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LibGuides: Pedagogy to Oppress?

You have to be a pretty tenacious researcher to find any criticism about LibGuides, the practical and convenient tool that librarians use to create online guides to research. My search for “LibGuides and critique or criticism” taught me a great deal about how to interpret literature, while keying in “LibGuides and problems” merely returned information about the occasional scheduled downtime. It was not until I limited my search to and then traced a bunch of links and pingbacks that I could even start to gather a sense of the conversation round the topic. Yet, ironically, it is exactly this twisting, infuriating and (occasionally) joyful process of research that is stifled by the way that most librarians structure and organize their LibGuides. Web-based research guides have helped to bridge the gap that the growth of online resources has put between the library and its patrons. However, their typical focus on librarian-defined notions of value and authority conceals an industrial-era adherence to library-centric, behaviourist learning theories and provides a textbook example of Paulo Freire’s banking model of education. In short, while librarians have started to think about the nature of critical pedagogy in the classroom, a failure to subject instructional materials to the same processes of reflective, critical thinking serves to dehumanize both our students and the nature of research and inquiry.

What is a LibGuide?

If you have never seen a LibGuide before, a quick browse of the LibGuides Community site will turn up a typical example of how librarians employ this proprietary software. Most simply, librarians use LibGuides as a guide to relevant or recommended sources and sites that students can use to search for information on a topic. Mirroring typical research assignment prompts that may ask for 5-10 scholarly articles, guides are typically created for courses or for general topics such as criminology or art history and organized by source format, for example, databases or images. Today, 78,000 librarians from nearly 5000 libraries have produced over 400,000 LibGuides. Providing an easy way for even the most non-tech savvy librarian to produce or highlight content on library websites that are often heavily locked down, or poorly designed and cluttered, LibGuides have now expanded beyond their original research guide design, and are marketed as a core instructional tool for academic, public, school and special libraries. Simple and practical, LibGuides are deservedly popular. However, by failing to consider LibGuides within the context of broader pedagogical practices, librarians run the risk of misrepresenting both the nature and the scope of research and inquiry.

Understanding the Nature of Research

One of my major issues with LibGuides centers on how they are used to represent the nature of research. For example, my search for criticism about LibGuides formed part of the broader research for this article: as my writing has unfolded I have drawn upon my understandings and experiences of librarian communication habits and tools in order to engage with the resources that constitute information and knowledge within this community. Yet, as Olof Sundin points out in his analysis of library tutorials, in using LibGuides to create decontextualized lists of key (textual) resources in the field, we isolate tools and resources from critical considerations of the contexts and practices in which they were created. This is problematic because it removes research from its sociocultural context, or from the processes of knowing that give information and knowledge its very meaning and legitimacy within a specific community. It also, in Freirian terms, moves the focus of inquiry from creation to listening, and from problem posing to consumption. This positions LibGuides as a tool to acculturate students into the current system’s logic rather than to help them question what they are becoming as they deal creatively with these new worlds.

My research for this article has also formed a highly iterative process. As my thoughts have developed, I have had to chase new references and interrogate my original sources in different ways while I engaged in a maddening and seemingly never ending quest to marshall my arguments meaningfully. Yet, when we design LibGuides around the key search tools in a field, we isolate research from reading and writing processes. This is troublesome because it positions research as static and linear and makes it sound like the point of research is, as Barbara Fister eloquently puts it, to engage in a one-stop shopping process for “solid nuggets of truth.” Furthermore, in listing the authorized knowledge that, as Freire puts it, students must consume, memorize or bank in order to be successful, it privileges the librarian’s carefully built up “expert” researcher model over the student’s tentative meaning making process, even though it’s through reflection and self-experience that we become what we are.

In order to create a LibGuide that doen’t fall prey to these problematic assumptions, we must think more holistically about the nature of research. One effective way is to design LibGuides around research processes, an approach that was adopted by Annie Armstrong and Kimberly Pendell in their psychology research guide and refined by Kathy Shields in her English guide. While this approach still positions inquiry as an individual rather than a social practice, it at least centers on the user rather than information. Alternatively, librarians can move beyond the typical organization by format towards an arrangement that is organized by student assignment, need or habit. A better solution, however, would be to look to the inspirational work of Buffy Hamilton, who helps students create their own LibGuides. This focus on developing personal learning environments engages students in today’s rich information landscapes, as well as situating them as active participants in broader conversations about research and inquiry. Of course, LibGuides are not the only tool that can help accomplish this, with the social bookmarking tool Diigo, a wiki or even class blogs forming alternative options. As Rosen and Smale point out, the use of open digital platforms such as these explicitly work against the banking model of education.

Expanding the Scope of Research

My other major issue with LibGuides is linked to the way that we present the scope of research. To return to the research that I undertook for this article, my inquiry carried me throughout today’s cluttered and dynamic information landscapes — and forced me to make a variety of evaluative judgements on the go as I moved from scanned copies of paper articles that live in my personal library to tweets, blogs, hashtags and more. Yet, when we organize our LibGuides solely around peer reviewed, textual, library resources with a cautionary tab on the end for “internet resources”, we ignore the broader processes of meaning-making that characterize our understandings of research. In other words, when we organize LibGuides by format (books, articles, databases, etc), we fail to account for the development of personal information strategies, or engagement with the social and physical sources that Annemaree Lloyd argues constitute today’s information landscapes. These designs are problematic because they appear to be more interested in protecting the librarian’s traditional tools rather than engaging with the nature of research.

More worryingly, LibGuides that are structured by librarian-defined understandings of the “best sources” move the focus of research away from the rhetorical evaluation of evidence. In effect, we privilege concepts of value and authority that are based on what Barbara Fister calls “oversimplified external signs” rather than a critical interrogation of argument. In addition, as Amy Mark highlights, we position librarians as the “arbitrators” of useful knowledge, or the people who have the power to make judgments about the “rightness” of information. In other words, the student is placed in opposition to the authority of knowledge even though, as James Elmborg makes so clear, “the only judge of ‘aboutness’ is the person who seeks to be informed ‘about’ something.” In creating LibGuides that define research through its resources, we unconsciously reinforce academic power dynamics, limit dialog and marginalize the student voice from the very academic conversations that surround them. This also centers the professional librarian’s existence on an assumption of student ignorance, a particularly insulting observation.

One way that librarians can move beyond these problematic understandings about the scope of research is to work more closely with faculty and instructors. Research paper requirements that ask for five academic sources, with nothing from Google or Wikipedia, make it hard for librarians to design instructional materials that don’t rely on banking models of education. By working with faculty and instructors, we can move beyond the idea that research papers are the only way that students can experience inquiry. Alternatives, which include multimedia, critical textbook or digital curation projects can often provide a dynamic way to move the focus of research from the final product to the more important intermediary ideas, conversations, and connections. As Kris Shaffer notes, these alternative approaches are useful because they move beyond an understanding of research as “a fixed expression that is both physically and legally prevented from being altered” to challenge the inherent binaries within the scholarly research process. Engagement with faculty should also focus on the way that we talk about research in class, with Joseph Bizup’s BEAM model providing an interesting rhetorical perspective for research-based writing, as well as the design of the research assignment handout, which, as researchers from Project Information Literacy found, tend to dedicate more space to margin widths than to the nature of research and inquiry.

Ultimately, when we construct LibGuides around the resources that the librarian thinks the student should know about in order to ace their research paper, we attempt to simplify the processes of research. Yet, as Freire points out, this is problematic because it positions research as a transferral of information, rather than as an act of exploratory and liberatory meaning-making. In effect, when we fail to engage critically with new technologies such as LibGuides, we run the risk of perpetuating banking-model pedagogies that deny learner agency and position inquiry as a procedural skill instead of a rich, sociocultural practice that forms an integral part of human activity. While this lack of conversation about pedagogy and design is not unique to LibGuides, librarians have a long commitment to social justice, critical praxis and liberatory teaching. Let’s make sure our instructional materials don’t let us down.

Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Chris Friend.

[Photo, “BARBER“, by Ray Larabie licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

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19 Responses

  1. My institution recently licensed a discovery layer and I’ve been thinking a lot about decontextualization and student autonomy and information literacy. While a discovery layer isn’t (perhaps) as prescriptive as a Libguide in terms of the selection and presentation of resources, I’m curious about how curation is embedded in search tools. I worry that an algorithm not only obscures the sociocultural and rhetorical context, but is invisible in the way a curated tool, like a Libguide, isn’t.

    1. Alison Hicks

      Great point, Nora, and one that I grappled with as we investigated a discovery layer at my institution. If information literacy is a sociocultural practice, influenced by genres and disciplinary conventions and discourse communities, and the information from those communities is represented by subject databases and information tools, doesn’t a discovery layer take away and neutralise all that rich context? How can I reconcile the rich sociocultural stuff with the standard descriptions, individuality-removing vanilla of a discovery layer? And then I got on to thinking about how the big vendors have kind of already removed that individuality already- how many Proquest or Ebsco databases so we have that keep subject vocab, but essentially lump subjects and journals together? I have no answers but an article I found interesting in this respect was Jack Andersen, The public sphere and discursive activities: information literacy as sociopolitical skills.

      1. Nora Almeida

        Thanks Alison. A lot of my discomfort with the discovery layer is probably partially because i’m not used to the interface. The back end is a little more mystifying too and I’m not always sure how results are weighted or how comprehensive they are. Uncovered Kevin Seeber’s “Format as Process in the Age of Web-Scale Discovery” last week; he argues that we should teach the results not the interface. I agree but am still worried about relying on that single search box in one-shots.

      2. There is also the consideration of the balance between good user-centered design and ‘dumbing things down.’ While we may not want the ‘single search box’ interface to be the only portal to research for our students, there is also good reason to make research more efficient and accessible. As librarians, we aren’t competing with the design shift brought on by Google. However, we *do* want to think critically about issues such as how subject searches work while searching multiple databases in Ebsco- and we want to inform our patrons about this.

        The discovery layer search experience is ubiquitous and imperfect as it may be, it lowers the barrier to entry into research for many people (far less overwhelming than hunting through lists of unfamiliar databases/resources) and is the current paragon of how searching is performed on the Web- and we need to teach our patrons how to navigate this. I don’t always use or teach to our discovery service, but sometimes it is the best approach. And just as Google doesn’t strip the sociocultural meaning from websites and online services, our discovery layers won’t.

  2. Jon Giullian

    Thought provoking article. I’ve been tired of the standard libguide format or template and have been looking for a new approach to making the the libguide more useful. Your article and the examples offer food for thought. Libraries seem to thinkg that standard format for libguides is the way to go, so that students will feel more comfortable with the format. However, as your article describes, the banking model turns research into a formula rather than an exploration. Thanks for tinking outside the LibGuide box.

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  4. This is fascinating. LibGuides as subject guides often are both useless and unused. Students prefer guides that are targeted to their specific course and their immediate needs, and that are arranged internally by topic or assignment rather than by type of resource (books, journals, “internet resources,” etc.). I’d guess that many liaisons build subject guides in order to try to demonstrate proactivity and relevance rather than in response to real need/usage. I’d rather direct students to an AZ Database List for library materials, then take them on a deep dive into Google, Google Scholar, and Wikipedia, which offers infinitely more “teachable moments” (ugh, that phrase). That said, search engines mirror discovery layers insofar as both present curated (ok, aggregated) content using human-made algorithms replete with biases and prone to manipulation. Any method of information organization and retrieval is going to be problematic to some extent (we can complain about LOC all day). I love teaching Wikipedia because it never fails to generate the understanding that knowledge is a social practice.

    1. Alison Hicks

      I agree! I know that librarians and faculty complain about Wikipedia all the time (so tedious) but yes, it displays exactly what we’re trying to teach. As for why librarians make So.Many.LibGuides- I think it helps us on the research desk, or when we have to answer questions outside our niche area- because we know what is implied by a LibGuide and how to navigate it. This came up in one of the articles I referenced above- the massive gap between student and librarian understandings of research guides. And I think people are still kind of drunk on the freedom that LibGuides offer after decades of not being allowed access to library webpages. Are research guides a symptom of bad IT? Discuss 😉

  5. Thank you for writing this- you have helped me cement so many ideas that I have been trying to tackle lately. It should be pointed out that these ideas apply any type of research guide, regardless of branding. Being new to the ‘librarian’ profession (though I’ve worked in libraries for over 8 yrs) I have been surprised by many of the approaches and attitudes when it comes to both the point of view of the librarian as well as the image that others have conferred on the librarian. While in library school, I was required to create two research guides that strictly followed the poor practices you outline above (I of course played along to get a decent grade). I see a lot of change that is promising and exciting, but these concepts that you laid out so well don’t seem to be discussed or challenged as much as I would like, especially when it comes to handouts and worksheets. While creating the LibGuides for my subjects I attempted to consider these issues but I am excited to see the work of Annie Armstrong & Kimberly Pendell and Kathy Shields- perhaps a rubric can be made based on their work! I’m also excited to make my LibGuides more interactive with areas for students to contribute. Thank you for sharing these ideas.

    I would also point out that these issues are very appropriate when planning lessons. I’ve been struggling to create lessons and workshops that incorporate more of these concepts but are still efficient (time is always so limited). I’ve been drawing on the ideas laid out in the Web Literacy Map ( largely openness, participation, exploring, building and connecting. But while I like the spirit of these competencies and skills, they don’t fit in perfectly with IL. Perhaps a similar ‘map’ can be made to represent the concepts of inquiry-based, problem-solving and critical IL.

    1. Alison Hicks

      Yes- some Twitter commentators pointed out that the problem lies with the original paper pathfinders that we created- no-one ever updated these, and hey presto they were just transmogrified into LibGuides. So, yes, not just a LibGuides problem, though, as the biggest platform, as well as one that seems to have been designed around librarian worst habits, I think it’s important to think critically about its usage. And there are a number of usability and IT critiques that have been applied in other settings to LibGuides. But yes, the major issues is starting to think about design and pedagogy- so I hope this article can just be a start!

  6. Steve Runge

    Thanks for this interesting exploration of LibGuides! It gives voice lately to a difficulty I’ve had articulating a difference in purposes for different guides: self-guided reference (LibGuide as resource list) v. self-paced instruction (LibGuide as instructional tool). We’re in the process of shifting toward Canvas for sequenced instructional content, and tend to use LibGuides more as the traditional curated lists of resources. Though the outcomes-focused PsycINFO guide page is quite useful, I do think questions of audience and purpose come into play here – novice users of resources would appreciate the guidance in the “instructionally robust” guide and in the sequenced English 1103 guide, but more advanced users–that is, users already engaged in complex, iterative research–might find the more “traditional” curated categories based on resource type more useful. So, in a sense, the maybe the critique is that we’re all designing LibGuides with that second user in mind, overlooking the fact that the novice user (who may well be in the majority) needs more scaffolding to be able to see research as a complex, iterative process. (Oh, look, a threshold. concept!)

    I’ve been trying to emphasize with novice users that they need to become librarians, in a sense. They need to learn to curate information for their own purposes, in their own categories, with their own critical filters. “Content curation” has for quite a while been mutating into new species out in the wilds of the web – it’s a job title, a category of web filtering for marketers, and a category of end-user retail tools (e.g. Storify, Diigo) to help people organize their experience of web content. If you look at functional descriptions of all these things, they sound eerily similar to the 2000 IL standards. It might help to point out to students that if they don’t learn how to do this, that tools and algorithms designed by other people, with other ends in mind, will do it for them. (Nice thought question for students striving to be their own persons: What if all the content you encounter has already been filtered for you, to keep you from thinking things that disrupt the status quo?)

    How we teach this well is anybody’s guess – one can certainly use LibGuides to organize information in different ways… but are LibGuides the best tool for curating content in a way that can guide students to learn to curate their own content? Not sure. One of many, maybe. And thanks for curating this hoard of info on the topic that will take me weeks to digest!

    1. Alison Hicks

      Yes, I agree about the curation- and I think that is what the constructivist oriented new framework is trying to encourage us to do- to help students develop their own personal information strategies. I appreciate this, (although recognising a few problems)- and it makes me wonder what we say when we use proprietary tools (like LibGuides) that students can’t use when they’re in school let alone graduated to help do this. But I love your focus on how if students don’t learn how to do this, black box algorithms will… SO TRUE 😉

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  9. This is a fascinating article. Thanks for writing it! I’ve long hated LibGuides, but I didn’t realize that the content itself was part of the problem. Its structure and same-ness always just seemed like an aesthetic problem, but I see that it’s worse than that.

    I absolutely detest LibGuides and its popularity bugs me. It’s a webhost. You buy it so you can make webpages. Yet your library always has a website. So why are you pay two hosting bills? If you must, why aren’t you using a real webhost where you can control you design and have your own URL domain? Most of the features that LibGuides advertises are all things any CMS (content management system) can do. LibGuides is stuck the way it is. On your own site, you can do /anything/. So why not?

    LibGuides is a problem for librarianship because it doesn’t demonstrate any care or expertise. It’s a misunderstanding of what the internet is and how it works. Here librarians say that they are information professionals but do not act as that way,

    1. Alison Hicks

      Thanks, Karen! Yes, I think you can critique LibGuides on usability and technical matters too, but I wanted to focus on the educational side, which, imho, is always overlooked. But I’m right with you on the points you mention above. I also think you’re spot on about the problem for librarianship- LibGuides work for librarians because we understand their scope, and what they can achieve- I just don’t think that works for most people, especially when we don’t integrate them into teaching activities, but just leave them hanging there.

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  12. Jon Giullian

    Hi Alison. Erik Zitser and I loved your article because it raises lots of questions about LibGuides, specifically current use and potential use. We have cited your article in our our recent article about the history of online research guides related to Slavic and Eurasian Studies. Erik and I offer an additional yet different critical perspective about online research guides. See
    Let us know what you think? Thanks for your thoughtful work.

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