experiences validated. They see themselves, their whole selves, as part of the academic enterprise, an enterprise that they can change for the better. They can realize that the questions that really matter to them, many of which relate to power, are valid academic questions. It can help them make sense of the strange new place (to many) called the university.

Annie Downey notes that one “issue that arises from librarians’ lack of teacher training is that they struggle with finding ways to make their instruction meaningful to students. They often confront the problem of students being unaware to relate the information they are supposed to learn in library instruction sessions to what they may be doing in their classes or to their lives in any meaningful way” (2016). For critical librarians and their students alike, it appears that critical information literacy is one way to provide this meaningfulness.

One unexpected finding was that critical information literacy’s associated ideas and approaches to teaching was a way for librarians to connect with faculty and course instructors in a wide range of institutional settings. Many of these connections were related to shared pedagogical approaches or interests. One interviewee in a large research university said critical information literacy helped her “build a bridge” with teaching faculty and instructors in that these critical approaches to information act as “a shared language that we now have,” and as such, is a positive in developing collaborations such as alternative research assignments. For another librarian in a small liberal arts college, critical information literacy is a way to begin the conversation of going past the one-shot instruction model. “When someone comes to you and says, ‘I want you to come to my class and do a demo of JSTOR, can we have fifteen minutes of your time?’…I can comment back and say, ‘How about, if instead, we do this?’…Critical information literacy is really helpful to open up that dialogue again in a more meaningful way. And talk about the goals of instruction, and not just sort of fall back to that familiar routine and model.” Another interviewee found it a way to connect with faculty regarding shared interests in social justice issues: “As I’ve been exploring CIL I’ve been continually amazed at how many other faculty on campus come from a critical or social justice background! CIL helps me make immediate and deep connections with the faculty I relate to and with whom I work with as I teach IL sessions.”

One librarian at an urban public university observed how the campus setting impacted their teaching and the interests of students and faculty: “We’re a campus that’s really not far from the center of the city, where there are huge protests that happening downtown…even if I am not talking about those things, because…I don’t teach a class on my own, students might be thinking about these issues anyways in one their other classes, or maybe in the work that they do outside of class. So I think all of that makes it more easier for me to incorporate critical information literacy. Because, I feel like they also get it…they understand.” She added that instructors at her institution also generally think about the same types of political issues happening, such as protests and social movements occurring both on-campus and off. Another librarian in a different setting found inspiration for her classes at a small private college in a rural area through an event that transpired near their campus. The U.S. Federal Government conducted a raid of immigrant workers at a meatpacking plant, which was the largest at that point in time. In discussing this raid, the librarian asked students to gather materials from a variety of sources, including the College Archives, that documented or addressed the raid and its implications, and to evaluate what arguments each source was making as well as how it might be useful to or not useful to students’ research. For these librarians, a great deal of inspiration was found in events that impacted their nearby community and were important to students.

How barriers shape the practice of critical information literacy

The challenges faced by critical information literacy practitioners are important to consider because they identify obstacles that may then be more easily recognized and addressed. To learn more about challenges critical librarians face, I asked about barriers they experienced in making critical information literacy part of their classroom practice.

Far and away, the one-shot instruction model and a lack of time were the primary barriers. This is due in part because critical information literacy requires a significant time investment: “It takes more time to enact critical information literacy instruction–time to plan, time to reflect. This is not the kind of teaching you can do on autopilot.” Another interviewee makes an important distinction between finding time and making time: “I don’t think we ever ‘find’ the time, we can only make the time for things we think important. So making the time to make critical information literacy important is the key.” Although prioritizing what one finds important in their work is important, a related challenge is that of the single instruction session that many academic librarians make do with. “Obviously, if that’s the best you have to work with, I fully encourage anyone to do what they can,” one person says. “But it takes a certain degree of trust for students to take risks and challenge hegemonic assumptions – and showing up to one class session is not enough time to develop that trust.” Five other interviewees made similar remarks about the limitations of this common teaching scenario.

Having the confidence or courage necessary for a critical approach to teaching as well as the support essential to do so was also discussed. This was sometimes scary for one librarian: “When you’re committing to a way of teaching and learning that is mostly outside the norm, or outside what you’re most familiar with, it can feel scary,” while another interviewee noted how colleagues’ perspectives and their newness to a job impacted their ability to practice critical information literacy: “I struggle to feel confident in my professional actions in general, particularly when they differ from what my co-workers are doing or from what I’ve done in the past. Add to that the fact that I’m still new to my position…and that can lead to a lot of questioning and second-guessing on my part.” Others described being the only one at their institution who teach using critical information literacy as lonely, since “People don’t always get what you’re trying to do, even if you try to explain it to them.” An interviewee at a large institution felt confident in her teaching practice but misunderstood by colleagues, explaining that they “think that I’m wasting my time, or that I’m just being a bit too much of like a warrior, and take myself too seriously.”

Critical librarians also faced resistance from students, for a variety of reasons. Most often was because critical information literacy is not always comfortable or enjoyable for students who are accustomed to lectures and passive means of education:

Students don’t always recognize critical pedagogy as teaching, because it doesn’t look like most of the teaching they’ve experienced before. And maybe they don’t want to be actively engaged; maybe they just want to be lectured to, to be passive. Similarly, the teaching faculty member also may not recognize or understand what you’re doing as real actual teaching and may try to interfere or undermine you while you’re in the middle of teaching.

While interviewees typically found a few students in their classes willing to engage, getting all students on board and changing their expectations, especially within a 50 to 75-minute session, proved difficult. Another concern was balancing critical information literacy topics and methods with immediate student needs and course instructors’ expectations: “This is a difficult balance because not only do I feel pressure to give the instructor and students what they want and expect (database demonstrations), I really need them to understand the practical use of this information and how to be engaged actors within their learning experience.” Helping students succeed in their academic work so they can complete their assignments, receive their grades, and attain the degree they seek is by no means incompatible with the goals of critical information literacy, but requires attention of its own. In an article on the tension between neoliberal definitions of student success and critical library instruction, Ian Beilin notes the necessity of reconciling student preparation and the demands they must meet with teaching approaches that emphasize broader structural ideas: “Especially for first-generation students, students of colour, and working-class students, librarians have a responsibility to teach skills, so many of which more-privileged students have already acquired” (2016, p. 17). One possibility for meeting this challenge is for library educators to “encourage alternative definitions of success while at the same time ensure success in the existing system,” which can be a necessary but difficult balance to strike (2016, p. 18).

Apart from some experiences with student resistance and pedagogical challenges, the librarians I spoke with also faced difficulties in terms of faculty expectations of what information literacy instruction is or could be. As noted by one interviewee: “I had an activity where the students were evaluating different sources and sharing, like going up to the front of the class and sharing what they found, and demoing the resource themselves…and the instructor just cut them off. Because they wanted just the traditional librarian standing up there, telling them where to click.” Several librarians stated the biggest barrier to critical information literacy was faculty and course instructor expectations. Part of the reason for this lies in the power differentials between librarians and faculty, described by a librarian at a small liberal arts college:

I move carefully with faculty because they are the ones holding the power. If I want to have them bring their classes in and send their students to me, I have to be very respectful of their wishes. I am even more careful with more established faculty. At a small college, especially, a wrong move with the faculty can seriously undermine your ability to do anything with a specific department or can appear to reflect badly on your performance in the eyes of supervisors in the library.

Related to the challenge of faculty expectations is that of course instructors impinging on librarians’ classroom decisions or interjecting themselves into discussions. One interviewee noted the raced and gendered dynamics among librarian teachers and faculty, and in particular the tendency for certain faculty to interrupt librarians when they are in the middle of teaching: “My supervisor who’s an older white woman…she can really command a class. She’s also an excellent teacher. But would an instructor tell her to stop doing what she’s doing? I don’t think so….Someone like me, I look young, and am a woman of color.” This observation draws attention to the challenges that librarians with marginalized identities are likely to face in classroom environments.

Beyond student resistance and faculty expectations, the greater domain that education takes place within was discussed as a challenge. The increasing corporatization of higher education and expectations fueled by universities that students “invest” in an education in order to receive a “return” such as a high-paying job is one major factor at odds with the goals of critical information literacy: “Though we get great support and have the enthusiastic backing of the administration, it’s impossible to ignore that there is an explicitly career-oriented education on offer here. This undermines efforts to make the student the subject of the learning process rather than the object and certainly cuts against any effort to liberate learning from creeping corporatization.” A related issue is the culture of assessment embraced by many universities. The values of assessment and reporting and the tension with critical education approaches is related by one interviewee: “I’ve chaired our campus Academic Assessment Committee before; I fully understand the stakes of assessment in higher ed in a state-funded institution. Assessment culture privileges ways of teaching and learning that are quantifiable. I can’t put ‘changed lives and enacted social change’ on a rubric, but I am pressured to report student learning findings in ways that are rubric-able.”

How factors contribute positively to the practice of critical information literacy

While critical librarians face significant challenges, it is important to also understand what factors enable their practice and help it to thrive. The librarians I interviewed identified several elements: seeing critical information literacy work–something that has been a big contributing factor in my own practice–having a community of librarians who are attempting similar things, having colleagues at their own workplace to talk and collaborate with, and online spaces for discussion such as #critlib on Twitter.

“When you know you’ve been successful, that you have had an impact on the student in some way, this reinforces the practice of this kind of teaching in a very positive, affirming way,” one librarian wrote. “Knowing I’ve had an impact, for me, is more through informal observation and conversations, through the questions students ask, or what they write down on the 3-2-1 sheet I use a lot.” Seeing critical information literacy work in their classes, and knowing firsthand the difference that this approach can make, was cited by several interviewees as being a major positive factor. As one person stated, “the biggest thing is my past experiences where it’s worked. Where things have happened in a classroom and people have said things that I never, ever, ever, would have thought or said.” These opportunities for unexpected and authentic conversations inspired several critical librarians. In considering the challenges faced in her critical and feminist pedagogy, Maria Accardi writes, “What gave me hope, what kept me going, what helped me remember that feminist teaching is worth the effort and difficulty, was that even amongst all my failures and flops, there were shining moments of success” (2013, p. 3).

Librarians need to not just see that this approach to teaching works for them and their students, but to be supported in their efforts. For some librarians I spoke with, this meant finding a community of colleagues interested in critical librarianship. “Being connected to a like-minded community who also cares about critical information literacy instruction is hugely important. Without having anyone else to talk to about it, I don’t know if I’d have the fortitude to keep doing what I’m doing,” notes one interviewee. Another librarian came to the same conclusion: “The biggest positive factor is talking to other librarians trying to do the same thing. This is wonderfully beneficial at conferences, but even better was when people at my institution got interested.”

In a similar way that finding a community of librarians helped foster librarians’ critical practices, locating colleagues at one’s own institution, inside the library or out, was important for the same reasons. One interviewee identified this as building allies: “A big thing for me is when I can build allies. Whether that’s with the course instructors, or in the library. So I tend to sort of, try to find people, try to find instructors who I know are engaged with Women’s and Gender Studies, or some other kind of department that thinks about these kinds of things and uses these methods already.” Five other interviewees noted that they made strong connections with faculty colleagues and this contributed positively to their critical information literacy efforts. In describing the experiences of critical librarians she interviewed, Downey found a similar theme: “Even having just one other person at their institution who is cognizant of and uses critical information literacy can make a big difference for librarians’ comfort level with critical approaches and content” (2016, p. 141). At the same time, Downey makes a strong case for the necessity of librarians, solo or with others, working to change the direction of teaching at one’s institution, for “teachers inspire other teachers and trust other teachers” (2016, p. 145).

One tool that interviewees used to connect with others was the “critlib” hashtag on Twitter. Short for “critical librarianship,” this hashtag is used for chats on a variety of topics as well as a way to converse with other librarians following the hashtag. One interviewee discusses the helpfulness of #critlib in establishing an online meeting place for critical librarians: “The #critlib community and artifacts they create (conferences, website, etc.) have been really helpful, not necessarily for things like lesson planning or creating activities, but for giving me content to think about that I can then integrate into the classroom…It’s also really nice to know there are people out there thinking and excited about the same things as me.” For one librarian at a liberal arts college, #critlib provided an umbrella for different theories and approaches that could later be applied: “I sort of fumbled my way through information literacy at first, and that’s why I find #critlib very helpful. The nice thing about #critlib is that it has help [sic] provide a (loose) framework for bringing together many different theories and approaches that could be considered critical.”


The librarians I interviewed appreciated the fact that this approach to librarianship has been blooming. This shift was described by one librarian who has been interested in critical librarianship for several years: “The Progressive Librarians Guild and Library Juice Press have been going for some time, but criticality seems to be flowering these days. Just a few years ago I was looking for a conference to go to actually talk to some live folks about critical pedagogy. I looked all over the web in all sorts of disciplines and countries and didn’t hardly find anything, and definitely nothing LIS related.” But now there are many events, from those on critical librarianship specifically, such as the first #critlib unconference, events organized by the Radical Librarians Collective in the UK, the 2016 Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium, and the Critical Information Literacy Unconference held prior to the European Conference on Information Literacy, to the presence of critical sessions in large American conferences such as ACRL and ALA.

In noting the increasing popularity of critical information literacy, one interviewee urged librarians to continue applying critical thought to other areas as well: “Instruction doesn’t stop at the classroom door, and then this whole process of conscientization doesn’t just stop there as well.” Critical information literacy is not limited to teaching, and thinking broadly about the implications of libraries can encourage positive changes. Relatedly, critical librarianship must be informed by diverse perspectives. The issue of perceived barriers was brought up as one problem: “the biggest concern that I have…is that there are these perceived barriers, and that there is a price of admission. That you cannot be a critical librarian until you’ve read these six books, or have this degree, or this background. That really bugs me. Just because it’s the antithesis of what critical pedagogy is supposed to be, which is valuing the experiences and understandings that everybody brings.” One thing these interviews clearly showed me was that every person’s background contributed immensely to their critical practice, and it was drawing upon their individual passions that made them the librarian they are.

Regarding future directions for critical information literacy, some interviewees responded that they wished for information literacy to become “something that by nature needs to be critical”: “My hope is that someday there will come a time when information literacy and critical information literacy are the same thing. And we don’t have to live with this older model of, you know, dealing with the tools kind of instruction.” In contrast to this hope that information literacy and critical approaches would become one in the same, another person made the point that, “I also don’t think that it has to be for everybody. We are all very different people and we don’t all have the same political views, and…we definitely don’t have the same philosophies when it comes to our approach to being librarians. So, at the same time, if you don’t feel like this is for you, that’s also fine.”

Whether or not one makes efforts to adopt a critical approach to librarianship through action, reflection, and theory, the relationships we develop with our communities and ways to meaningfully work towards creating a better world should be a central consideration. “The way we research, the way we teach, the way we practice our profession are all really building relationships with scholarly communities and with students that are becoming part of scholarly communities,” one interviewee wrote. “So one thing about getting into critical practices is that I’m connecting with a whole network of folks that think deeply and believe a better future is possible. Librarians, scholars, and students.”

As I finished one interview, the librarian I was in contact with shared several reflective questions, stating, “These are the things that I try to reflect on to distance myself from the daily grind and getting caught up in the monotony or frustrations of work. I thought you might enjoy them as well.” I would like to conclude with some of those questions that were offered, with the hope that readers might take them as an invitation to reflect intentionally upon their work and themselves.

  • What are some existing forms of oppression our students engage with at the academy?
  • How do librarians reinforce those systems of oppression in the classroom or inadvertently within library practices? How do our assumptions work their way into our teaching practices?
  • What are some ways in which you design the classroom experience to be a democratic, collaborative, and transformative site?
  • How do we balance the lived experiences of our students with “canonical” sets of knowledge and skills that they are required to learn?
  • How do you view your role as an academic librarian and its relationship to social justice?

A sincere thank you to the reviewers who contributed their insights and expertise to make this a better piece: Lauren Smith, Sofia Leung, and Ryan Randall. Thank you to Annie Pho for serving as the Publishing Editor for this article and seeing it through the Lead Pipe publication process. The Institute for Research Design in Librarianship gave me the methodological footing I needed to begin this project and the camaraderie I needed to see it through. A special thanks to the 13 librarians I interviewed. It was a true pleasure to talk with them about critical information literacy and their work, and they left me inspired and hopeful that librarians and libraries can help create positive social change.

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