red bench in front of twig fence

Librarian as Outsider

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Reviewed by Rebecca Halpern and Sarah Honeychurch
laughter lines” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0

Academic librarians are worried about power. And powerlessness. They are particularly concerned with the way power dynamics shape their identities as educators and inform their pedagogical capacity.

Recent library scholarship has introduced a number of compelling arguments for pedagogical alternatives to what Freire calls the “banking concept of education,” which conceives of students as passive “receptacles,” teachers as “depositors,” and knowledge as capital. If James Elmborg’s seminal 2006 article Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice is any indication (it’s been cited more than 250 times as I write this), the banking concept of education doesn’t work for information literacy instruction. Elmborg begins his article with a problem and ends it with a challenge: “the real task for libraries in treating information literacy seriously lies not in defining it or describing it, but in developing a critical practice of librarianship — a theoretically informed praxis.” This is a daunting task, particularly considering the logistical reality of information literacy instruction, which typically happens in ‘one-shot’ library sessions. While a “problem-posing” approach is difficult to achieve in the context of the one-shot, a critical approach is not just an alternative but an imperative.

Here’s why.

The push towards critical information literacy instruction, which is related to the critical pedagogy movement at large, reflects the fact that an authoritarian pedagogical orientation does not promote dialog about the social or political dimensions of information or engender students with critical autonomy. However, there is another, more fundamental reason why a banking approach to information literacy fails in the context of the one-shot: in this paradigm the librarian is an outsider. In the banking model, student receptivity relies on a power exchange; students relinquish power in order to reap the rewards of educational success, and teachers, representing the academy, retain the power to define the parameters of what constitutes success. In a society where higher education is viewed as a means to a lifestyle or as Cathy Eisenhower and Dolsy Smith have it in The Library as ‘Stuck Place’, “the bottom rung of the corporate ladder,” educational success isn’t about knowledge but about measurable indicators: grades, accolades, job offers. Academic librarians, without the power to bestow success indicators, reside in liminal space. And since librarians don’t have access to the insider power dynamics upon which the banking model relies, their limited agency is granted only at the directive of the teacher unless they manage to fundamentally shift the nature of the educational exchange through “theoretically informed praxis.”

This is not to say that there is no critical pedagogy outside of the library, or that no students believe that education has intrinsic value, or that all faculty are authoritarian just because they maintain, by virtue of their position in a classroom and disciplinary knowledge, authority (as Freire reminds us in his Letter to North-American Teachers). The liminal position of the librarian is — in a best case scenario — rather, situational. And this may stem from the fact that information literacy, as Joshua Beatty argues in his compelling analysis of Freire, authority, and library instruction, “is interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary, or part of a larger metaliteracy [but is not itself] a discipline.” And a liminality based on disciplinary otherness rather than authoritarian oppression may actually be a helpful critical frame for librarians to adopt.

Beatty argues that information literacy can only be learned “via the subject matter” of a discipline. As a result, information literacy instruction is necessarily situated in a disciplinary context but it can still operate outside of disciplinary rhetoric. This is important because students often struggle with academic discourse and librarians, as disciplinary outsiders armed with knowledge of rhetorical genre conventions and an understanding of the ways in which disciplinary discourse relates to information organization, can invite students to examine their own subject knowledge and critically reflect on disciplinary conventions. In doing so, librarians are not only helping students find an entry point into scholarship but are also promoting awareness of knowledge production cycles and the relationship between labor and information.

The View from the Margins

Many librarians view themselves as outsiders by virtue of their roles in the academy and, too often, this outsiderness is conflated with marginalization. This is not to say that librarians aren’t ever marginalized, but that marginalism and outsiderness are distinct forces that inform our autonomous capacity and pedagogical orientation.

In Why Information Literacy is Invisible, William Badke argues, “faculty do not generally see librarians as full academic colleagues and, thus, have little appreciation for librarians as instructors,” which is likely why librarians devote so much time, per Eisenhower and Smith, to “convinc[ing] the powers that be of their value.” However, from the perspective of this long-time adjunct classroom faculty turned librarian, the margins aren’t so bad, and they aren’t so marginal either. The large majority of faculty at most academic institutions are adjuncts and they could be our important allies in the margins (read: trenches). And if we work to form a camp for the disenfranchised and collectively acknowledge what Eisenhower and Smith call “the labor of scholarship and our relation to the infrastructure and systems that discipline it [and us],” then we have already begun a productive conversation about information literacy.

But the question remains: is this conversation possible to have?

The perception of the librarian as a marginalized figure in higher education rests on a cultural precept of higher education (and academic work) as impermeable and somehow distinct from the labor (and laborers) that are responsible for its existence and continuation. This perception is problematically one that many academics — disenfranchised and otherwise — accept and the fact of its illusoriness does not make it any less potent. Marginalization is also the product of real stigmatization caused by social stereotypes. While Nicole Pagowsky and Erica DeFrain argue in their article, Ice Ice Baby: Are Librarian Stereotypes Freezing Us Out of Instruction?, that librarians can do their part to defy stereotypes and resist polarized “warm/female” and “cold/male” dichotomies, we can only do so much to change the expectations of society at large. In their article, Not at Your Service: Building Genuine Faculty-Librarian Partnerships, Yvonne Meulemans and Allison Carr identify the corrosive effects of a legitimate “lack of understanding of how librarians can contribute to student learning” on the part of classroom faculty and illustrate that marginalization not only feels personal but has real implications for a librarian’s professional efficacy.

However, Meulemans and Carr (and others) argue that we can begin to change oppressive systems through resistance and by fostering genuine partnerships with faculty and engaging in “quality, collaborative teaching.”  This necessarily has less to do with transforming our own sense of critical agency than it does with systemically addressing the capacity of students to understand how information works and provoking colleagues outside of the library to consider how information literacy is intimately connected to the disciplinary rhetoric with which they expect their students to engage. This also means becoming more comfortable with the fact that (perceived) pedagogical subversion in the form of critical instruction and genuine resistance might be met with anger or further marginalization.

To Eisenhower and Smith, who more drastically conceive of attempts to “enter discursive communities on campus […] as allies in the struggle against ‘oppressive formations’” as efforts ultimately “subsumed in [their] Foucauldian way into numbers that scaffold the very discourse we critique,” collaborative engagement can be self negating. They also question the critical capacity of the librarian who, unlike faculty, have not “built the intimate public” out of which dialogic dimensions of knowledge might surface. However, Eisenhower and Smith’s view of the librarian as educator is not entirely nihilistic; Ian Beilin notes that these “librarians [in ‘Stuck Places’] may be in a position from which to exercise a greater freedom of action vis-a-vis the pressures to conform, by virtue of their marginal or liminal position within the academy.”

Laurent Wallis, in her blog post series, Smash all the Gates, argues that librarians play a role in “perpetuating [their] own marginalization” when they “uphold the status quo” in their approach to instruction but also believes that real resistance outside of the classroom is necessary to assuage the impotence of a librarian who is “dehumanized” by teaching faculty. Wallis, who also recognizes “the [critical] power inherent in our insider / outsider position” in the classroom is driving an important wedge between marginalization and outsiderness here. Outsiderness is a badge. But marginalization is a closed door, the interaction that makes you feel at the end of the day like “human garbage,” a silencing and diminishing force. Outsiderness, Wallis and Beatty reminds us, is more than simply the product of marginalization plus empowerment. It is, rather, baked into what academic librarianship is and it comes with both critical responsibility and privilege.

The Outsider Paradox

When we mistake outsiderness for marginalization this is problematic because marginalization is defeatist and precludes resistance. And resistance is at the core of critical information literacy instruction because, as Beilin argues:

Critical librarianship is at pains always to show that the existing information system [and the academy in many senses] mirrors the larger social and political order, which is characterized by a radically asymmetrical distribution of power, and is shot through, systematically and structurally, by racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, and class oppression.

And what librarian wouldn’t want to be outside of that system?

Resistance is an act of political positioning but it’s also a helpful pedagogical foothold because a lot of students feel disconnected and marginalized too. The trick is to recognize that authentic critical (and pedagogical) power comes from a place of otherness, from a positioning against. And this outsiderness is not the same thing as marginalization and is, in a pedagogical sense, an inherently privileged position. Librarians, Michelle Holschuh Simmons asserts:

are simultaneously insiders and outsiders of the classroom and of the academic disciplines in which they specialize, placing them in a unique position that allows mediation between the non-academic discourse of entering undergraduates and the specialized discourse of the disciplinary faculty.

Librarians, because they understand the socio-political underpinnings of information, because they are rhetorically limber and disciplinarily agnostic, and because they authentically want students to gain critical literacy skills and agency, can and should serve as mediators. If they can negotiate the space to do so.

And here we find the paradox: that we must position ourselves as outsiders in our approach to pedagogy even as we resist marginalization as an oppressive force that detracts from our own agency. We must also recognize that there are others in our institutions who we count among our oppressors who are marginalized in more fundamental ways than we are: who are grossly undercompensated and who do not have the privilege of publically reflecting on ‘asymmetrical distribution of powers,’ as I am now, because it is too risky.

When we resort to the banking concept and cling to whatever residual power might remain in a podium, when we fail to acknowledge the particular situation of outsiderness that we find ourselves, when we fail to employ “theoretically informed praxis” and bow to those fictive and vicious forces that malign us, we are failing to demonstrate an understanding that knowledge comes from a fraught, disorderly, and imperfect place.

What does critical information literacy look like in a classroom?

It looks, more often than not, like a conversation.

Further reading:

Accardi, Maria T, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. Duluth, Minn: Library Juice Press, 2010.

Gregory, Lua, Shana Higgins, and Toni Samek. Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis. , 2013. Internet resource.

Reale, Michelle. “Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom: Library Instruction that Gives Voice to Students and Builds a Community of Scholars.” Journal of Library Innovation 3.2 (2012): 80-88.

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