Critical Librarianship Discussion at MW 2012

January 15, 2012 at 6:24 pm 1 comment

What Is Critical Librarianship?”
Progressive Librarians Guild Midwinter Meeting in Dallas.
TIME: Saturday, January 21, 4:00 p.m. until 5:30 p.m.
PLACE: Dallas Convention Center D170
The discussion topic will be “What Is Critical Librarianship?”
The following excerpts representing various core principles of critical librarianship are provided as a starter or springboard. Although they are theoretical in nature, the conversation itself will focus more on how we act on and articulate critical librarianship principles in our professional lives than on defining a theory of it.

1) From an interview with Toni Samek:

Critical librarianship is an international movement of library and information workers that consider the human condition and human rights above other professional concerns. This critical community, from which the book draws upon for its optimistic vision for the future, has built up its visibility and momentum over the course of many decades.

Starting in the late 1960s, however, advocates of an alternative library culture based on the concept of library social responsibility, that included the librarian’s right to freedom of expression, lobbied the ALA to extend the concept of intellectual freedom to include library practitioners as well as library users. For example, these alternative library culture advocates believed that while, as professionals, librarians have “the responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom,” as citizens, librarians have the fundamental right to freedom of expression (e.g. library employee freedom of speech in the workplace on professional and policy issues and freedom of the library press). So, the ethos of critical librarianship is inextricably linked to the ethos of intellectual freedom, and by extension then the concept of human rights. But as Al Kagan wrote in the context of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee’s opposition to an international boycott of an apartheid regime, “many intellectual freedom supporters do not appear to recognize that all human and political rights, including intellectual freedom, are constantly impacting on each other and as a consequence none are absolute.” Indeed, critical library discourse is a site of contestation for various stakeholders in the dominant culture of the profession, because it challenges librarianship to re-conceptualize the traditional ethic of intellectual freedom.

2) From Elaine Harger:

Those practitioners engaged in critical librarianship seek, in both theory and practice (1) to expose the means through which the library wittingly and unwittingly supports systems of oppression (whether they be physical, emotional, spiritual, systemic or personal) and, conversely, (2) to promote the library, its services, and collections as a means of liberation for individuals, communities, and society at large. As of January 2012, the editorial policies of the following journals (print and online) can be considered as embodying critical perspectives as defined above: Progressive Librarian (US), Information for Social Change and Library and Information Science Critique (UK), bis (Sweden).

3) From Rosenzweig, Mark. “The Basis of a Humanist Librarianship in the Ideal of Human Autonomy.” Progressive Librarian Issue 23, Spring 2004:

This paper will suggest the idea of “autonomy” as a key to humanism which also unlocks librarianship’s enmeshment with the goal of the “good society,” therefore as well in an overall project of social change for human development.

The support of this maxim’s realization is clear if we start with the fact that librarianship is based on the idea of a common heritage made intellectually accessible and usable to all – today, tomorrow and thereafter – an idea which rests in turn on: a) the implicit notion of the fundamental sociality of knowledge; b) an orientation towards preserving for the future, thus working, always, for the not- yet-existing – perhaps emergent – state-of-affairs; c) a strongly democratic commitment to free and equitable access to knowledge; and d) an ethos of cooperation, mutuality, an “ethic of care” devoted to unimpeded, self-development as imperative to collective well- being, the latter a social and cultural goal only very partially, unequally, distortedly realizable under the present circumstances.

Librarianship is an endeavor which, sometimes despite itself and despite its quotidian appearance, has acted as if, while serving the intellectual needs of the present, it is preparing for a “better day” when its “resources” will be more fully available and used as if in order to help build the bridge to a more just, more equitable, more humane order. In that way, librarianship would appear, in its way, a fundamentally “optimistic” endeavor, expressing – in the presence of so much evidence to the contrary in libraries’ collections – a faith, much to be valued today, in the very futurity of humankind. For librarians themselves it should be obvious, on reflection, in their own work-world (but seldom is, because of the often alienated and “unfree” nature of their own labor), that human freedom and “disalienation” are possible, achievable, if only because efforts such as theirs, quintessentially collective and cooperative, are possible and sustainable, deepening and ramifying human interconnectedness in efforts which prove by example that the prevailing mechanistic, atomized and positivist model of society is untrue and that “the market” which supposedly is the sole possible framework for human endeavor is not the necessary mediator for organized and effective human interaction, progress and development.

4) from Phenix, Katharine J., and Kathleen De la Peña McCook. “Human Rights and Librarians.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 45, no. 1:

Human rights – the assumption that all human beings, by virtue of their existence, deserve certain rights and dignity – is most eloquently defined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. What is the responsibility of the librarian to serve the cause of human rights? The oft-cited neutrality of a balanced collection is increasingly, and rightfully, being called into question. In a 2004 presentation before the Texas Library Association, professor Robert Jensen discussed “The Myth of the Neutral Professional” and observed:

The ideology of political neutrality, unfortunately, keeps professionals such as journalists, teachers, and librarians – as well as citizens – from understanding the relationship between power and the professions. Any claim to such neutrality is illusory; there is no neutral ground on which to stand anywhere in the world.

5) from Buschman, John. “Democratic theory in library information science: Toward an emendation.” Journal Of The American Society For Information Science & Technology 58, no. 10 (August 2007): 1483-1496

Democracy is not a specific thing to be attained (e.g., a possession or a perfected structure) but rather a process that enables—even requires—debate about its meaning, limits, and problems to realize authentic collective democratic action.

If states and families and local communities have an interest in the “ways of life most favored by parental and political authorities [— that is,] a commitment to share the rights and the obligations of citizenship with people who do not share our complete conception of the good life [—then] to the extent that [we] share…this … a democratic theory of education commands our allegiance” (pp. 41–47). Neither an a priori foundation nor a relativistic justification of the moment, this theory draws on questions of the public’s interests in its families, children, and investments made in a system of institutions meant to influence and shape the future of society. At a time when public functions and public institutions are being (minimally) subjected to market forces and (maximally) fully privatized (Buschman, 2003), a grounding purpose in democratic theory cuts through much of the dominant paradigm of neoliberal logic behind these social and economic choices of direction. Far from a neutral separate realm, LIS substantially shares this same raison d’etat.

Libraries and information systems, like education, can be and have been used to oppress, stifle, control, and direct information toward goals opposite these. If LIS makes any claim in terms of social and normative values or if LIS stakes any normative claim to the substantial public investments in libraries and information systems, then a democratic theory of LIS linked to the principles of the regime would go some ways to ground the field beyond an instrumental or relativistic basis. It commands our allegiance in Gutmann’s terms.

Rather than a set of answers or definitive directions toward a set end (like a road map), democratic theory raises different types of questions for LIS research. Rather than a focus on more and better refined techniques, democratic theory begins to answer the harder question: What are those techniques for? It is Gutmann who has sketched the outline of that answer: Educative institutions and systems (e.g., library and research resources) in democratic societies should be about replicating the bases of democratic culture.

Wolin’s work would seem to firmly place those information systems and institutions (e.g., education) within the reality of political interest (as does Gutmann). He further suggested that our formalized systems of rights (to information and perhaps its technologies, to balanced selections of materials, etc.) are mere formalities. The gap between these information structures and the polity as actor is now wider than ever, yet we live in a self-heralded age of vast information, more widely available, by easier means, with the implied claim that this translates to more/better democracy. Surely this disjuncture bears some relationship to or place within LIS research. Habermas in turn raises even broader research questions concerning the scientization of discourse in LIS systems and research (and thus the lack of ethical and normative content), or the flip side of the same coin in terms of a debased public communicative rationality in the form of the products of information capitalism. These perspectives again raise different questions for LIS. Is research on information seeking behavior a social science intervention into learning and inquiry merely in service to the information industry (to better hone products and marketing)? Do various search softwares shape or obfuscate results? If so how? Alternately, why is the broad debasement of public access to public information not the subject of LIS research (, 2005)?

Gutmann’s work is suggestive of a mode of operation. That is, an institution cannot foster democracy without practicing it. … Can, for instance, a library support intellectual freedom for its community without practicing it as a workplace?

6) From Maret, Susan. “True community: connecting the Millennium Development Goals to public library services in the United States.” Information, Society and Justice, Volume 4 No. 2, December 2011:
At first glance, it may appear difficult to translate the [Millennium Development Goals] into library work; however, the social mission of the public library (McCook, 2001) is completely compatible with the philosophy of the MDGs. “Interconnected principles” such as the London Declaration‘s emphasis on “the free flow of information, transparency and civic engagement are fundamental to the achievement of the MDGs, as well as the global fight against poverty” (Article 19, 2010) are of prime concern to librarians, and broadly to information workers. Secondly, librarians as technological innovators and educators have a natural role in applying ICT10 (information and communication technologies) to various types of literacies and inequities such as the Digital Divide as well as having a role in training teachers in ICT core competences (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2011). As the Civil Society Declaration to the World Summit on the Information Society noted “technologies can be engaged as fundamental means, rather than becoming ends in themselves, thus recognising that bridging the Digital Divide is only one step on the road to achieving development for all” (World Summit on the Information Society Civil Society Plenary, 2003, p.3). Third, far from the public library as the “people‘s university,” research done in the 1968 by Ewald B. Nyquist and most recently by the American Library Association (2011), indicate that college graduates remain “well represented among card holders” as are middle class patrons (p.3). This is finding is critical for public libraries in terms of aggressively identifying marginalized populations and creating services and programs. Lastly, librarians and information workers are essential to the remediation of “infoglut,” highly skilled in encouraging the “learning that we all need to undertake in order to transform modem society to a sustainable society” (Milbrath, 1995, p. 109).

Entry filed under: global, Human Rights, public sphere.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Rebecca Martin  |  March 4, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Is there a video or notes from the discussion at MW? It’d be great to see any conversations or take-aways. Many thanks.


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