Monday, January 08, 2007

Article Note: On Librarians and Self-Reflection

Citation for the article:

Doherty, John J. "Towards Self-Reflection in Librarianship; What is Praxis?" Progressive Librarian 26 (Winter 2005/2006).

Ever since I participated in the National Writing Project many years ago, I have been a believer in the value of critical self-reflection. I have to agree with Mr. Doherty that serious self-reflection is lacking in librarianship. Sure, you get little hints of it in the library sector of the blogosphere, but there's not enough. On a side note, maybe looking at that area of the blogosphere could add an update to the article. At any rate, participating more recently in Immersion helped to reinforce the value of being a reflective practitioner.

In the interest of self-disclosure, I must admit that I am not a great fan of theory. I can read it; I can handle most of it well enough, in large part from having a good literary theory teacher back in my previous life. Too much theory, and I wander off looking for the practical side. So, when I saw the word "praxis" on the title, there was a little trepidation. However, the article was short, accessible, and with just enough theory for the casual reader; anyone needing more can look up some of the references. By the way, Doherty provides a definition of the term: "Praxis, in Marxist terms, refers to the process of applying theory through practice to develop more informed theory and practice, specifically as it relates to social change." The article gave me some things to think about, so here we go.

Doherty starts by looking at ALA's Code of Ethics, the part about having an informed citizenry and our profession's commitment to access and intellectual freedom. The statement Doherty uses is from the introductory text. The statement, and the code as a whole, often comes under fire for various reasons. Here's my two cents on the issue. I do believe that this nation, if it is to remain great, needs an informed citizenry. Given recent electoral choices, I question how informed the people really are. If citizens want better government, they need the best information available, and they also need access to various points of view in order to make the informed decisions. I believe then that librarians are in a position to provide access to information and diverse points of view. They should do so in an open way. I am not really saying neutral; librarians are human, and they are citizens as well with opinions and biases. Let's break open a couple of bottles of wine, and I may tell you some of my opinions (or go read the unruly cousin's blog). However, the reference desk or the classroom are not places to inject selective views. Here's the catch, for me at least. I do believe in educating people and helping them learn to think critically. So, to use myself as an example, when I teach about research, I often teach how to ask questions about that research as well. I operate on the premise that one should question everything; liberals and conservatives and everything in between should be put under the critical lens. To some librarians, this is extra work. To others, it may not be ethical since they would just rather give them the stuff. I say that we have to ensure the free flow of ideas, the more the better. We should also, at the least, make available the tools to question, reflect, and decide. As educators, we should teach them how to use those tools and apply them evenly. Well, that's my two cents.

Going back to the article, Doherty writes,

  • "The true discussion in library literature ought to be on the praxis of librarianship, particularly within the 'trademark pedagogy' (Kapitzke 37) of librarianship, information literacy instruction. This requires attention to both reflection and direct action, and their relationship to each other."

It is common knowledge in librarianship that a lot of our literature is pretty light. Doherty provides a basic overview later in the article: "most of it comprises program descriptions, bibliographies and literature." In other words, a lot of "this is how we did it" articles, lists of best books, websites, etc., and literature reviews. Some of those are useful, but we need more than that. What was truly learned from a teaching experience? How did the practitioner grow and change as a result? What is the significance? Or to quote one of my old professors, the "so what" question.

Other ideas that stuck with me from the article:

  • "Carr and Kemmis (1986) suggest that educational practitioners have to be committed to self-critical reflection on their educational aims and values (31). They go on to say that teachers should become more self-enlightened regarding their own world views and how these can distort and limit their professional roles in society. They suggest that praxis is just this doing-action, or remaking the conditions of informed action by constantly reviewing such actions and the knowledge that so informs these actions (33). If we replace teachers with librarians here, we could have a recommended course of action for our profession."
  • "Peterson (2003) speaks of the progressive teacher as one who builds on her students’ interests. To him however, the Freirian teacher does more: 'She asks questions.... [e]ngaging children in reflective dialogue on topics of their interest' (365)."
  • "It is very easy to assume that librarianship is a stable profession, wherein practice is stable, 'less and less subject to surprise' (Schon 60). Indeed, many of the textbooks of the profession encourage such thoughts. In practice, however, the average librarian is likely to speak of the ever-changing world of information, access to information, and ways of facilitating such access (Doherty, Hansen and Kaya). Minus a grounded theory of librarianship or ways of developing a grounded theory, or even more specifically of information literacy instruction, librarians tend to fall back on technical, rationalist based methods even when ineffective."

This short article is worth reading for its proposal to get librarians to reflect, and do so critically, about their practice.


Mark said...

Hear! Hear! or is it Here! Here!?

Dang, thesauri are screwing me up.

I was about to ask if there were any references to Schon, but then you gave me one at the end.

Sounds like I'll have to check this one out someday. Soon, hopefully.

I'm particularly intrigued by the call to focus (primarily) on instruction. While important, we do a lot more than that that should be informed by critical and reflective thinking with theory and practice feeding each other.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Hey Mark, thanks for stopping by. With the article online, you should be able to see the Schon reference in the article's bibliography. I think the article worked for me because I see reference and instruction as closely linked endeavors, part of the reason making the transition from school teacher to library instructor was easy for me. To some measure, some of my blogging is for that reflective focus. Best, and keep on blogging.