Whitworth, Andrew. Radical information literacy: reclaiming the political heart of the IL movement.. London: Chandos Publishing, 2014. ix, 233 p. ISBN 978-1-84334-748-4 £46.75

This is an ambitious book which clearly manifests the authors’ substantial effort in producing it, not least through the remarkable amount of literature that has been consulted. It is indeed praiseworthy to take on the task, which Whitworth has done, to not only go through and review but also critically appraise four decades of information literacy writings. The author strongly advocates a view on information literacy as deeply rooted in the context in which it is enacted. According to such a view, information literacy must necessarily be understood and treated as situated in local practice. In this book, local practices are not restricted to formal, educational contexts. Rather the opposite. A key dimension of the concept of radical information literacy is to view it as a means for empowerment and emancipation in everyday life whether life goes on in communities, organizations, universities or elsewhere. Thereby it also becomes obvious that it is a political project Whithworth has embarked on, which is mirrored also in what I take to be the aim of the book, namely to describe, 'how information literacy can help social actors discover in practice, and not just in theory, their own potential to democratically transform structures of authority over information exchange, and then maintain scrutiny over this authority' (p. 2).

The book is divided into two major parts, each containing four chapters. Part 1: 'Deconstructing IL', constitutes, as I see it, the book’s major contribution, especially chapters 2-4, which portray in a thorough and innovative way, in the following order, 'The early years of IL', 'The Diversity of IL', and 'The institutionalising of IL'. Particularly convincing is the first of these three chapters in which Whitworth concentrates on three papers from the 1970s. It is the first time I have seen someone actually devote some effort and space to carefully read, analyse and critically discuss Paul Zurkowski’s famous 1974 contribution, which commonly in other texts (but not always; see for example Behrens (1994)) is just mentioned in passing as the document where the concept of 'information literacy' was used for the first time. Whitworth sees Zurkowski’s report as representative of a knowledge management approach to information literacy; an approach which he contrasts with an educational approach, here represented by a conference paper from 1976 authored by Lee Burchinal. The third paper seems to be the one closest to the author’s heart, and it is also the most politically oriented paper. This paper, which was written by the Dutch media and communication scholar Cees Hamelink and published in 1976, has contributed to lay the ground for the project that unfolds throughout Whitworth’s book. The author sees 'in Hamelink’s paper the roots of a radical approach to information literacy, but one that has remained underdeveloped' (p. 27). When contrasted with the two other papers, by Zurkowski and Burchinal, Hamelink’s is presented as a representative of a transformational approach to information literacy.

Almost the whole of part 1 can be seen as a historical exposition of the writings about information literacy, which indeed is very valuable. Leaving the 1970s behind in chapter two, Whitworth continues in chapter three with the 1980s and the 1990s, mainly concentrating on portal figures such as Carol Kuhlthau and Christine Bruce. The last chapter in part 1 is devoted to a critique of how information literacy has become institutionalised within library and information science and the academic library. Even though I can see what Whitworth is aiming at here, I think he is somewhat careless when he presents a grouping of contributors, whom he blames for the institutionalization of information literacy, under the umbrella that he names the 'LIS research paradigm' (e.g. p. 93). I would agree with him if this cohort mainly included the multitude of authors that throughout the years have advocated a standardised approach to information literacy and who predominantly seem to be inhabited by academic librarians. When he refers to James Elmborg in order to support his line of reasoning and claims that this supposed shortcoming (of library and information science) 'is a consequence of the LIS research paradigm, which like other essentially technical subjects, decontextualises phenomena and thus separates students "from social and economic contexts"'[Elmborg, 2006, p. 194]' (p. 93), he is indeed mistaken in more than one way. It should be obvious to most readers, just from reading the brief abstract of Elmborg’s article, that what is put forth there is an argument that deals with librarians’ view of information literacy and not with that of information researchers. Another part of Whitworth’s claim that certainly could be debated is whether it is reasonable to describe the field as an 'essentially technical' subject. For my part, I find such a description incorrect.

If part 1 serves as the background against which the author wants to present his own contribution, part 2, aptly titled 'Reconstructing IL', is where he unfolds his argument. The strategy the author choses to accomplish this task, to 'develop and justify radical IL' (p. 1), is to weave a complicated fabric of various lines of theoretical reasoning that is meant to serve as a foundation for radical information literacy.

Even though the fabric that gradually takes shape, in many ways can be described as elegant and fascinating, it does not fully do the job. If the aim of the book is to 'help social actors discover in practice, and not just in theory, their own potential to democratically transform structures of authority over information exchange' (p. 2), the chosen strategy seems almost paradoxical. What is presented in part 2 is difficult to penetrate and does not give many clues about what to discover in practice.

It has escaped Witworth in this book that less is often more. In part 1, that was not a problem, but in part 2 it is. The ambition to synthesise into a unified theory of radical information literacy a sociocultural approach to information literacy (e.g., Sundin, 2008), practice theory (e.g., Lloyd, 2010), personal construct theory (e.g., Kuhlthau, 1993), critical theory (e.g., Andersen, 2006), and phenomenograpy (e.g., Bruce, 1997) is to overreach. To also add the concept of cognitive authority (Wilson, 1983), Per Linell’s (2009) version of dialogism, and Bakhtin’s theories of discourse, just to mention a few of the additional concepts, makes the text very difficult to comprehend. Even if it is quite interesting to try to follow the author’s theoretical exploration and synthesis work, it is unfortunately also rather tiring. It is certainly easy to lose the thread when trapped in an abundance of theories of various sorts, a multitude of very long quotes, sentences that run over some eight to ten lines, and highly theoretically infused notions such as noösphere and chronotope.

I am not against theorising per se, rather the opposite, I think we need more of theoretical thinking in library and information research, but in this case the theorising is not sorted out properly. It is as if the author has picked up snippets from a number of theories in order to produce his own fabric without considering the epistemological and ontological foundations of the respective theory. Just to take an example. To couple phenomenograpy, that takes as its study object human experience, with practice theories, which are focusing on doings and sayings in concert with materiality, is to disregard the respective traditions’ basic assumptions. Such couplings necessarily lead to confusion. I also think that the gist of Whitworth’s argument would be possible to communicate without this theoretical overload. It is therefore a pity that he did not choose another strategy, because what he is trying to say, namely that information literacy can be a means for empowerment and emancipation in everyday life, is definitely something that I sympathise with and that we need to learn more about.


  • Andersen, J. (2006). The public sphere and discursive activities: information literacy as sociopolitical skills. Journal of Documentation. 62(2), pp. 213-228.
  • Behrens, S.J. (1994). A conceptual analysis and historical overview of information literacy. College and Research Libraries, 55(4), pp. 309-322.
  • Bruce, C. (1997). The seven faces of information literacy. Adelaide, SA: Auslib Press.
  • Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: implications for instructional practice. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), pp. 192-199.
  • Kuhlthau, C.C. (1993). Seeking meaning: a process approach to library and information services. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  • Linell, P. (2009). Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically: interactional and contextual theories of human sense-making. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
  • Lloyd, A. (2010). Framing information literacy as information practice: site ontology and practice theory. Journal of Documentation, 66(2), pp. 245-258.
  • Sundin, O. (2008). Negotiations on information-seeking expertise: a study of web-based tutorials for information literacy. Journal of Documentation, 64(1), pp. 24-44.
  • Wilson, P. (1983). Second-hand knowledge: an inquiry into cognitive authority. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press.
Ola Pilerot, Ph.D.
Swedish School of Library and Information Science
University of Borås, Sweden, February, 2015