McNicol, Sarah (Ed.). Critical literacy for information professionals. London: Facet, 2016. xvii, 172 p. ISBN 978-1-78330-082-2. £59.95

This edited volume contains fourteen chapters divided into two parts. The editor’s intention has been to gather contributions that concentrate on theory in the first half of the book (Theories of critical literacy). Chapters that are more concerned with practical examples of how critical literacy can be employed in different settings are collected in part two (Critical literacy in practice). While the split is roughly even, some contributions could have easily been included in either section. That the border between the two parts sometimes seems slightly blurred is not really a problem and perhaps also in line with what I take to be one of the book’s foundational ideas, namely the idea that there must be a dialogue between theory and practice, which must inform each other. I sympathize strongly with this stance and it made me happy to read the following important passage in the editor’s introduction:

[A]n understanding of theoretical concepts is empowering for information professionals. Theory allows us to see and understand the world in different ways; it allows us to move beyond our habitual ways of doing things. Theory is also highly useful when working with other professionals from outside the sector... the real power of theory is its ability to explain and inform practice (p. XII).

This idea seems to be present in most of the chapters even though it is clearly expressed chapter by Andrew Whitworth, where explicitly stated that ‘[t]o be truly critical, critical literacy must... be developed in practice, emerging from the collective judgements that are made in real learning settings and the dialogues that are constantly emerging from these setting’ (p. 65).

So what is then critical literacy? It comes through quite clearly in the introduction that critical literacy is concerned with the socio-cultural contexts in which information is produced and used, and that it has a focus on empowerment through action and engagement in practice. In more than one chapter, critical literacy is explicated by contrasting it with the dominate understanding of information literacy (IL), i.e. where IL primarily is seen as the ability to search for, locate and retrieve relevant information. This is for example the case in Rebecca Jones’ inspiring and thoughtful account of how one can work in schools in order to create curricular and extra-curricular opportunities to engage students in critical literacy. Rather than just focusing on searching skills, the work that she describes is aimed at helping students to uncover and question ideologies that are present in information, and in such a way encourage students to become engaged and politically aware citizens. Jones’ chapter demonstrates how a theoretically aware teacher or librarian can design and arrange meaningful learning activities in practice.

Another example of this is Michael Cherry’s strong contribution, which describes a partnership programme between a public library and a youth care center in which the participating young people are taught how to critically approach and think of a wide range of media types such as newspapers, magazines, advertisements and images. At the same time as Cherry’s chapter is carefully framed by references to relevant theories and concepts it generously provides the reader with a number of examples of creative and innovative teaching practices. A conspicuous strand in both Jones’ and Cherry’s chapters is their focus on texts, but like several of the other authors in this book their take on text is very wide and inclusive.

In one of the most interesting contributions to the theoretical part of the book, Jessica Critten puts the notion of text at the center of attention. With reference to, among others, the works of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes she presents a convincing critique of what she terms a “positivist epistemology in librarianship” according to which “the work of an instruction librarian is to assist a seeker towards finding and understanding some kind of existing ‘truth’” (p. 22). The key idea here being that an information literacy informed by the critical literacy approach is not a matter of finding pre-packed pieces of facts or truth. Instead of encouraging students to search for a preconceived intention located in the author, Critter suggests an approach to teaching and learning that concentrates on situated and contextualized meaning-making involving the student’s own experiences.

This book is definitely a welcome contribution to the already abundant literature on various kinds of information and media literacies – critical or not – and the majority of the chapters are potential candidates for inclusion in the reading lists of library program courses with information literacy in focus; at least for the courses that I teach at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science. However, a small number of the chapters do not reach up to the high quality of the book. Therefore, it would be useful to have it published as an e-book. This option would allow me to refer my students directly to the most valuable texts.

Before wrapping up, it should also be pointed out that information professionals in this book primarily refers to librarians. This is reflected both in the aim where it is stated that the book is meant to assist readers reflecting on ‘the significance of critical literacy for libraries’ (p. XII), and in the settings selected as illustrations of how critical literacy can infuse practice.

Ola Pilerot, PhD
Swedish School of Library and Information Science
University of Borås, May, 2016