Book Review: Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook, Volume 1: Essays and Workbook Activities, and Volume 2: Lesson Plans

Book Reviews

Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook, Volume 1: Essays and Workbook Activities, and Volume 2: Lesson Plans. Nicole Pagowsky and Kelly McElroy, eds. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, 2016. Paper, $95.00 for the set (ISBN: 978-0-8389-8917-3).

Book covers for the Two volume set of Critical Library Pedagogy

Many titles only require a single volume to adequately cover the topic. In the case of library pedagogy, it required two. Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook, Volume 1: Essays and Workbook Activities offers 20 chapters in total and differs in format from its partner, Volume 2: Lesson Plans. Chapters 1 through 20 present six- to eight-page articles complete with extensive bibliographies and notes; chapters 21 through 30 are workbook activities, short and theory-based.

The content in the first volume, both the prose of the articles and the outlines of the activities, is deeply rooted in theories of critical pedagogy, critical thinking, and library and teaching philosophy. The editors define critical pedagogy for the purposes of these two volumes as “engaging in the theory and practice (or praxis) of inclusive and reflective teaching in order to broaden students’ understanding of power structures within the education system and in society.” While each chapter has a unique author, the thread linking them all is a context of librarianship within broader and more theoretical issues like the neoliberal university, habits of mind, social constructivism, and queer and antiracist pedagogy.

In the last ten years, librarians have seen their work merge and grow in the larger arena of higher education, including conversations of inclusion in the curriculum, social movements, liberal arts philosophies, and more; this has deepened the scholarship and intellectual activity of librarianship, and it has brought forward a richer description of what librarians are capable of cultivating in their students’ education. These conversations are most welcome in the literature, because more than teaching skills on “how to do research,” librarians want to spark intellectual independence and nurture a respect for both citizens of the world and information in all its forms. This volume achieves that goal by providing an admirable list of issues within that realm as well as a diversity of voices from the authors. Consider “Being a critical educator within the academy,” “Barriers to critical pedagogy in information literacy teaching,” “Social constructivism and critical information literacy,” “Queering library instruction for composition: embracing the failure, “Cultivating a mind of one’s own: drawing on critical information literacy and liberal education.” Even the tired discussions of proving our worth in our institutions, stretching one-shots to their full pedagogical capacity, and how to best collaborate with departments outside the library are treated with a 21st-century lens, encouraging us to move beyond the library and into the broader theories of engagement and reflection. Many of the articles, in fact, would be appropriate for assigned reading within disciplines like education, sociology, and academic writing.

Chapters 21–30 offer librarians more theoretical exercises; instead of straightforward articles, this batch is in the form of activities for library instructors. Note that the exercises are for the instructors as they prepare to teach. These are not lesson plans for the classroom. Each chapter is three to four pages with segments like Introduction, Outcomes, Reflection/Questions, Conclusion. The introductions offer a discussion of the theme, like antiracist pedagogy or critical self-reflection, and the rest of each exercise focuses on how to incorporate that theme into our teaching. Step-by-step “how to” is not included in the first volume; that is for volume 2. These questions and prompts are designed for overall self-reflection and preparation for a diverse set of goals in library instruction. Here, the authors aim to inspire—to teach more effectively and to direct librarians toward reflection on diversity and other issues related not only to how we present ourselves to our students but also how we facilitate inclusion in our classrooms.

The first volume naturally would be useful to individual librarians hoping to better themselves as teachers, but it also stands out as a text to be used within a teaching and learning department of an academic library. The topics and overall content speak directly to the direction of higher education in general: critical thinking and lifelong learning, diversity and inclusion, the complexity of current information worlds, and a basic rejection of “sage on the stage.” The length and scope of these chapters work well for discussion in a staff meeting, perhaps, or recommended reading for a team of instruction librarians. With a growing number of academic offices and departments created specifically for diversity and inclusion, these volumes give librarians an appropriate and accessible text to participate with.

Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook, Volume 2: Lesson Plans offers an additional 30 chapters and differs in format from its partner, Volume 1: Essays and Workbook Activities. Each chapter offers a lesson plan for library instruction and includes an introduction, learning outcomes, preparation, assessment, and reflection. The exercises clearly build from the theories and content from Volume 1, and both volumes, used together, could easily transform a library instruction department if “assigned” to librarians. The editors’ definition of critical pedagogy, mentioned above, is evident in the content of the lesson plans, which includes topics like using student personal history as historical context, using social media and zines, data and numbers and images, and highlighting issues of injustice through primary sources. Each chapter offers a unique voice from a unique author or set of authors; although the topics vary, we still find an overarching theme of diversity—diversity of voices, of information, of format (digital, primary, secondary, visual, graphic), and of scholarly pursuit. Using a variety of inspirations—hip hop, zines, Google, and pop culture—the lessons tap into the attraction of current American culture as a part of a broader pedagogy. With those kinds of hooks, the authors still give us a practical plan for addressing information literacy as the malleable concept it is, attaching to it issues like critical consciousness, data literacy, and social justice.

The lessons are meant for undergraduates, though some ideas (reflection papers, deep reading of scholarly articles) could be massaged to suit a graduate course. Of the 30 chapters, only a few would really be appropriate for upper-level students, making this volume and its complementary partner best for undergraduate information literacy. Some librarians may not be comfortable including selected tools in their teaching, yet the topic in question (zines, feminist theory, hip-hop) could be swapped for a similar but more familiar choice, still using the pedagogical framework offered.

Most teaching librarians will be quick to adopt the techniques and points of discussion within each chapter; they’re not being asked to venture too far outside of typical classroom activities and conversation prompts. Instead, it’s the content and theories pulled from the world of critical pedagogy that spark a new energy in library instruction. The authors’ blueprints for prep, discussion, and assessment are easy to digest and easy to manipulate when needed. Overall, they’re appropriate for the 45- to 75-minute undergraduate library classroom.

The lessons included in this volume are clearly defined with questions to ask students, materials to prepare ahead of time, questions for assessment, and session instructions. And with the preface of a few robust paragraphs outlining the applied theme or theory, the 8–10 pages provide a total package for a complete lesson plan. Taken together with the first volume, this set would be valuable additions to the reading of anyone involved in instruction and learning within the academic environment.—Alicia Hansen, College of the Holy Cross

Copyright Alicia Hansen

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