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WILU Closing Plenary Session

I’m so grateful to the WILU 2021 conference organizers for giving me a chance to speak at this year’s conference and am sharing the slides from my talk above and the text below.

Counternarratives in Information Literacy

Thank you for that very kind introduction and thank you to the conference steering committee for inviting me to speak at the close of this amazing conference. I was so disappointed that WILU was cancelled last year and thought I’d missed my chance to speak, even though it was for a very good reason. I admire the 2020 conference organizers for making the decision to keep everyone safe. I know it wasn’t an easy one. I am so grateful to have been invited back this year. This is my first time at WILU and I feel so honored to be here. I’ve wanted to attend for years but it was always financially and geographically out of reach, so I am grateful for the increased opportunity to participate brought about by virtual conferences and hope that options like these continue in the future. 

I’m speaking from Houston, Texas, specifically my office at the University of Houston MD Anderson Library, which is located in Houston’s Third Ward, a historically and currently predominantly African American community, and the place that George Floyd called home. Our campus borders the city’s Second Ward, home to a predominantly Latinx population, and it sits on the unceded lands of the Karankawa, Coahuiltecan, Atakapa-Ishak, and Sana peoples. I say all of this to acknowledge the people connected to the land where I sit, privileged enough to talk while others listen, and encourage you to know your community and support the people in it in whatever way you are able to do so–through your money, time, actions, or voice.

My talk today is about stories and why they matter. Stories, or more accurately, counterstories, are one of the central methods employed in critical race theory. Critical Race Theory is a framework that originated in critical legal studies, was informed by radical feminism, and sought to question the assumed neutrality, objectivity, and colorblindness of the law and legal systems.    When applied to other academic fields critical race theory seeks to “transform the relationship among race, racism, and power” through a broader, systemic examination of history, group and self-interest, politics, economics, and the structures that underpin society (Delgado, Stefancic, & Harris, 2017 p. 3-8; Jabali, 2021). Within critical race theory the power of the counterstory or counternarrative (which I’ll be using interchangably in this talk) is the power to share the experiences of marginalized people, name discrimination, and resist dominant ideologies. Counternarratives challenge the status quo, forcing us to question the validity of a single-story of the world we live in and ask whether the Truth we accept as True is really True for all people. (Knowledge Justice, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction). 

I proposed this talk in March 2020, before the world shut down and WILU was cancelled, and I give this talk now after a year of disease, isolation, death, murder, protest, hope, anger, fear, fight, and love. We are delving into counterstories at a time when critical race theory has become the latest target of far-right American politicians, who deem a school of thought founded on eliminating all but especially racially oppressive power structures, “divisive, anti-American, and racist” and seek to legislate it out of schools and workplace trainings (NPR). So what I don’t want to do today is divorce the concept of counternarrative from critical race theory. To do so would be academically disingenuous and just plain insulting. I want us to examine teaching librarianship and information literacy, through the lens of critical race theory and use counterstories to question our assumptions. I want to examine why we do what we do the way we do it. I want us cultivate a discourse of dissent, and uncover a different way forward. 

I want to acknowledge and highlight other LIS scholars who are doing this work: Sofia Leung and Jorge Lopez-McKnight and the contributing authors to Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory, which I’m reading collectively with my colleagues now. Their work is a collection of counterstories that make our profession better. I read each page of the book wishing I’d been brave enough and thoughtful enough to have something to say then, and hope that what I have to say now is good enough to live up to the challenge Leung and Lopez-McKnight issued in their introduction. Sofia and Jorge, this is me trying to move us toward something better.

I want to thank David James Hudson for his continued work on race in LIS which I’ve read and listened to time and time again, each time discovering something new. Your work has stayed with me since your 2016 opening keynote at CLAPS. I am so grateful for the librarians in the relational cultural theory community of practice of which I am a part: Anastasia Chiu, Joanna Gadsby, Alana Kumbier, and Lalitha Nataraj. I draw from their ideas and our discussions on the intersectionality of race, gender, power, and community building. I also hold in my heart bell hooks, whose notions of critical theory were the first I could relate to and have forever changed my teaching. 

You may have noticed from the title slide that I changed the title of this closing talk slightly. I initially called this talk “Counternarratives in Teaching Librarianship,” which is what’s reflected in the program that you all probably looked at in anticipation of today. As I started thinking about and brainstorming the different narratives that underscored my own teaching and work as a teacher and instruction coordinator, I thought about power, value, and the sum of our worth. I thought about patriarchy and white supremacy in libraries and the ways in which we talk about/don’t talk about them in our professional discourse. But no matter how hard I tried I could not seem to push past the narratives of information literacy and their connections to race, power, and value. The story of teaching librarianship is interwoven and tangled with the story of information literacy. It is part and parcel of who we are as professionals and every story I came up with somehow had information literacy at its beginning and end. Because of this inseparability I decided to focus on information literacy, so please forgive me for that liberty!

I’m a facilitator for the ACRL Immersion program and we as a group were thinking about different, less expensive ways to offer instruction-related programming for librarians. I jokingly suggested we have some kind of a class or session called, “How are we all feeling about information literacy these days?” It was a flippant question that hid an earnest desire to engage in conversation around the concept that gets us into virtual and in-person classrooms as one-shot teachers, guest lecturers, and course instructors. We’d been discussing critical pedagogy and reflective practice, burnout and self-care, community building and the scholarship of teaching and learning, but I was still stuck on the thing we all taught. The concept / subject / process / idea that is the vehicle for all of our pedagogical decision-making. So I’ll pose the question to you: How are we all feeling about information literacy these days?

So as we think about and wrestle with all of those feelings, I want to start with the first story of information literacy that was told to me. It  was brief, perfunctory, and completely devoid of context. 

Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” 

This of course comes to us from the IL competency standards for higher education. In this story Information literacy is important and essential. You will be teaching people who are not information literate to be information literate. Now go and do good work.

No doubt many of you were introduced in a similar way, either given a copy of the IL Standards or sent a link to the Framework. It was the Standards for me, that 20 page document of definitions, performance indicators, and outcomes that by 2007, when it was first handed to me, already felt both overwhelming and incomplete. But this was it. This was my introduction to and first story of information literacy.

In the 2005 article, INformation Literacy: A Positivist Epistemology and a Politics of OUTformation, Cushla Kapitzke states that “the meaning of information literacy has never been monolithic or fixed… and despite being the topic of numerous conferences and a considerable body of scholarly work, no consensus on its theoretical or practical dimensions has emerged” (42). Through the years that I’ve worked as a teacher in libraries I’ve seen the story of information literacy morph and change in each retelling like a librarian version of the telephone game. I’ve had heart-felt discussions and disagreements with colleagues over what information literacy is and how we teach it. I’ve experienced how having different information literacy narratives can shape education programs in libraries and rip them apart; and I’ve seen faculty and administrators outside the library struggle to understand information literacy despite the adoption of institutional IL learning outcomes, workshops, and presentations from librarians.

There is no all-encompassing, overarching story of information literacy, no complete narrative arc, no narrative that we can all adopt and recite in unison. I know that for some of us that may sound bleak(!)–how can we have a profession, field of study, and site of praxis without a conceptual foundation?  But I would argue that in having a multiplicity of stories that inform information literacy we have a process, conceptual framework, and practice that has the potential to shift and change with time, to be both reparative and inspiring.

So today I will share the various narratives of information literacy as I have come to know and understand them. They are by no means exhaustive. They may not be your own. That’s ok. I acknowledge our experiences might be different, in some cases radically so, but I ask that as you hear these stories you think of your own. What are your stories of information literacy? Do you hold more than one? I’ll also share a counternarrative of information literacy that takes us into an imaginative future space. Again, it’s a space of my own making, of my own speculative future. The structure of my talk borrows heavily from Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, her memoir of domestic abuse that I read this year and cannot stop thinking about. Machado’s writing taught me that not only are stories from the same event different, they are sometimes wildly discordant in terms of tone, pace, and genre. I can’t promise that my stories will be good (my son often complains that I’m telling his made up bedtime stories all wrong–that’s not what happens, mom!), but I hope that they will spark questions and inspire your own stories. So with that, let’s begin: 

Chapter 1: An Inspirational Story 

Information Literacy is a necessary (librarian-led) educational intervention. 

We begin with an inspirational story, that of information literacy as a necessary, librarian-led educational intervention.

In 1974 a man named Paul Kurkowski, at the time the president of the Information Industry Association, introduced a concept that would serve as the foundational justification for librarians’ educational intervention in schools; That concept was/is information literacy. As Emily Drabinski shared with us in the Kairos of Information Literacy, “While his report includes discussions of liberal ideas like the importance of free expression and the transformation of information into knowledge, Zurkowski was primarily interested in the economic impact of the changing information environment” (2014). Information literacy was introduced as a means of preparing the workers needed in this new information age, or as a sweet aunt of mine once put it, “It’s all going to be computers, isn’t it?” This is it! This is our chance as librarians to seize and save the day! 

What follows in our story is a series of commissions and reports. 

  • “A Nation at Risk: the National Commission on Excellence Education report on the status of teaching & learning in the U.S.” which linked education to jobs with a strong focus on the information/knowledge economy (1983).
  • The ALA Presidential Commission on Information Literacy in response to “A Nation at Risk” (and largely) being left out of that conversation. This report emphasized the importance of information literacy skills for students (again so that they would be prepared to work). (1987)
  • The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000)
  • The 2011 task force to revise the Competency Standards
  • The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, adopted in 2015, which is our current guiding document. 

If this story were a film this sequence of reports and commissions and taskforces would be the montage, complete with a power ballad and shots of librarians, teachers, and academics working late into the night, writing, editing, and drinking copious amounts of coffee to develop papers that transform education for the future. In this story the definition of information literacy changes (Kapitzke 42-43). Sometimes it’s “library-based research skills,” or “research skills,” more broadly. It was for over a decade, “the set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (Competency Standards). In 2015 the Framework told us that information literacy was

the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning. (Framework)

Information literacy is the intervention and we, as teaching librarians, are the ones who both advocate for and provide this intervention. Yes, the definition has changed over the years, but that’s ok because it’s getting better, right? It’s becoming less standard-y, less capitalist, more critical, more nuanced. We aren’t training students to use tools, we are preparing students to be lifelong learners, creating learning experiences that are transformative, interdisciplinary, and a foundation for academic success and students’ growth as scholars. Without information literacy we run the risk of an uneducated populace, a democracy that can’t distinguish fake news from fact, and citizens who can’t think critically about the world around them. Through information literacy we empower and help others seek capital T – Truth (Kapitzke 43). 

This is one story, and in many ways it’s a really attractive story. We sound GREAT. Information literacy, thumbs up. Way to go, us! In this story we are the protagonist and hero and information literacy is what we use to save the day. It is the gift we give others and what we wield to make the world a better place. 

But who is the beneficiary of this story?  

If we’re the heroes then students, faculty, and really everyone who is not us are the people who need saving. There is a throughline of paternalism in this story, paternalism being a characteristic of white supremacy culture and patriarchy.  We center ourselves as integral to the concept of information literacy. We’re not just experts, we are conduits, bringing information literacy to the masses. We say things like “I wish students would understand that…” or “If only faculty could see…” or “They need us because…” Although we characterize IL as an essential intervention, what we’re really doing is justifying ourselves. We (the librarian we) are needed. We are important. We matter because information literacy matters. 

Now I am not saying that we don’t matter–I like to think I do–but maybe this is not the mattering that matters. Maybe we need to ask ourselves if we really need to be at the center of this story, or if we need to look at information literacy from a different perspective, a more critical angle. Is this the story we want to be our story, or should we explore another?

Chapter 2: A Morality Tale 

Information Literacy gets critical

In our second story, information literacy gets critical. It’s a morality tale, a narrative that questions the underpinnings and motivations of IL-as-intervention and how we talk about information broadly and information literacy in particular. And it starts at a conference a lot like this one.

You walk into a large conference room at the ACRL 2015 conference in Portland, Oregon. The room is freezing, but you remembered your sweater this time so it’s not too bad. There are a few open seats here and there (none on the edges of rows of course) and you take a spot somewhere near the back-middle just in case you need to duck out of the session if it isn’t what you were expecting. To be honest you don’t really know what to expect from “Process, not product: Teaching and assessing the critical process of information literacy,” and as the session progresses you worry that you might be out of place. Words like “Hermeneutics” and “Phenomenology” and “critical consciousness” fly around and frankly well above your head, but the passionate speakers, Jessica Critten and Kevin Seeber, keep you not only in your seat but interested. Then you hear the question, the question that sticks with you long after the session ends, 

“How can we reconcile the gap between “tasks” and “the larger context” in information literacy instruction?” 

And that’s it. That’s the shift. That’s when the story changes in your head and you realize that IL as you’ve been teaching it has been completely devoid of context, or rather, you have not been explicitly sharing the larger context of information. You thought you were doing great by not reproducing the scholarly good, popular bad dichotomy of information evaluation but instead focusing on the usefulness of information, but what you neglected to introduce was the question of useful to whom? Who does this information literacy benefit and why? If IL was black and white, now it is in grayscale. You begin to want to learn more about this critical approach to information literacy.

Critical information literacy considers “the social, political, economic, and corporate systems that have power and influence over information production, dissemination, access, and consumption” (Gregory & Higgins 2013, p. 6)

It provides a lens to think about information literacy in a nuanced, contextual way and question how you teach it and why.  IL was about you, as the librarian and teacher, instead about the learner. Through the critical approach to pedagogy that accompanies critical information literacy you aim to decenter yourself as the authority and open your heart and mind to learners. You consider the experiences students bring to the classroom and understand their importance in shaping their approach to information and education. (Critical) information literacy is a reflective practice and process that you work towards with students; the end goal being liberation or critical consciousness a la Paulo Friere. It also, in many ways, “positions (critical) information literacy as its own discipline” in which we as librarians examine our pedagogical practice and how our teaching and treatment of information reinforces or works against existing power structures. 

Critical information literacy is a story of information that feels more “right” or “just.” It’s a story in which the moral is about valuing the learner, the learning process and ambiguity. It brings in questions of race, gender, class, sexuality, and power as we discuss information. It forces us to ask: Who benefits? In relation to the use, sharing (or restriction), and creation of information.  It allows us to answer “It depends,” when we’re asked by a student  about what information to use in a given scenario. 

But critical information literacy also opens the door for us to apply that same critical consciousness to itself and complicate this morality tale even more. In Indigeonous Information Literacy, Jessie Loyer critiques current forms of information literacy in academic libraries, including critical information literacy, as lacking “a rigorous understanding of relationality (defined roles and how we are related to each other) and reciprocity (who we are accountable to and responsible for) (2018). It’s a pointed critique shared by many BIPOC librarians, myself included, who initially flocked to critical librarianship and critical information literacy only to find ourselves at times confused, at others times disappointed, but generally conflicted with the loose collective of practicing librarians who adopted a critical approach to our work. Sofia Leung and Jorge Lopez-McKnight say it best when they say that critical information literacy, pedagogy, and librarianship “do not explore the margins of where we exist.” (2020, p. 18). They problematize the notion of giving up or sharing authority and power, which we may, as people who have been marginalized, never have had in the first place. They question notions of authenticity and vulnerability, so central to the pedagogical piece of critical information literacy, and how differently that plays out when you are not a part of dominant white culture (2020, p. 18). In short, there are assumptions made in critical information literacy:

  • People need liberating
  • Librarians teaching information literacy hold power
  • We need to examine structures and systems of power around information

All of which reveal assumptions about the kind of librarian who is teaching it. 

There’s also a lack of acknowledgement within critical IL of IL as academic cultural capital, a critique raised by Amanda Folk in 2019. In teaching students critical information literacy in an academic setting with an academic context we are characterizing information literacy through the lens of academic scholarship. We are aiming to create critical scholars. But we never explicitly state this. We still say this is information literacy, or rather THIS is CRITICAL information literacy as though this is THE ONE or the ONLY ONE, which feels antithetical to the critical perspective. We draw in prior knowledge and experience as we teach but we are always teaching towards a liberatory end. I want to end this story by saying I still very much value critical information literacy and critical pedagogy. It has, after all, given me a framework and tools to question my own work and the work of teaching librarians. But it feels incomplete in some ways, which brings me to our third story.   

Chapter 3: The M. Night Shyamalan Twist

Information literacy “shows itself”

In our first two stories information literacy was aspirational. It was a concept we taught, a process learners move through from novice to expert, or a change learners go through together as they work towards a critical IL consciousness. But what if one day we looked at information literacy not as something we teach and promote but as a “social practice.” Alison Hicks advocates for framing information literacy through a sociocultural perspective, in which “information literacy shows itself in the different collective practices and activities of each group rather than trying to fit a group’s information actions and understandings to a previously established model of information literacy” (2018, p. 71). That’s the twist in this story.That’s the twist in this story: Information literacy is not something we bestow or impose; it is something we learn about, seek to understand, and contextualize.  

The idea behind a sociocultural perspective on information literacy–THE TWIST!–is that you can’t assume there is a single practice or definition of information literacy because when you do you are imposing the understandings and beliefs of one culture/community onto others (Hicks p.75). The idea of the Framework or of information literacy or of critical information literacy as a discipline is presented as truth and decontextualized, but really, and this is getting back to both Alison Hicks’ and Amanda Folk’s point, there is no decontextualized information literacy from a sociocultural theory standpoint. Information literacy is always context and community dependent. It is shaped by and through a particular group. 

The community that is shaping and seeking definitions of information literacy are librarians. It’s what the Framework is built on, a Delphi study with information professionals about information literacy means to them in their context of academic librarianship. It is a very specific context of information literacy–that of the academy, of librarians, of researchers–that informs a broad definition of information literacy that is meant to be applied to everyone at all times. It’s an intellectual act of colonization because we aren’t acknowledging that this is academia information literacy we’re just saying it’s information literacy and whatever version of information literacy that has shown itself in your culture, your community, is not the one. 

So when other forms of information literacy practices and definitions and understandings show themselves it feels like a reveal. It feels like an unexpected twist. But they’ve been there all along and we either a) don’t see them or b) are choosing not to see them. There are all kinds of reasons we may have chosen not to see them or not been introduced to them. We can look at privilege–the fetishization of the written word, the emphasis on white western culture that has shaped academia, the racism and oppression that has pushed oppressed peoples into self-protection and hiding of cultural knowledge practices or the erasure of their culture altogether. I think sometimes about my own grandmother’s healing knowledge and information literacy practices around health and the body and how little of that made its way to her daughter, my mother, and to me. It wasn’t modern, it wasn’t science, and it wasn’t seen as good enough. How much have we lost in the way of information exchange and knowledge creation? Or do we just need to dig deeper to find it?

I am heartened by the work of LIS scholars who are approaching IL from a sociocultural perspective like Alison Hicks, Annemaree Lloyd who examines information literacies in various workplace subcultures or the work of LIS scholars like Jessie Loyer, Nicola Andrews, Alexander Watkins, and Desmond Wong who write about indigenous knowledge practices and information literacy. Through their work and the work of many LIS scholars we come to know that information literacy is contextual, and both shapes and is shaped by the communities in which it resides. 

This was, initially, a tough story for me to digest as someone who has spent the last 14 years teaching information literacy. What was I teaching? Why was I teaching it that way? What was I actually preparing students for in my classes? Just for college success? Nothing beyond?  Initially it felt disheartening, perhaps even a bit frustrating. However, in thinking more about the possibilities of multiple information literacies, and the processes of sense-making, culture-creating, and community-building they bring, I’m left with a deep feeling of awe and wonder. There is so much to learn through engagement with different communities and their conceptions of information literacy. There are opportunities to create knowledge in ways totally unknown to me at the moment. And there is the possibility for us to teach through and towards contextualization and experience. 

What I’m wary of however, is that in viewing information literacy through a sociocultural lens we end up studying different information literacies through an extractive, anthropological process. This is particularly damaging for people from marginalized groups, whose culture and bodies have been researched on rather than with for the production of Western knowledge. As Jessie Loyer reminds us “idigenous students are still positioned as sites of research…literally ethnographic subjects. This rhetoric of anthropology paints them with a lack of agency” (p. 150). 

To look to any group of individuals, but especially those for whom research has often meant violence, and see information literacy practices as something to be taken removes them from their rightful context and cultural structures. 

If as Alison Hicks states “information literacy looks distinctive for different people, at different times, and within different contexts” how do we study, teach, share, and understand information literacy in an anti-oppressive, liberatory way? How do we acknowledge and reconcile the fact that there may be much we do not understand; that some information literacy practices aren’t shared with us because they aren’t meant to be, can’t be read because they aren’t written down, aren’t visible to us because they can’t be seen, and aren’t audible to us because they can’t be heard? Think about the way a parent communicates to a toddler without words when to run freely and when to be cautious. The parent might hold out their arms, palms up, behind a child’s body as they attempt to climb a rope ladder, and in doing so lets them know that this is a potential site of accident and hurt. Or to take it back to the library, think about how you share and learn information about the political structure of your organization. You don’t write down the highly influential colleagues and toxic people in a GoogleDoc and pass it on to new hires. It’s much more subtle. It might be a conversation over coffee if you’re bold, but more likely it’s expressed in who attends lunchtime outings, who people stop to listen to in the hallway, or who gets the most holiday cards. 

In seeing information literacy through a sociocultural lens we begin to see that perhaps some things are not for us and that’s ok. There are things to which we are not entitled, but that is part of our growth as learners, as people who better seek to understand the role of information literacy in all of our lives. So how do we move forward as librarians and teachers and learners through information literacy?

Chapter 4: A Speculative Future

Information Literacy as possibility

To answer that question I turn to speculative fiction as a device, which has also been used by scholars Jennifer Brown, Sophia Leung, Jorge Lopez-McKnight, and Marisa Mendez-Brady in their imagining of revolutionary, anti-racist futures. The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature defines speculative fiction as 

a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating “consensus reality” of everyday experience

But I as a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy reader I prefer the way it’s described in Bookriot, as “nebulous” writing that “that look underneath the skin of our reality and  probe what might be or might’ve been.” Through the years I’ve looked to writers like Madeleine L’Engle, Marge Piercy, Samuel Delany, N.K. Jemisin, and Ted Chiang to imagine a different, better world and to take a more critical look at our own. So I’ll end our time together today with a story about a possible information literacy future, one that we can think through and imagine together. Edit, modify, remix, and made our own. 

You walk into the pre-service teacher education classroom with a backpack full of blank paper and markers. They’re your favorite smelly markers, the ones that remind you of grape soda and bubblegum. You say hello to everyone and snag a seat at the table. It’s not the first time you’ve met these teachers-in-training. At your institution all curricular programs have well defined and established relationships with the library’s teaching program, and the education department is no exception. You co-teach this class, a class on information literacies, knowledge practices, and sense-making, with an experienced school teacher and you’ve both planned for today’s lesson on information literacy practices. On different sheets of paper, the students are asked to write or draw their approach to information literacy as a) a student; b) a pre-service teacher; and c) as a member of a community of their choosing. You create one as a librarian, one as a parent, one as a teacher. Some students opt to forgo writing and drawing, choosing instead to jot down a few notes to inform a verbal presentation of their information literacies. Many students want to share what they’ve written or drawn, while others who you’ve seen working on this project throughout class opt to keep their information practices private. Everyone respects that wish and throughout the class discussion you are surprised–even though this happens everytime–at just how different sense-making looks to different people. 

Some of these pre-service teachers rely heavily on their own students’ facial expressions and body movements to gather information about the efficacy of their lessons and class activities. Others describe listening to the sounds and feeling the rhythms of their classrooms as the way they make sense of their teaching. One teacher describes her information literacy practices as an artist, the way she looks to other artists for inspiration, the way she takes what she’s learned from a documentary about sharks to inform the texture of a painting, how a visit to the optometrist helped her better understand a particular visual. Another pre-service teacher talks about their Mexican family’s annual tamale making tradition as a site of information exchange and learning. It’s where they learned about different uses for garlic, details about their family history, gossip about the novios and novias that are and are not at the cookout. It sounds a lot like the way information was shared at your grandma’s house, around a pot of beans or menudo on a Sunday when the adults all gathered to talk about secret things and you were chased out of the house to go play outside until the sun started setting. A smiling but quiet student has been drawing out information literacy as practiced in his neighborhood, but opts out of sharing, saying instead that this information isn’t for people outside of the neighborhood. Everyone nods, acknowledges the practice and existence of this information literacy, and moves on. 

You leave the class feeling energized and excited to hear how this exercise influences their perspective on information literacy as a social practice in your next class discussion. You hope that they take the idea of varied information literacies with them into their own classrooms and work with students.

You stop at the farmer’s market on the way home to pick up some carrots, the only vegetable your kid will eat these days, and realize how you learn about the food you eat. How you hold it, see it, and smell it. These are your farmer’s market information practices. You learned them from watching your mom pick out the best avocados at the supermarket, who learned them from her mom who had a small garden on the side of their house because they couldn’t always afford to buy food at the store but they could always grow their own. 

You might ask the farmer at the stand about their crop this year, or how the hail last week impacted their harvest. You learn they’re having a pick-your-own blueberries day on Saturday and you make a mental note to ask your family if they want to go with you. She also tells you this is likely the last time she’ll have carrots at the stand and you start to think about how you’ll find out what other veggies you might convince your kid to eat. The farmer learns blueberries are your favorite fruit and promises to have some at the stand later in the month. She suggests tomatoes for your picky eater (put a little salt on them, she says) or even roasted broccoli (they look like little trees and when you roast them they’re nutty and delicious). You both try to figure out how much longer the market will be open this season and promise to share any information you find out.  

At home the carrots are a hit! After dinner comes some family time, then your kid starts their bedtime routine: shower, saying goodnight to the family dog, and some time to read. He’s almost at the end of this graphic novel and you worry about what book you can find for him to read next. Reading is hard for him and not his favorite but hand him the right comic and he’s in love. You try to research articles about best books for reluctant readers but no two readers are the same and how do you even know he’ll like what’s suggested? You end up texting other parent friends with kids as weird as your own and writing down their suggestions for robot-fighting lunch ladies, Piranha’s with psychic powers, and girls who befriend giants. They are your information network, reassurance squad, and support, and you are so lucky to have them. 

You grab a glass of water, turn out the light and read a little. You fall asleep with your Kindle in your hand, dreaming of the next day and every day after that. You spend each day problem-solving, practicing the information literacies of your life, learning, and making sense of the world. 


Delgado, Richard, Jean Stefancic, and Angela Harris. Critical Race Theory (Third Edition): An Introduction. New York, UNITED STATES: New York University Press, 2017.

Drabinski, Emily. “Toward a Kairos of Library Instruction.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 40, no. 5 (September 2014): 480–85.

Elmborg, James. “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 32, no. 2 (March 2006): 192–99.

Folk, Amanda L. “Reframing Information Literacy as Academic Cultural Capital: A Critical and Equity-Based Foundation for Practice, Assessment, and Scholarship | Folk | College & Research Libraries.” Accessed July 22, 2019.

Gregory, Lua, and Shana Higgins. Information Literacy and Social Justice : Radical Professional Praxis. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press, 2013.

Hicks, A. E. “Making the Case for a Sociocultural Perspective on Information Literacy.” In The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, edited by K. Nicholson and M. Seale, 69–85. Sacramento, CA, USA: Library Juice Press, 2018.

“Houston’s Second Ward: A History & Neighbourhood Guide.” Accessed June 23, 2021.

Kapitzke, Cushla. “INFORMATION LITERACY: A POSITIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY AND A POLITICS OF OUTFORMATION.” Educational Theory 53, no. 1 (March 2003): 37–53.

Leung, Sofia, and Jorge López-McKnight. “Dreaming Revolutionary Futures: Critical Race’s Centrality to Ending White Supremacy.” Communications in Information Literacy 14, no. 1 (June 1, 2020).

Leung, Sofia Y., and Jorge R. López-McKnight. Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2021.

Loyer, Jessie. “Indigenous Information Literacy: Nêhiyaw Kinship Enabling Self-Care in Research.” In The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, edited by Maura Seale and Karen P. Nicholson, 12. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press, 2018.

Mackey, Thomas P., and Trudi E. Jacobson. “Reframing Information Literacy as a Metaliteracy | Mackey | College & Research Libraries.” Accessed June 15, 2021.

Malaika Jabali. “I’ve Been Trying Not to Wade into This Much Bc I Hate Being Reactive to Foolishness, but It’s Annoying as Hell Being a Black Woman Lawyer Taught by a Number of Preeminent Critical Race Theory Pioneers and See It Butchered like This, from Every End of the Ideological Spectrum.” Tweet. @MalaikaJabali (blog), June 20, 2021.

Manusos, Lyndsie. “What Is Speculative Fiction? Definitions + Examples.” BOOK RIOT (blog), January 24, 2020. – Our home on native land. “NativeLand.Ca.” Accessed June 23, 2021.

Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, March 29, 2017.

Pagowsky, Nicole, and Kelly McElroy. Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook. Chicago : Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, 2016., 2016.

“Process, Not Product: Teaching and Assessing the Critical Process of Information Literacy.” Accessed June 16, 2021.

Tewell, Eamon. “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy: Academic Librarians’ Involvement in Critical Library Instruction.” College & Research Libraries 79, no. 1 (January 2018). “The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory.” Accessed June 23, 2021.

“Third Ward.” Accessed June 23, 2021.

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What Do We Mean When We Say “Evaluate Sources?”

Like you, I am drowning in COVID-19 news and opinions. I get it from Twitter, Facebook, emails from my university and professional organizations, daily updates from newspapers and public media, conversations in the hallways at work, and signs up in bathrooms with detailed hand-washing instructions set to TLC’s No Scrubs (my fave of the hand-washing instructions, by the way).

It’s a lot. Too much really. And yet here we are. This is the world we live in.

It becomes this odd moment for libraries and librarians to once again hail the importance of information literacy and turning to “good” information and “evaluating sources.” I always cringe a little when libraries are placed into that odd position of “savior,” because libraries are institutions that are shaped by people and collections, and people and collections are flawed (myself included). We also don’t always know or agree on what we mean when we say we need to “evaluate sources,” and often struggle to teach this concept in classes. It’s a concept and practice I continue to learn about through trial and error, knowing that there isn’t just one way to evaluate an information source and therefore not just one way to teach it.

Here are a few of things I’m beginning to think we actually mean when we say “evaluate a source”:

  • Fact-Check a la Michael Caulfied’s 4 Moves, which is really about finding truthful information that you deem worthy of trust. This is where issues of bias and misinformation come into the discussion.
  • Relevance/Usefulness to a topic at hand. Is it about what you need it to be about? Is it useful to you as you seek to learn more about a topic? Does it contain the information you need to find?
  • Appropriateness to situational need. If authority is constructed and contextual, what information source is appropriate for your particular information context? Is it rhetorically appropriate?
  • Quality of the information source, which is really different than appropriateness even though they often end up conflated. You might need a scientific paper for your particular context but is it GOOD? This is where disciplinary knowledge, understanding data, and subject expertise come into play.
  • Privilege embodied within the information source by virtue of the author, topic, format, or access. When we view a source through a critical lens we also have to examine the negative space around it. What are we missing and why?

It is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are some of the things I’ve been taking note of as I teach this year.

Then there are the things that circle around the whole concept of evaluating sources like life experiences, personal beliefs, biases, and views of the world, all of which have an impact on how people evaluate information. We’re sometimes encouraged (and encourage others) to set aside those personal beliefs and biases when encountering information, but why? Is it ever really possible? Can we instead, adopt a practice I learned about last week via the ARL LCDP program, which is to embrace paradox and be comfortable with discomfort, non-closure, and the fact that there is not always a consensus or solution.

This is just the beginning of what I’m sure is going to be a bigger research project into how we teach source evaluation, why we teach it the way we do, and whether or not it’s even possible in the kind of one-shot workshops we frequently teach. What do you focus on when you teach source evaluation? What am I missing?

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To One-Shot or Not?

Earlier this week I had a wonderful research discussion with Nicole Pagowsky about the work we do as instruction coordinators and managers in libraries, information literacy, teaching, and feminist praxis. The next day I co-taught a workshop about teaching research as an iterative process with my lovely colleagues, Emily Deal and Carolina Hernandez. It was sparsely attended, but the English graduate students and faculty who showed up were interested and engaged. I bring up these two events because they both left me thinking about my own relationship with teaching information literacy, how it’s changed over the years, and how something I’ve been mulling over may be in direct contradiction with my own career path and experience.

I don’t like a one-shot: the drop-in visit/guest lecture from a librarian to a class where the instructor may or may not be present, the students may or may not have any context for why the librarian is there, and overall time spent together in awkwardness is anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. I’ve written about one-shots tangentially in previous posts and directly talked about them at conferences. I want us, as a profession of teaching librarians, to move beyond them to a practice of information literacy education that is more equitable, sustainable, and meaningful for students. We can do so much more than just pop-in to do a session or babysit a class while an instructor is away at conference. We want to build relationships with students and talk to faculty about pedagogy and curriculum. We are capable of and deserve more.

All that said, I think back to how I learned to be a teacher, how I fostered professional relationships with faculty, how I learned about students. All of that happened in one- two- or three-shots. All of it. I designed assignments with first year seminar faculty because I taught two classes the year before that didn’t really work. I better understand students’ understanding of information sources because I saw senior thesis writers attempting to find information more commonly found in statistical reports in academic journal articles. I saw first hand how students approached searching Google vs. searching library databases. I talked to faculty about the questions students were asking in a one-shot and ended up coming back to class again and again after that.

I’ll stop there.

As librarians we don’t always have the option to teach a semester-long class, so how then, without a one- or two- or three- shot do we learn how to teach? How do we learn how to be critically reflective practitioners? How do we talk to faculty about teaching if we’ve never done it?

I ask these questions not to support one-shot teaching–I still honestly believe it is deeply problematic–but to ask, without artifice or underlying answers or passive-aggressiveness, how DO we do this?

Do we co-teach? Do we teach outside the traditional classroom? What does that look like? Do we focus intensely on one class and build expertise and relationship there?

There are no easy answers, but I want to wrestle with these questions. We can’t expect new librarians to engage deeply in conversations of pedagogy and information literacy without ever teaching, so where and how do we create space for meaningful teaching?