What is “Critical Librarianship,” Exactly?

“Critical librarianship” is the effort of those working in library schools to apply the “analytical” or “critical” tools of Marx (especially Marx), Marcuse, Adorno, Fromm, Habermas, Derrida, Lacan, Freire, Althusser, Foucault, etc. to the classification and organization of library materials, the history and use of libraries and their resources and the management and programming of libraries.

Canadian librarian Toni Samek sums it up best: Critical Librarianship is “an international movement of library and information workers that considers the human condition and human rights above other professional concerns.”

By now, anything that an academic labels as capital-c “Critical” is usually just this: asking a question about any social problem, phenomenon or institution and then answering it the same way every time and then working to prove that answer. The answer is just about always some kind of oppression or exploitation, in case you were wondering. I’m sure this sounds cynical or dismissive, but that’s the jist. If I’m wrong, comment and tell me so. I don’t edit or delete comments (unless your grammar makes a comment unreadable, in which case I edit to try to make it readable).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Critical Theory thus: “a ‘critical’ theory may be distinguished from a ‘traditional’ theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human ’emancipation from slavery’, acts as a ‘liberating … influence’, and works ‘to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of’ human beings.”


“[A] critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time. That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.”

In the social sciences, the steps of the Critical process in its simplified applied form look something like this:

  1. Assume society and its structures are oppressive.
  2. Group humans according to some selected characteristic(s).
  3. Examine their efforts and performance in some endeavor or their treatment by some institution or agency.
  4. Find a discrepancy in some determined outcome.
  5. Confidently posit oppression as the reason for the discrepancy (tautologically doubling down on number one above).
  6. Selectively study the difference and prove the oppression (tautologically making a third pass).
  7. Identify the oppressors (you get the picture).
  8. Suggest ways to lessen the effects of the oppression.

Skeptics call this “motivated reasoning” or “motivated research.”

So imagine I’m a library school instructor and I’m studying….say…database usage and its relationship to academic success. I might send out a survey to a university’s student body with demographic questions, income questions, etc. Maybe questions about, say, laptop ownership, maybe even including the age of the laptops owned? Definitely a question related to GPA. Then the immediately pertinent questions: “What’s your major?” “Have you used a database when working on an assignment in the last two semesters?” “If you used a database, where did you hear about the university’s databases?” “What was the course?” “What grade did you get in that course?” “If you didn’t use a database, which of the following reasons contributed?” Here might be options like “Didn’t know they existed” or “Didn’t know how to access the login page.”

The Critical Librarian will usually start by looking the the demographic data and seek the gaps from there (confidently assuming in advance that some groups will be doing better and also unironically assuming who they will be). The demographic considerations of a person’s being/identity–their “intersectionality”–is of prime importance to analysis grounded in Critical Theory.

So, for the sake or argument, imagine that the research shows that students in a selected minority group at a hypothetical university use databases less, own laptops less often and have lower GPAs. The reductivist and determinist and, yes, tautological nature of Critical Theory makes the starting point easy, as it already makes the metahistorical and metasociological assumption that something “is wrong with current social reality.” From there, every other kind of logic has a “lens” it can be viewed through. Critical librarianship enthusiasts LOVE the word “lens.”

Anyway, the results come in and start to get analyzed. Student A didn’t use databases and says she never heard about them? Critical librarianship would likely posit a failure of communication on the university library’s part. Student B heard about the databases, used them and yet has a lower GPA or got a lower course grade than the average of some other group of respondents? Well, from there some other form of inequity or injustice is assumed, sought and usually found. Maybe Student B’s lower household income or older laptop has something to do with it? At any rate, the notion that that kid failed or underperformed or worked her job too many hours or partied too much that semester HAS to come last, if at all. The SYSTEM does the failing first and foremost, for Critical Theoreticians. The individual is a semi-illusory afterthought (maybe even a “construct”) in “CritLib.” As I’ve written elsewhere, there is no such thing as an individual or free will to a Hegelian/Marxist or someone using Marx-inspired analytical eggbeaters. To wit:

Now, to be fair, Critical Librarianship asks some interesting and fun questions at times, though always in the most relentlessly dour terms. Why is a book about chattel slavery found in 326 and not, say, 331 or 916 or 966 or 973? Who decided slavery was to be a separate consideration from human labor relations or African peoples? In the radical imagination of the Critical Librarian, it was probably some white guy with a Confederate flag hanging on his office wall and a glass of scotch in his hand. For the Critical Librarian, that’s a research paper right there.

Critical librarianship, in this way, seeks to dismantle and replace the “Western” or “Eurocentric” or “Colonial” or “White Supremacist” or “Capitalist” or “Enlightenment” or “Patriarchal” or “Individualist” understanding of the relationship of the individual information-seeker to the material and ideological world and the “Dominant Systems” of classification and ordering and administering THINGS and IDEAS by minds that have been trying to make sense and order of those things through history. The way previous historical minds have ordered things are argued not to be purely logical, but based in time-bound prejudices (a fair criticism) that should be continually re-examined and re-worked (which intellectuals are supposed to be doing, anyway). The question is whether Critical Theory can really be any more a basis for scientific progress in the social sciences or humanities than Evangelical Fundamentalism. I may be a minority voice on this, but I highly doubt it.

Which Way, Critical Librarian?

Critical Theory, generally, has a foundational and fundamental contradiction that it has struggled with for 100+ years (when its supporters have bothered to discuss it at all). To wit: IF all knowledge and systems and institutions and understandings and ontologies and relationships have an historical basis rooted in the injustices of the past…then don’t the very ideas of Critical Theory have that SAME basis? How can an idea or system of thought liberate people from oppression if that idea or system is grounded in the same oppressive structures? How can a researcher slough off history and transcend the very ideas that got him or her to where he or she stands now? I mean, the very WORDS we use to discuss ideas were probably invented by people who didn’t even bother to announce their pronouns at the beginnings of their meetings!

In the words of David H. Fischer (I THINK it was him, at least), social and historical theoreticians inspired by Marx try to move history along by blowing on their own sails. What I–and I’m sure others who have been through the same time and life-wasting laundry ringer of Marxist/Critical intellectual bullshit–find so annoying about these questions is that Critical Theory proponents generally shrug them off. “Meh. At least we’re TRYING to work towards something noble, just, and good,” they say. Or, very much like Scientologists, they’ll just claim the critic is too dumb, poorly-read, racist/sexist/capitalist to get it. Then they usually REALLY go on a Fanatical attack, because they do not find the “problematic contradictions” in OTHER worldviews even slightly tolerable, and are usually held to be evidence of personal intransigence approaching immorality. In this, it holds institutional neutrality to be absolutely anathema as a professional ethos for librarians.

I don’t think the contradictions CAN be shrugged off. One, especially, strikes me as fair: if Critical Theory as applied to librarianship is meant to question and undermine and free humanity from the social and political orthodoxies and historical errors that have been stomping on people since we crawled out of the muck, then why do its most vocal proponents seem to be every bit as presumptuous, smug, self-righteous, scolding, angry, hateful, mean-spirited, pedantic, vengeful and cliquish as the Spanish Inquisition on its worst hangover Monday? Must “liberation” be as boring and oppressive as oppression itself? If so, it’s no better–in my mind–than the most “othering” subject heading Dewey ever dreamed up.


Critical Librarianship as an Academic Pursuit

Theoretical Foundations of Critical Librarianship

Critical Theory and Educational Technology

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

Critical Social Theory: An Introduction and Critique

Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory


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