Friday, June 16, 2006

Article Note: On Critical Information Literacy

Citation for the article:

Elmborg, James. "Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32.2 (March 2006): 192-199.

Read in print, via the workplace routing.

This article opens by pointing out how the term "information literacy," which is a significant concept for libraries, remains a problematic term. The concept is constantly discussed in conferences and articles. The author further points to other writers that indicate an increased demand for information literacy services. This means that more librarians will be called upon to have a more active educational role. Elmborg writes, "this shift, driven by demand, implies an evolution in what librarians do, and moving from service provider to active educator challenges librarians and library educators to develop new guiding philosophies" (192). The author argues that academic librarianship needs to be defined in terms of teaching, learning, and literacy scholarship. The idea is to move information literacy as libraries seem to define it, in terms of skills, towards a critical pedagogy.

I find this to be quite challenging for librarianship. Coming from a background in teaching, I like these ideas. However, knowing the profession of librarianship, I can see where this would be met with resistance. One of the core values of professional librarianship is a sense of neutrality. We provide the information our patrons want without any other questions or impediments on our part. Yet critical pedagogy, as I understand it and as Elmborg briefly explains, is political by nature . If educators are shaping the citizens of tomorrow, there has to be some political engagement, yet "politics" seems such a dirty word. At the end of the day, what we do as educators is teach the students to think critically, to question. Maybe we should be asking more questions like these:
"What is the role of the library in a Freireian vision of critical literacy? 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 existing knowledge and shape it to their own current and future uses? And what is the librarian's role as an educator in the process?" (193).

Elmborg goes further to argue that the critical pedagogy perspective is largely absent in the literature of infomation literacy.

Elmborg summarizes the basic research models usually used in information literacy as follows:
"These process models work by standardizing the complexities of research in 'stages,' which generally include: defining a topic or question, narrowing the topic and identifying sources, synthesizing the sources, and finally presenting the results. With minor disclaimers, the process is presented as linear, from task initiation to completed project" (194).

And yet, the process is anything but linear. Students will take detours, try out certain inquiries only to abandon them, and in general, they adapt. They also multitask. The elements mentioned in the quote are there, but they are not really done in a linear fashion. The irony, for me at least, is that I often teach about research as having divergent elements. I tell them that at times something in the research may catch their eye. They may choose to follow it only to find it may not be the best answer at first. That is part of the research process, and part of what I do is reassure them that some degree of nonlinear research is acceptable, natural even. I wonder what the model makers might say about that.

As I read the article, I made a marginal note to consult again an article I read a while back on unskilled researchers. I am not quite sure why I made that note to reread that article, but I hope mentioning it now will spark something later.

There are so many ideas in this article that I agree with. I find myself nodding a good bit as I read. I try to do so much, and yet, there is so much more to be done. I guess if I want to look at it positively, it may mean a degree of job security for me.

Some other notes, or things I want to think about further:
  • "Rather than define these students [the ones that fail] as 'deficient,' we might ask whether schools and curriculums themselves are a large part of the problem, especially when they become conservative protectors of traditional, authoritative knowledge and cease to respect students as people capable of agency and meaning-making in their own right. Indeed, one of the primary challenges for contemporary education is to find ways to make it possible for all students to succeed, not just those socially preselected for academic success" (194).
  • In the context of multiple literacies and communities. "In saying this, we have arrived at an important point that bears emphasis--while there are multiple literacies in any given culture, all literacies are not equal" (195).
  • "If literacy is the ability to read, interpret, and produce texts valued in a community, then academic information literacy is the ability to read, interpret, and produce information valued in academia--a skill that must be developed by all students during their college education" (196).
  • "Librarianship as a profession should develop strategies for helping students master these styles and patterns of thinking" (196).
As I am trying to make my notes, I can't help but think about how this seems so important although it seems lost on the wayside. I read a good share of the information literacy literature, and I have to agree, this type of discussion is pretty much missing. Plus, I wouldn't count on the library sector of the blogosphere to hear about it either. Except for one, maybe two or three bloggers at the most, most are caught up in the L2 glitz wagon. Yet, in academia at least, these are issues and questions to ask, discuss, and explore. Would providing answers and thus helping students make sense of their world be any less a form of good library service? These are things that form part of my teaching philosophy. They are the questions that help shape my practice as an Instruction Librarian. Anyhow, a few more ideas from the article:
  • "As Ray notes, instructional librarianship requires extensive knowledge of pedagogies and of the cultures and discourse communities of higher education" (198).
  • "Librarians need to develop a critical consciousness about libraries, by learning to 'problematize' the library. Education for librarians must become what Freire calls 'a problem posing education'" (198).
Now, I know I did not hear any of that in recent discussions about LIS education I have heard. This essay as a whole goes well with some of my previous thoughts on Revolting Librarians Redux. I am also thinking a bit more about this as I prepare to go back to basics later in the summer. I am definitely adding this article back to my files, and I highly recommend it for academic librarians, especially those in public services.

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