Critical Theory in
Researcher, University of Strathclyde
• What is critical librarianship?
• Where does critical theory come in?
• What are the aims of critical librarianship?
• How are people doing being critical?
• What if I want to apply critical approaches?
What is critical librarianship?
Social justice: “a normative concept concerning the
ways in which 190 resources and power should be
shared across society”.
(Ross and Rosati 2006, p.437)
“The ethos of critical librarianship is inextricably
linked to the ethos of intellectual freedom, and by
extension then the concept of human rights.”
“LIS is…very interested in the
betterment of society, from the
development of national
information policies, to the
provision of user-friendly and
equitable access to information, the
inclusion of diverse and /or
marginalized clienteles, the support
of citizen lifelong learning, the
nurturing of the library in the
community, and many other
proactive areas of research and
practice.” (Leckie et al. 2010, p.xiii)
• Understanding systems of power and control
• Challenging assumptions about library neutrality
• Acknowledging political nature of libraries
• Changing what we do and/or how we do it
Benefits of critical theory in LIS
“Our discourse… tends to favo[u]r technical and managerial
language use, which in turn prevents librarians from critically
examining and evaluating information resources and systems”
(Leckie et al. 2010, p.xi)
• Engaging with the ‘rudiments and theory’ behind values and aims
• Supporting our arguments
• Getting listened to (?)
Limitations of critical theory
Image via librarianbyday on Tumblr
Twitter chats are an opportunity for synchronous
bursts of conversation on current topics. We started
the #critlib chat to build a conversation about issues
of critical pedagogy in academic libraries, but topics
have grown to include library assessment, gender in
RDA, and library responses to social justice actions in
our communities. Publicly exploring our assumptions
about our profession is sometimes uncomfortable,
sometimes fiery, and always an opportunity for
growth and action.
(Pho et al. 2015)
Radical Librarians Collective
Under the loose umbrella of RLC, moves began to
create a public space in which people could build a
network of support and solidarity, offering an
alternative to the dominant discourse.
Radical Librarians Collective
• Twitter: @RadicalLibs
• National gatherings: #radlib15
• Regional meetings: @RadLibsOx @RLC_SE
• Online discussion: #radlibs
• First ever #radlibchat! Tonight, 8pm – Althusser’s
concept of ISAs
• Journal of Radical Librarianship
History of critical librarianship
• Progressive Librarians Guild
• Library Juice Press
• Radical Reference
• Individuals getting on with stuff!
What kinds of critical theory?
• Critical pedagogy
• Feminist theory
• Queer theory
• Critical race theory
• Marxian theory
• Popular culture studies
• Practice theory
• Critical realism
How can critical theory be used?
• Education systems
• Librarianships’ position in education systems
• Library spaces
• What libraries do
• What librarians do
• How information is organised
• How information is shared
• How authority is established
Banking theory of education
• The media inform and the audience is being informed.
• The media know everything and the audience knows nothing.
• The media talk and the audience listens - meekly.
• The media choose and enforce their choice and the audience
• The media act and the audience has the illusion of acting through
the action of the media.
• The media choose content and the audience adapts to it.
• The media are the subject of the informational process, while the
Combining "reflection and action directed at the
structures to be transformed" (Freire 2005, p.126)
Changing how we think about our work, not always
changing how we do it (Drabinski 2015)
“It is easy for academic subjects to become abstract
and meaningless to students. I resent this practice
and so I strive to share with you a practical and
personally meaningful education. At the same time, I
am responsible for balancing the desires of the
University, the influences of economic forces, and
the mandates of the government with my personal
teaching style. This is not easy. Each collective
member of the classroom must advocate for his or
her own needs. With your help, I hope to never lose
track of what’s truly important: our mutual learning.”
Exercise: Elmborg (2006)
Uses critical literacy theory to explore information
In groups, consider:
• Do you consider librarians to be ‘educators’, or
• What do you think might be the implications of
• What do you think about the Evolving Definitions of
Exercise: Critical information literacy
• How do you provide information literacy instruction?
• In what ways do ‘traditional’ approaches to IL reproduce
ideas about information as a commodity, problematic ways
of establishing the authority of sources etc?
• In what ways does the classroom set-up reinforce
hierarchical relationships between learner and librarian?
• How might you approach things differently?
If there’s time…
• How do you feel about referring to people using
library services as “customers”?
• What aspects of cataloguing and classification do
you think could be challenged from critical
• How do you think library spaces could be improved
through critical approaches?
• How do you think the discourses of
‘professionalism’ may be problematic from a critical
Alvesson, M., & Spicer, a. (2012). Critical leadership studies: The case for critical
performativity. Human Relations, 65(3), 367–390. doi:10.1177/0018726711430555
Drabinski, E. (2015). ACRL Instruction Section Ilene F. Rockman Publication of the Year
Award – Emily Drabinski.
Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (3rd ed.). London: Continuum.
Heidebrink-Bruno, A. (2014). Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom
Culture. Hybrid Pedagogy. http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/syllabus-
Pho, A., Drabinski, E., Ettarh, F., McElroy, K., Pagowsky, N. (2015). "But We're Neutral!"
And Other Librarian Fictions Confronted by #critlib, ALA San Francisco.
Samek, T. (2007). Critical Librarianship: an interview with Toni Samek. BCLA Intellectual
Freedom Committee blog. https://bclaifc.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/critical-
Schroeder, R., & Hollister, C. V. (2014). Librarians’ Views on Critical Theories and Critical Practices.
Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 33(2), 91–119. doi:10.1080/01639269.2014.912104
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Background image CC Ellen van Deelen on Flickr