Equitable Information Access and Librarianship Praxis: Let’s Get Critical

Today’s Read:
Lauren Smith & Michael Hanson
Communities of Praxis: Transforming Access to Information for Equity
The Serials Librarian, v. 76, nos. 1-4, pp. 42-49
DOI: 10.1080/0361526X.2019.1593015

I recently submitted a proposal to write a chapter on Critical Legal Studies for a new library science textbook, and it was accepted.

In the proposal, I used the Critical Legal Studies research guide I created for our library to create a framework for the future book chapter. Basically, I want to get the content of this guide into some kind of written form, since library research guides have a bit of an ephemeral quality.

While the chapter will be primarily about critical studies in law, it will also include some basic information about critical librarianship. I want to encourage future law librarians consider issues of disproportionate representation and information access in their own professional practice. Or, put another way, I hope that they will choose to incorporate praxis into their practice of librarianship.

For this reason, this recent article from The Serials Librarian caught my eye, and I decided to blog about it. The article is based on a presentation given by Lauren Smith at the 2018 NASIG (formerly the North American Serials Interest Group) conference. In her talk, Smith discussed three themes that are necessary to “democratize” information, which means making sure that all people are empowered to exercise their right to access it: power, praxis, and privilege.

Power, according to Smith, is “the set of relationships and the distributions of agency and control.” Librarians can help to ensure that these relationships are more equitable by acting to ensure “more just outcomes for information seekers.” Smith contends that one of the best ways to assess power imbalances in a library space is to determine how much agency (“abilities, skills, freedoms, and dispositions required to make judgments and exercise choices”) each stakeholder can and does exercise.

Smith then posits that praxis is the action-based outcome of, and response to, exploring the connection between power and agency. She provides several definitions of this term crafted by others. I personally found the simplest definition to be the most helpful and profound: praxis, according to Annemaree Lloyd, is “morally informed action.”

This leads to a discussion of privilege, which Smith defines as “a set of factors that affords one the freedom to take action and use her or his own agency and power to turn knowledge into praxis.”

What factors are those? Smith lists them as follows:

  • Economic capital
  • Social and cultural capital
  • Health and disabilities
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Race and ethnicity

Using critical reflection to identify your privilege and assess your capital is necessary in developing and exercising your praxis. According to Smith, this work can be done both individually and collaboratively. It should include engaging not only with all the stakeholders in the information services environment, but also with the scholarly literature that explores how equitable information access works theoretically.

Smith then went on to discuss particular obstacles to information access that further information inequity. These include technical issues with library catalogs and other information tools, a lack of Open Access materials in favor of paywall protections, and an information structure in which academic research and scholarly publishing are “dominant models of knowledge generation” that effectively diminish and cheapen critical and dissenting voices.

With the latter example, Smith decries what she refers to as “librarians gatekeeping information and using their power over users.” Another example of this that Smith cites is when librarians do searches for users rather than teaching users how to run effective searches themselves. Instead, Smith argues, librarians should “appl(y) a central tenet of critical pedagogy that advocates that education is not assuming what people do not know and then depositing the information and knowledge an educator believes they need to know through passive and de-contextualized approaches.”


At that point I had to stop reading and think back to my own practice in research consults. Do I do this? I have been thinking more and more in the last few years that I should let the student drive during a research consult. But it is just faster if I do it.

Yikes. It may be faster for that one hour, but how much is the student really learning if I just do all the searches. Am I asserting my power and privilege over the student by doing this? This is definitely an area of praxis that I need to develop if I want to ensure more equitable information access.

This thought relates directly to what Smith says about “traditional notions of authority.” Instead of bulldozing through a session on how to find ______, in which the student is a relatively passive observer and I am driving the inquiry, maybe it would be better to explore, with the student, how they typically look for information and what challenges they face when doing so. We could spend more time developing keyword lists together before we start searching. I can ask them more questions, including inquiring more about what they expect to find.

I do this now, of course. A research consult is not a lecture. But I think I can do this better.

They way I’m doing research consults now, upon reflection, seems so heavy-handed. Of course, I have a lot of experience in this area and have been doing these consults for many years, but have I been doing them right? Do they serve the student and their information needs well? Have I been doing them in a way that promote equitable information access?

The rest of the article discusses system-wide issues related to information access that are mildly interesting, but I am really distracted by these questions related to power and authority in conducting research consults, so I will end this discussion here and go think for a while. How I might answer these questions will be on my mind as I start to work on this book chapter. If I am going to write about critical studies, I must be able to look at my own practice critically, and see if I am really walking my talk.

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