This article first appeared in inCite, the magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association, January/February 2020, volume 41, issue 1/2, page 24.
Are you a critical librarian? You might already be, but maybe didn’t know your actions and philosophies fit within the name. Perhaps you’re the type to advocate for changes to subject headings, or your workplace is actively making library spaces more welcoming for disadvantaged people. Perhaps these are really the same thing.
For some, critical librarianship, or ‘critlib’, means bringing social justice principles to library work, such as a commitment to equality, diversity and solidarity with marginalised people. For others, it means aligning their library practice with critical theory, a ‘framework that is epistemological, self-reflective, and activist in nature’. These are related but distinct approaches to how libraries interact with their communities. It’s one thing to advocate for social justice in the library, but it’s quite another to use the tools of critical theory to explore why and where there is social injustice in the library in the first place.
Critical librarianship involves deep, considered analysis about the structure and theory of library work. It doesn’t mean criticising in a rude or disparaging way. Nor does it mean believing that libraries are necessarily bad. Critical librarianship aims to make the profession better by recognising harmful and oppressive structures, dismantling those structures and building better ones in their stead. We critique because we care.
All areas of library work can incorporate critical perspectives, including reference, information literacy, outreach, IT systems, collection development and cataloguing. Each area strives to recognise who is harmed by prevailing library practices, what message they send, and how they might be reformed.
For example, advocating for changes to subject headings, such as the notorious Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) ‘Illegal aliens’, involves recognising how terms like these reflect social and political mores of the United States Congress, the institution served by the Library of Congress and its subject headings. Australian libraries use these headings mostly out of convenience, but many terms are clearly inappropriate, such as ‘Dreamtime (Australian Aboriginal mythology)’. The equivalent term in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) subject headings is ‘Religion – Dreaming’, which repositions the Dreaming as contemporary spiritual practice and not ancient mythology.
Neither term is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but choosing to replace an LCSH term with an AIATSIS one demonstrates a recognition of the rights of Indigenous people to describe their culture their way, and the obligations of libraries to uphold those rights. It sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more welcoming and inclusive place. It’s about taking social justice principles of diversity and inclusion, applying critical theory to our controlled vocabularies, and ultimately making better choices in the service of our users. This is critical librarianship. It’s also the least we can do.
Bringing social justice to the library is deeply admirable. But critical librarianship should also involve bringing the library to social justice, listening to our communities, and incorporating critical theory into library practice. Perhaps you’re already doing these things. Turns out these practices have a name.