Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Importance of Critical Librarianship: An Analogy

[Note: The following post was inspired by the article I’m currently writing to submit for the new Journal of Critical Librarian and Information Studies.]

“Give a person a fish and you feed that person for a day; teach a person to fish and you feed that person for a lifetime.” Revised from contested origins

I’ve found that there are roughly three broad types of LIS students (and consequentially librarians): those who just want to be given fish, those who want to be taught to fish, and those who want so much more than that (whom I will spend most of this post addressing).

Those who just want the fish come into an LIS program (often, but not always, as library support staff) expecting a series of workshops and continuing education credits. They are the box checkers and have the most difficult time understanding why they need to know anything about the theories, history, impetuses, etc. (hereafter “reasons”), behind where we are in libraries today, much less where we might be going. Sometimes this is because, if they already work in libraries, they think they already know what they need to know to do their “jobs,” while other times they find anything outside of the “practical” information irrelevant. These are the shoppers who are actually happier meeting the person who caught the fish at the market, well away from the lake where the fish originated. Sometimes, they may even prefer not dealing with the person who caught the fish at all, instead going through a wholesaler or distributor. In turn, these types of students (if they manage to earn the degree) usually become the librarians who just give fish to their users. These are, in the words of Bob Williams, “the pointers and the setters.” It’s important that we realize that this group isn’t solely responsible for just wanting the fish, as they often are surrounded by practitioners and educators who ascribe to this model.

The second group, in my experience, is the most common. These students do actually want to learn about the reasons behind library practice. They want to learn how to create, rather than just how to regurgitate. While sometimes this quest for knowledge may be confined more to their specific area of interest (academic libraries, youth services, cataloging, school media, management, etc.), they are at least willing participants in learning in much of the curriculum. These are the students who tend to be most successful in programs and also who tend to become the librarians willing to help users with information literacy, readers’ advisory, etc. Returning to the analogy, this group is interested in more than shopping for fish. They want to cut out any of the middle people, go to the lake, and do what it takes to catch their own fish.

Finally, the smallest group are the people want more (ironically, these students often have library experience as well). They get to the lake, meet with the person who will be teaching them to fish, and immediately start asking questions about the nature of fishing. Why are we fishing? Why this particular bait? Why this particular tackle? Hell, why this particular lake? What fish are we trying to catch? What fish are we trying to avoid? Why are we avoiding those types of fish? What about the types of fish that aren’t even in this lake? And why aren’t we talking about the other fauna in the lake? And then, what about the flora we’ve left out all together? And what about the ruins under this lake from damming the river? And shouldn’t we also be talking about the historical and contemporary ramifications of the policies of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? What are the continuing environmental effects on the lake (and the fish)? And what about that commercial factory on the opposite shore and how its runoff might be hurting these fish? How can we create a better lake environment for all of the flora and fauna?

Well, I think you get the point. We need more of these types of students (who then become critically engaged librarians). These are the students who want critical theory in LIS coursework and practice (even if they may not yet understand what critical theory is). Yet, how often do we (educators and practitioners) actually encourage, rather than discourage, this last group? How often are these types of students and practitioners silenced in our classrooms, meetings, and conference spaces? I have seen it happen so many times I have lost count. I was this type of student and this type of practitioner. I left practice because I was continually silenced, either explicitly or implicitly. I have seen these types of students (and alum) in the various programs I have been affiliated with be silenced in some way, shape, or form because they are too challenging, critical, or unwilling to conform. How many LIS educators are even using critical theory in their master’s level courses? How many administrators are supportive of critical librarianship in practice? Even if it is rarely said out loud, “Just shut up and do your work!” is what our field seems to say to this group over and over every single day.

Looking at the progress that has been made in LIS practice, education, and research, where would we be without this group? These are the agitators, the activists, and the champions fundamental to change. These are the students who leave LIS programs and work to make change in communities through their libraries and archives. 

[Side note: One of my goals next semester is to connect my students with librarians (and archivists) who are practicing critical librarianship so that these students can better imagine the possibilities of the profession. Please contact me if you might be interested!]


  1. I whole heartedly agree with this. I have always tried to look at the big picture and focus more on the root of what we should try to be accomplishing instead of what we are/are not accomplishing.

    It is not easy for someone without a library background to break into our field. I experienced many of the pitfalls and discrimination you're talking about here because I didn't fit "the mold". Ironically, this treatment was not experienced at my graduate school of choice, but out in the field. So my question is this. If the graduate school I attended was able to foster, celebrate, and validate critical librarianship as my method of choice, why is that not continued in the professional realm of public service where we need to be proactively putting these actions into practice?

    Thank you for blogging about this. Will be sharing to help raise awareness.

  2. I was bullied out of a job in WV by asking too many questions. Sadly, I found that critical librarianship can get you in trouble and damage your career. I was told I was "compromising the reputation" of my tiny public library. I resigned when my Board (afraid of losing critical state funding) didn't back me up. There is a critical shortage of professional librarians in WV because they are not nurtured or supported from the top down. I share my story because I know I am not alone. Be critical, but also, be careful.

  3. One of the things that appalls me is how library schools STILL completely ignore the brilliant contributions of a master questioning librarian, Sandy Berman, who single-handedly took (and continues to take) the Library of Congress to task for their built-in racism, classism, sexism, ableism and archaic methods. He's probably one of the most revolutionary librarians of our time;yet most library students have never heard of him.Including readings of some of his works, and a discussion of his fight is a great way to open the eyes of future librarians- we aren't just here to organize information, but also to consider how it's organized, what is included as information and who gets access to it.

  4. The program I entered made me feel that I had to conform to their mold. I fell into the trap believing that most of the educators (not all!) had no time for questions - or at least, that's how it was portrayed. I'm thankful for the few that did spend time thoughtfully answering my questions. Those are the educators I remember. Thank you, Dr. Kurz, for being that educator.