The Public Library as an Educational Institution
The public library was originally conceived of as a compliment to, and extension of, the nineteenth century ideal of universal education. Literacy rates in the U.S. increased dramatically after the implementation of universal education, and the library was envisioned as a place where an adult’s education could continue after the end of their formal schooling. Much about public libraries has changed since then and much has stayed the same. Libraries continue to offer information resources and services to patrons, but technological advancement means the types of information available and the way patrons access and use information have changed dramatically. In this era of ubiquitous technology and information overload, information literacy may rightly be considered a survival skill.
Critical Information Literacy Instruction in Public Libraries
While there is much debate over literacy types and definitions, critical information literacy may be understood as emphasizing the evaluate part of the ALA’s original 1989 definition of information literacy, which is “the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” Critical information literacy is especially important in this era of post-truth, alternative facts, and fake news. It is especially important under an administration that has adopted an adversarial approach to rights of a free press, in particular, and access to information, in general. While K-12 and academic librarians have focused on teaching critical information literacy for some time, there is a dearth of literature examining the role of the public library in teaching such skills. Information literacy in public libraries primarily focuses on early childhood literacy and technological literacy. The good(?) news is that recent events have highlighted this gap, prompting individual librarians and professional associations to respond to the need for public library instruction in critical information literacy.
Overcoming Obstacles to Instruction
One reason for the lack of public library instruction in this area may be that librarians are simply not comfortable providing it; many academic librarians are uncomfortable with direct instruction and this feeling may extend to public librarians as well. In order for public librarians to feel comfortable and competent providing such instruction, MLIS programs need to better prepare students for this part of their professional role. Another reason this instruction is not widely offered in public libraries could be that librarians view critical information literacy, which considers “ways librarians may encourage students to engage with and act upon the power structures underpinning information’s production and dissemination” (Tewell 2015, 25), as a violation of their commitment to political neutrality. Such concern is understandable. However, ethical instruction in critical information literacy need not make any political claims other than those librarianship is founded upon – that access to information and intellectual freedom are crucial components of a democratic society. Critical information literacy instruction simply extends the skills and knowledge librarians themselves are taught in every MLIS program – how to examine information resources for bias, authority, and context – to patrons.
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