Critical information literacy. (Day 74/100)

At the CU Libraries Instruction Unconference, I attended a session about practical critical information literacy. The facilitator suggested that we introduce ourselves by explaining how we first learned about critical information literacy. Several participants indicated that the session itself was their introduction to critical information literacy, while others commented that they learned about the topic through graduate school, research about pedagogy, Twitter, and blogs.

I can’t remember when I first learned about critical information literacy. I think I was assigned some critical infolit readings in grad school, but I’m not sure. According to Twitter, the first #critlib chat in which I participated was on July 22, 2014, just three months after the inaugural #critlib chat. Immediately following that chat, I attended the  2014 Library Instruction West conference at Portland State University with fellow #critlib folks including Kevin Seeber, Rebecca Halpern, Eamon Tewell, and Veronica Arellano-Douglas. (How was that three years ago? Wow!) Based on this evidence, I can say that I’ve been thinking about critical information literacy and critical librarianship for about three years or so.

Critical information literacy, which applies critical pedagogy to information literacy instruction, felt like something I already knew without knowing what to call it. Most of my career has been focused providing information literacy instruction to community college students whose life experiences are often highlighted by mistreatment and oppression due to their (perceived or actual) class status, socioeconomic status, immigration status, languages spoken, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender; with those students, I always felt it was necessary and urgent to honor their experiences and openly address the power systems inherent in producing and accessing information.

When it was still under revision, I pushed back on the ACRL Framework for overemphasizing scholarly conversations only in the context of higher education; nearly half of the students I taught were pursuing vocational and technical degrees, so what does “scholarship” mean for them? Auto mechanics don’t refer to scholarly journals when they’re looking for trends in replacing catalytic converters. Even outside of professional/technical programs, I’ve questioned the necessity of relying on scholarly literature in undergraduate education. I acknowledge that most of the students will not be pursuing additional degrees beyond college. With that in mind, what does information literacy mean for them? Does it mean using databases to access scholarly journal articles to write research essays, or does it mean something else?

All of the articles I have read about critical information literacy ask some version of these questions:

  • Do we perpetuate or dismantle the status quo of information literacy instruction (and higher education more broadly)?
  • What’s more important–meeting course learning outcomes or developing students’ agency?
  • Are we preparing students to be scholars or workers? Researchers or citizens?
  • Do we value compliance or resistance?
  • Is information literacy a set of linear skills or a recursive experience of meaning making?

Outside of general readings on critical pedagogy (e.g. Freire), the best foundational texts about critical information literacy include Kapitzke (2003), Swanson (2004), and Elmborg (2006). For a more recent reading, Eamon Tewell’s literature review from 2015 is incredibly well-done and will save you a lot of time.

Excerpt from Tewell, 2015.

In 2003, Kapitzke broke the dam when she directly asserted that information and ideas are intersectional, not neutral. Elmborg thought so, too, and he questioned whether librarians should “serve the dominant ideology of the academy, or whether librarians see themselves as critical educators in pursuit of more ‘democratic models’” (p. 197). Swanson dared to make the radical suggestion that librarians should teach about information (how it’s made, accessed, stored), not how to use tools. (He elaborated on this idea in his 2015 collection, Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think about Information.)

Cover image of Swanson’s book, Not Just Where to Click.

Together, these three articles have been cited more than 600 times, and the literature they’ve inspired covers a vast number of topics. This post only begins to scratch the surface of existing critical information literacy articles and more articles are published every year. (Maybe that’s a project for next year–100 Articles about Critical Information Literacy. Hmm.)


Excerpt from Kapitzke, 2003.

Some highlights from my reading:

  • I always make the standing recommendation to read everything by Safiya Noble, my favorite contemporary LIS scholar. Most of Noble’s writing, including her forthcoming book, focuses on algorithms, search engines, and racism. Her 2014 article, “Changing Course: Collaborative Reflections of Teaching/Taking ‘Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Information Professions’”, is unique because it concerns a course she taught while she was LIS faculty at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She authored the article with her co-instructor and three students who took the course. We learn from the article that this course had been shelved for 9 years (it went untaught from 2002 to 2011), it was an elective, and it is the only course at the graduate level to address issues of white privilege and heteronormativity in LIS. As I read Noble’s article, I couldn’t help but think of Nicole Cooke’s invited talk at ACRL2017 in which she noted that it was expected that she, the Black LIS professor, would be responsible for teaching “that stuff” (cultural competency, etc.).
Tweets about Nicole Cooke’s talk at ACRL 2017 in Baltimore.
  • Julia Bauder & Catherine Rod’s 2016 article about critical information literacy pedagogy and the ACRL Framework is lovely and succinct. They do an excellent job of rounding up recent examples from the literature that highlight the ways the Framework lends itself to “troublesome, transformative, irreversible, and integrative” learning. I loved that they cited Barbara Fister, Heidi Jacobs, and Maura Seale. The only downside is that they skip over the “Searching as Strategic Exploration” frame because they feel it’s too similar to the Standards–this felt like a missed opportunity.
Excerpt from Bauder & Rod, 2016.
  • Angela Pashia’s short-and-sweet article in Radical Teacher is a great starting point for folks who are looking for ways to integrate the Black Lives Matter movement into their information literacy curriculum. Pashia writes about her credit-bearing “Information Literacy and Research” course at the University of West Georgia, and how she encourages students to critique scholarly authority, news, and social media in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, students use tweets about the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri to “poke holes” in reports published in the news. (Full disclosure: Pashia is one of the editors of a forthcoming book titled Credit-bearing Information Literacy Courses: Critical Approaches, to which I have been accepted as a contributing author.)
  • Gina Schlesselman-Tarango’s 2014 article, “Cyborgs in the Academic Library: A Cyberfeminist Approach to Information Literacy Instruction” is just fucking fantastic. This is the kind of reading that will grow your mind and stretch your boundaries–and it is exactly the kind of article I hoped to read when I started this project. Her article deftly combines an analysis of feminist pedagogy, critical information literacy, ecofeminism, and, of course, cyborgs. Her root text is Amanda Yoder’s 2003 article, “The Cyborg Librarian as Interface: Interpreting Postmodern Discourse on Knowledge Construction, Validation, and Navigation within Academic Libraries.” I loved the way she framed the “cyborg librarian” as a nimble navigator of an information diaspora, one who encourages students to “use the digital tools of Web 2.0 to problematize dominant voices and information paradigms” (p. 38).
  • I am grateful to Eamon Tewell for his literature review from 2015, which I’ve already mentioned, but I also have to acknowledge the excellent work in his 2016 article, “Toward the Resistant Reading of Information: Google, Resistant Spectatorship, and Critical Information Literacy.” One of the things I really appreciated about this article was the way that he explained Stuart Hall’s 1973 theory about the encoding/decoding model of communication. It made me reflect on how the theory of dominant, negotiated, and oppositional approaches to reading relate to the literacy (e.g., reading) component of information literacy. I am deeply interested in how reading, and approaches to reading, inform learners’ information literacy capacities, and this article gave me a new lens through which to consider the act of reading texts. Tewell also gets bonus points subtly digging at the “apolitical” “checklist” approach to source evaluation (p. 303).
  • Michelle Holschuh Simmons published a groundbreaking article about genre theory and critical information literacy in 2005 when she was a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa studying discourses. At the time, she was among a small group of scholars writing about critical information literacy, and her words beautifully prophesy the language that would be used in the Framework ten years later. The conclusion of her article, which follows, really resonates with me because she emphasizes the library as a place of learning and resistance, both inside the library classroom and at the reference desk.
Excerpt from Simmons, 2005.

A couple lowlights:

  • I was excited to read the Goomas, Baker, and Weston article about critical information literacy in community college psychology curriculum. Unfortunately, I couldn’t detect any connection whatsoever to critical pedagogy in their article. From what I can tell, they conducted traditional library instruction sessions that focused on using databases to find articles from psychology journals, which students then cited in APA format using NoodleTools.
  • Kyle Shockey’s 2016 article about the American Library Association’s focus on the myth of neutrality and the decline of progressive librarianship was interesting, but only tangentially related to critical information literacy. I probably should have skipped it.

Yesterday, Jim Elmborg participated in a panel at the 2017 Workshop for Instruction in Library Use (WILU) in Alberta, Canada. The session, titled “Putting Critical Theory to Work: Pedagogy and Praxis for Librarians,” was well-received on Twitter, and I gathered from the tweets I read that Elmborg made a comment about theory as exclusionary practice.


Tweets from #wilu2017 about Elmborg’s comments regarding the exclusivity/elitism of theory.

I want to acknowledge that the literature of critical information literacy can feel incredibly dense and overwhelming. But I also want to invite you to engage with critical information literacy in any way you can because I believe there’s value in it, for you and for your students. If you disagree with me, or you’re just not interested, or you take a distinct pleasure in distancing yourself from (critical) theory, that’s totally fine.

If you’re willing to try, though, here’s your official permission to Do Your Best and Fuck The Rest. You don’t have to read everything. You don’t have to understand every article you try to read. You don’t have to get it right every time, know all the names, or rattle off Foucault like you had coffee with him last week. You don’t have to be perfect. I don’t know anyone who is. However, I do know a lot of librarians who are questioning many of the things that are taken for granted about what we do, and how we do what we do. I’m fascinated by these conversations and I feel lucky to be a part of them.


Bauder, J., & Rod, C. (2016). Crossing thresholds: Critical information literacy pedagogy and the ACRL framework. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 23(3), 252-264. doi:10.1080/10691316.2015.1025323

Kapitzke, C. (2003). Information literacy: A positivist epistemology and a politics of outformation. Educational Theory, 53(1), 37-53. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.2003.00037.x

Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Goomas, D., Baker, L., & Weston, M. B. (2015). Critical information literacy within the El Centro College psychology curriculum. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(1), 95-99. doi:10.1080/10668926.2013.836690

Noble, S. U., Austin, J., Sweeney, M. E., McKeever, L., & Sullivan, E. (2014). Changing course: Collaborative reflections of Teaching/Taking ‘race, gender, and sexuality in the information professions’. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 55(3), 212-222.

Pashia, A. (2016). Teaching note: Black lives matter in information literacy. Radical Teacher, (106), 141-143. doi:10.5195/rt.2016.305

Simmons, M. H. (2005). Librarians as disciplinary discourse mediators: Using genre theory to move toward critical information literacy. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5(3), 297-311.

Schlesselman-Tarango, G. (2014). Cyborgs in the academic library: A cyberfeminist approach to information literacy instruction. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 33(1), 29-46. doi:10.1080/01639269.2014.872529

Shockey, K. (2016). Intellectual freedom is not social justice: The symbolic capital of intellectual freedom in ALA accreditation and LIS curricula. Progressive Librarian, (44), 101-110.

Swanson, T. A. (2004). A radical step: Implementing A critical information literacy model. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 4(2), 259-273. doi:10.1353/pla.2004.0038

Tewell, E. (2015). A decade of critical information literacy: A review of the literature. Communications in Information Literacy, 9(1), 24-43.

Tewell, E. (2016). Toward the resistant reading of information: Google, resistant spectatorship, and critical information literacy. Portal-Libraries and the Academy, 16(2), 289-310.