On librarians and [historical] information literacy

Something I have struggled with as a history librarian and as a librarian generally is the eternal notion of “information literacy.” We librarians talk about this, about how to achieve this, about practical tools, about philosophies, about strategies to impart IL skills to students ad nauseum. In reaction, I have consciously dropped out of that conversation for a few years now. This is not to say that I am not interested in the issue. In fact, nothing has piqued nor sustained my professional interest to the same extent. But the conversations around IL have sufficiently burned me out that I have stepped out of the professional discourse on the subject.

But the conclusion I came to this morning is that my project is fundamentally about IL. It’s about historical IL, about documentary IL, but nonetheless, what I am trying to achieve and understand is how to encourage students and others to be more historically literate – in terms of being able to see and interpret a document whose origins are of another era.

Anyone who has visited this website previously will know that I have relied heavily on Google Books in compiling its content. As I sat down another day to add yet more links to yet more texts, I became distracted by a text of a different sort. A modern text! It’s Theory and resistance in education: towards a pedagogy for the opposition by By Henry A. Giroux (2001) and specifically chapter 6, “Literacy, ideology and the politics of schooling.” [distraction by Google Books is a real problem for me. But I love how it  emulates the now bygone tradition of getting lost in a bunch of library books sitting on the stacks]. Using Giroux’s model, I have begun the analysis of:

1) Assumptions

2) Practices

And how these play into existing configurations of:

a) knowledge

b) ideology

c) power

I have started to identify what we librarians typically do that is counterproductive to real information literacy if that concept is even achievable.

The Assumptions are:

– that IL exists and is achievable

– that library tools support learning and mastery of IL

-that librarians have context expertise in the area of IL

– that texts impart knowledge, which is two pronged: content (direct knowledge) and context (meta knowledge).

I personally have never internalized the first or second assumption above, but I do hope that the last one is true.

The Practices supporting these assumptions are:

– We collect, develop and present “appropriate” and pre-selected teaching tools, including: databases (indexes / library catalogs included) and other sources to students when requested by professor or TA. These collections and presentations are usually realized in conjunction with course goals or specific assignments so that they directly support and extend other course content.

– We impose on students a supposedly logical model regarding how to seek information and then interpret it.


At first glance, I would guess that most librarians would argue that we don’t have much or any role in propagating a “specific configuration of knowledge, ideology or power.” Most librarians I know would leave those political goals to the instructors of the courses in which they are guests and would not accept responsibility for any such activity. But if one examines 1) the presence of the librarian (authority figure? gate-keeper? controls collections and budgets) combined with 2) the content that is presented (premium & expensive data that must be used to justify its purchase) and 3) the methodology that we nearly always stick to (search the reference collection, then the catalogue, then the article databases or other specialized tools) and the anti-internet ideology (free can’t possibly be worth anything) and we actually have the formula presented by Giroux in his critique of “literacy” as a mechanistic skill, reduced to a simple technique.

I don’t have the answer to my question yet, “is documentary literacy possible?” and the follow-up, “well then, how?” Especially if answering this question requires me to formulate a philosophically oriented session focusing beyond the boiled down procedural skill based literacy we librarians have grown to know and love. There is the practical to consider: when I’m asked to show 75 students working on individual topics how to put together a bibliography relating to their topic in 60 minutes or less, I have to ask myself, is this possible and should I even attempt it?

As I continue to read Giroux and apply his and my critique to IL, some of this will become clearer. There are ways to achieve documentary literacy which may or may not involve librarians; ways that do not operationalize or reduce literacy to a set of skills. In my search for a solution I have begun by asking Giroux’s questions:  what counts as [documentary] literacy? what are the consequences (social, political, educational, etc…) of a reductionist approach to [information] literacy? rather than beginning with the assumptions listed above. For me, that’s a good start.

I also appreciated an assignment that was posted on the Early Modern Online Bibliography blog last week by Dave Mazella. Clearly the assignment speaks to the contextual and content / material knowledge that should be a goal in IL sessions. Taking the time to bring a whole class to the special collections and have students work with the historical documents is one way of broadening documentary literacy among students and surely avoids the pitfalls of the reductionist & instrumental approaches to research.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the mention here. I’m a firm believer in IL instruction for English literature majors, but I assume that it needs to be a) collaborative, so that disciplinary faculty are able to learn with and from librarians about the various resources and their strengths and limitations; b) sequenced and scaled up, so that IL is differentiated by disciplinary domain and by skill level, so that we can begin to imagine pre-disciplinary, disciplinary, and advanced or interdisciplinary versions of IL; and closely aligned with critical thinking, so that students are weighing the respective value and evidentiary potential of various types of sources. I developed a version of this IL paradigm in an article I collaborated on with our special collections librarian at UH, Julie Grob, who worked with me on an advanced capstone course which featured special collections materials as part of its IL. We are currently revising the article at portal.

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