Continue to question everything – Bodleian Libraries Staff Conference part 2 – Critical Theory in Librarianship

Critical Theory in Librarianship (notes here)

I know Lauren through RLC, and I have to say, when it comes to critical theory and how it can be applied to Librarianship, she is good at explaining it in a way that doesn’t make it sound terrifying and complicated. For many people at the conference, this was their first introduction to applying critical theory to the profession. There were a few things Lauren noted as being key to ‘critical librarianship’ which I noted down as:

  • looking at social justice and applying it to our work
  • promoting values around intellectual freedom, freedom of information, democracy, equality and the public good (and more, I imagine…)
  • aiming to understand and recognise systems of power and control in the profession
  • challenging the dominant ideology that libraries are a ‘neutral’ space
  • interacting with our users in a way that helps them become active citizens

For me, although I’d already been trying to engage with my work on a more critical level through my RLC involvement found having it laid out in such clear terms made the idea of applying critical theory to my work so much simpler than it seems. I think the second you bring critical theory up, it seems like it is complex and involves a lot of reading and knowing about stuff which intimidates people  but I think this session really helped break down what critical librarianship is and why it is important.

One theory Lauren mentioned which really struck a chord with me was Paulo Friere’s idea of ‘banking’ education, a term coined in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In simple terms, this idea of ‘banking’ education sees students as being a vessel for knowledge, which they ‘bank’ for later use. This is very much the case with our current education system – learners are treated as a passive object in the educational narrative. Learning is not a passive activity and shouldn’t be treated as such. Rather than simply feeding people information, it’s best we teach them how to disseminate, evaluate and utilise information in an effective way. I also found the analogy of ‘banking’ knowledge resonated because I find in HE particularly, education has become a transactional process – students literally hand over money in order to gain the elusive characteristic that is ’employability’. Of course, being qualified to do a job is a lovely side effect of learning, but I truly believe we ought to be educating ourselves for a more holistic purpose – to engage with subjects we find truly interesting, to understand the world around us better, find and understand and our place in it and to be good citizens, active members of society – whole people. When we emphasise only a single worthy outcome of education, employability, we devalue the entire process by making it goal oriented in a way which makes it difficult to truly engage with. As such, we end up with a sea of very lost feeling 20-something year olds (we say hi, by the way) who are slightly disillusioned that the amazing-high-salary-job-factory we were told university would be turned out to be, for many, a big-fat-debt-minimal-prospects factory.

I feel as though I am wandering off topic here, so to bring it back to ideas of critical librarianship – I think I’ve laid out somewhat clearly that there are some major flaws with the education system as it is. The idea of critical librarianship is recognising just how much potential librarians have to combat this and how we can turn this theory into practice. The first thing that people need to recognise is that libraries are not neutral spaces:

“neutrality” no longer means “impartiality” or “objectivity,” but too often lapses into what might be better termed “indifference…”

And if we aren’t trying to be part of the solution, as it goes, we’re part of the problem. When we exist in a society which is constructed around systems of oppression anything existing in that society is affected by those systems of oppression whether we can recognise it or not. Libraries and librarians are a place where you can learn appropriate critical thinking skills which allow you to find, evaluate then use information you need. Librarians can and should be showing people how to recognise these systems of oppression and other power structures that exist within society so that we have a better idea of how to engage with them and work to deconstruct them. What I took away from this session was mainly that in order to really work toward doing this, we need to engage with critical theory at a professional level.


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