Book Review: Critical Library Instruction

Maria Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, 2009, Library Juice Press: Duluth, MN.

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I got a review copy of this book a while back (thank you, Rory Litwin!) and have been reading this book in spurts for the last month. It doesn’t normally take me that long to read a book, but I found myself spending so much time highlighting and making notes in the book that it took me several hours to read each chapter (also, graduation and such has made life busy.) I requested a copy hoping to review it from the perspective of someone who is about to begin instructing students, and during the time I read the book I was impressed by how much I could translate the findings from the book into the classroom, and how much positive feedback I heard about the book when I mentioned that I was reviewing it.

Each chapter is written by a different author to provide readers with some diverse perspectives on how instruction, based both on theory and on practical experience. As at least some of you know, I love it when folks in LIS can successfully combine theory and practice, so it was nice to see a book that gave a voice both to researchers and practitioners. I came into the book expecting great things, but was worried that it would be mostly geared towards librarians conducting instruction sessions for undergraduate classrooms. This is definitely the focus, BUT the book is written in such a way that there’s a lot to learn for instructors in other contexts.

I’ve been a fan of the concept of critical pedagogy for a while, but honestly hadn’t gotten to explore it in action as deeply as I would have liked before reading this book. The biggest benefit I see to critical pedagogy is that it helps produce scholars who are confident in their own abilities to the point that they recognize their ideas as being valid and worth exploring. It moves the student from the role of passive vessel to be filled by expert knowledge to the role of active, engaged learner who collaborates with fellow students and shares the learning experience with the instructor. Quite simply, critical pedagogy reframes the educational experience in such a way that students are given agency as creators of knowledge as well as learners.

This book was nice because it was written in a way that appeals to someone who’s familiar with critical pedagogy and with some of the researchers (i.e. Jim Elmborg) can enjoy, but wouldn’t be over the heads of readers who are encountering these ideas for the first time. The authors do an excellent job of explaining the different concepts they explore, and also do an excellent job of arguing why educators should move away from positivist and ‘banking’ models towards those that more fully include students. I’ll spare you the copious margin notes I took during the course of reading, and try to boil down my experience with this book into a few major take-aways.
1. The ideas in the book resonated both with my experiences and my beliefs: It’s hard to not like a book that you get that excited about (and yes, I did corner people a few times so I could gush about certain chapters.) I found one of the most rewarding parts of reading this book was seeing people put my beliefs about effective teaching into action, which gives me hope that I can do the same thing at some point and not utterly fail. Another bonus was drawing parallels between my experiences (i.e. how positivist environments cause us to ‘do’ research a certain way, or the differences in how we write and research for different types of publications) and those outlined in the book. There are quite a few long-winded bits of marginalia that basically say ‘that’s like this thing from my research!’ It will be nice to flip to those in the future and be able to quickly find the ideas that I have seen play out in practice.
2. Delightful reference lists: I have never referred to bibliographies as ‘delightful,’ particularly after all the time I’ve spent writing (and re-writing) them. I felt like the references authors in this book used were especially helpful because each author drew from a variety of sources both inside LIS and beyond. They also referenced some of my favorite writers, which was another plus. If you do read the book (and you should) I would recommend going through the references for each chapter and making a note of what jumps out at you. You’ll have a great ‘to read’ list AND get the chance to explore various concepts in greater depth.
3. Specific teaching strategies combined with larger guiding principles: The book is written so that instructors can get ideas for upcoming sessions (which is great for last minute planning) and also gain a more thorough understanding of the theories and methods that inform the authors’ suggestions.
4. The biggest take-away may be me just repeating myself, but it’s the idea that our students are teachers and learners. Engaging students and encouraging them to think critically allows them to challenge published literature when they encounter bias, interact as an equal in the classroom when engaging with instructor and peers, and become better students and lifelong learners in the process. My goal as a teacher isn’t just to give students the best content; the biggest gift I can give them is to encourage creativity, engagement, critical thinking, and confidence in their abilities to produce meaningful knowledge. This has given me a lot of inspiration for how I want to organize my courses!

Often I can find an ‘area of improvement’ to suggest after reading a text, but with this one I felt like that was somewhat harder to do because I got so into it. My biggest question that I was left with (which is outside the scope of the book) was how critical pedagogy, as outlined in these chapters, could be adapted to the graduate classroom. I’d be interested to hear the authors’ perspectives on how (or if) they have critically engaged with graduate students. Overall I felt like this is an incredibly valuable book, and one that I would recommend very highly to instructors and academic librarians (one could argue that elements of critical pedagogy have their place in other library settings too-this definitely ties in with recent discussions I’ve had about reference, and whether our job is just to meet the immediate need of answering one question or to take the time to encourage critical thinking beyond the expressed need.) I’d love to hear from other instructors about their impressions and how they’ve incorporated the book into their instruction.


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