Critical Information Literacy

Teachers are no longer considered the sole arbiters of knowledge, filling the empty vessels of their students minds (CC0 image)
Teachers are no longer considered the sole arbiters of knowledge, filling the empty vessels of their students’ minds (CC0 image)

Since I have an interest in the philosophical approach called critical theory, I was curious to know if librarianship and critical theory might intersect with each other in relation to current trends in librarianship.  And while doing some research, I quickly came across a curious and what appears to be a quite significant article in the arena of information literacy instruction.  The article, published in 2006, is called Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice, by James Elmborg, Assistant Professor, School Of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa.  I thought it would be quite interesting to explore just one of many takeaways of this article, so to speak, and give a very short sketch of what sort of impact critical information literacy might have more broadly on academic librarianship in general and perhaps more specifically and interestingly on Touro College Libraries.

In my opinion what is so fascinating about this particular article is how the intersections of some aspects of critical theory and information literacy could be applied to academic librarianship. What is so striking is some of the questions raised that revolve around the intersection of the theoretical approach of critical theory, and how that approach might be applied to information literacy—questions I believe we may not yet even be cognizant of, and therefore do not foster when giving library orientations or one-on-one instruction.  Some of these questions include: is it important to raise a social and critical consciousness in our students; what is the role of the library in the lives of our students other than teaching them how to find information; is the library a passive information bank where students and faculty make knowledge deposits and withdrawals, or is it a place where students actively engage with existing knowledge and shape it for their own current and future political, social and cultural uses?  These are just some of many questions which I believe are import to discuss, or at least reflect on.

Instead, we strive to make learning collaborative, reflective, and active (CC0 image)
Instead, we should strive to make learning collaborative, reflective, and active, to prepare students for active engagement in the world (CC0 image)

Part of what Elmborg points out, and rightly argues for, in my opinion, is a modified shift in information literacy.  He refers to Paolo Freire who argues in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Western education (especially American education) is guided by the ideology of capitalism, and that consequently, schools have developed a ‘‘banking concept’’ of education in which knowledge is treated as cultural and economic capital, and accruing knowledge equates to accruing wealth.  […] This education trains students in the capitalist ethic, and they subsequently approach their education as consumers and passive receivers of knowledge rather than active agents shaping their own lives [and destinies).

As librarians at Touro College, I believe that we too are guilty of teaching our students to be passive consumers of knowledge when we deliver information literacy instruction, only giving students the information they need to be literate in finding and evaluating information sources.  They may be successful in completing their coursework and obtaining the good grades they desire, however, should not we who teach information literacy be more than merely the “knowledge brokers” of these important skills. Students should be able to acquire their own research aptitudes, and therefore knowledge, in their future personal and professional lives. What I believe we ought to aspire towards is rightly put by Elmborg who himself cites Ryan Gage, from his book, Henry Giroux’s Abandoned Generation and Critical Librarianship:

Stripped of the critical capacity to appraise itself, [librarianship] appears secure in defining its professional trajectory in accordance with the undemocratic dictates of those commercial values and social relations that obstruct rather than expand the rights of library critical and engaged citizens capable of materializing the possibilities of collective agency and democratic life. Critical [information] literacy provides a way for libraries to change this trajectory and more honestly align themselves with the democratic values they often invoke.

Of course, you might rightly wonder how we here at Touro College libraries could implement critical information literacy instruction during the course of our orientations, and to be quite honest at this point in time, I do not very well know.  However, the first step  in implementing this modified form of instruction is by first being cognizant of what critical information literacy is, and secondly to begin to think of ways to embed and/or make ourselves aware of this facet of instruction in our orientations and one-on-one instruction to our students.  As a result of this modified approach, we are doing more for our students than merely teaching them to become proficient in information literacy and passive consumers of our capitalistic and quasi-democratic society.  We are in addition raising their critical social consciousnesses and perhaps effecting change for what is far, far more important for a flourishing democratic and just society—giving our students the tools they will need for grappling with the many pressing social, cultural and political issues they face, and how such issues might be addressed and resolved by them in their future endeavors.

Contributed by: Mark Balto, Assistant Librarian, Midtown

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