Guest post: recent articles on information literacy research and practice

Dr Alison Hicks, Lecturer in Library and Information Science at UCL, has written a guest post highlighting some recent articles in the field of information literacy research and practice.

Alison Hicks
Alison Hicks

One of the greatest privileges of moving into a university lecturer position, alongside working with fabulous students, has been the opportunity (and requirement!) to keep up to date with newly-published information literacy research. When I was working as a librarian, a lack of time as well as the demands of my position meant that I tended to read exclusively for research that was directly relevant to my day-to-day subject-specialist role rather than exploring publications from across the field. Nowadays, my reading is far more eclectic, which has further enabled me to pick up on emerging themes of interest within the field. For my first blog post for the ILG, I wanted to present a small selection of new articles that may have passed you by yet which seem to signal a number of exciting directions for information literacy research and practice.

The first article that caught my eye this month was a recent publication by Darren Ilett, an information literacy librarian at the University of Northern Colorado in the United States. His article, “A critical review of LIS literature on first-generation students,” explores literature that examines the experiences and activities of students who are the first in their family to attend university. The number of students who fit this demographic (though Ilett recognises the shortcomings of this label) have been increasing in the United States in recent years thanks to the growth of widening participation schemes, which seems to roughly mirror developments in the UK (e.g. Hefce, 2005). However, although first generation students are often celebrated for their achievements, Ilett’s critical review determines that within Library and Information Science literature, these learners are most frequently positioned as problems to be solved rather than as individuals with the potential to succeed. Their ‘non-traditional’ status, for example, is seen to immediately mark a division between librarian and student or those who belong in higher education and those who don’t. The frequent use of bellicose language, which includes references to invasions, survival tactics and blitzkrieg campaigns, does little to undermine these perceptions of hostility, while the litany of demographic factors that are thought to predict deficiency further results in the erosion of experience as well as reinforcing the impression that these students disrupt and deviate from the ‘norm.’ Ilett’s research makes for uncomfortable reading as he considers the assumptions and stereotypes that may litter the ways in which we engage and plan for first-generation students. However, in recognising how often the individual is blamed for structural issues, his work also achieves the broader goal of drawing attention to deficit-models of education, which highlight how learners who fail to meet educational expectations that are based on the behaviours and values of White, middle-class, English-speaking ‘traditional learners,’ are judged to be both lacking and incompetent. Throwing our understandings of academic success into stark relief, Ilett’s work leaves us reflecting uneasily about where else in our teaching this problematic frame of reference may have been applied.

We don’t have too long to wonder as four librarians from Nevada, United States swiftly picked up on these ideas in another recent publication, “Dismantling deficit thinking: A strengths based inquiry into the experiences of transfer students in and out of academic libraries”. Centring, this time, on the activities of transfer students, who are defined as students who transfer from one academic institution to another part-way through their studies or after a period of time outside of education, Chelsea Heinbach, Brittany Paloma Fiedler, Rosan Mitola and Emily Pattni’s article uses the same deficit model of education to explore and complicate “the narrative of the lagging transfer student.” While transfer students may not be as common in the UK, the authors neatly illustrate how, just as with first generation students, LIS literature has tended to position transfer students as problems to be fixed rather than as people who enter the classroom with a wide range of important and relevant life experiences. More specifically, the authors’ uses of interview research methods means that the they are able to demonstrate how past work experience has enabled transfer students to develop a wide range of time and project management skills, while their motivation to continue their education means that they are both persistent and efficient in their research. In effect, transfer students’ complex and varied backgrounds help them to develop nuanced rather than inadequate understandings about information systems and the demands of academic research. Like in Ilett’s article, this work provides a vivid illustration of how students who don’t follow typical pathways through academia are often pigeonholed or set up to fail by rigid educational structures. Crucially, this article also points out how even well-intentioned librarians can perpetuate these issues by failing to engage critically with dominant narratives. To this end, the authors introduce the concept of “strengths-based” pedagogy, which is a constructivist approach to education that complements our understanding of deficit models of education by recognising what learners bring to the classroom rather than what they do not.

Strengths-based approaches to education are explored more thoroughly in the final article that I want to examine, “Drawing on students’ funds of knowledge: Using identity and lived experience to join the conversation in research assignments.” While its publication in our own inestimable Journal of Information Literacy means that you may be more familiar with this article, Amanda Folk’s work becomes even more poignant when it is considered in light of research that reveals the problematic implications of deficit-based thinking. The in-depth interviews that she carried out on two university campuses in the United States with first generation students, for example, revealed that their identities facilitated rather than hampered students’ meaningful engagement within new information environments. Folk’s case study approach also meant that she was able to demonstrate how student experiences and interests enabled them to reflexively and critically analyse academic information practices, including the voices that are represented within scholarly conversations as well as questions of authority and credibility in a way that first-time students were often unable to do. The impact of these inferences subsequently led her to advocate for a “funds of knowledge” approach to information literacy instruction, which honours the resources and knowledge that students from minority cultures build upon when they engage within higher education. Constituting another strengths-based pedagogical approach, the funds of knowledge model means that learner differences are seen as positive rather than as weaknesses. Importantly, and while Folk does not make this connection, the recognition that students’ cultural backgrounds help them to challenge social issues as well as to develop a critically conscious voice means that an emphasis on the funds of knowledge that a learner brings with them to the classroom could also form the basis for a model of critical or radical information literacy (Accardi, Drabinski & Kumbier, 2010), where library instruction is seen as the means to interrogate the power structures that shape our libraries, classrooms and information environments.

The subtle challenging of uncritical attempts to ‘help’ learners; the exhortation to reflect on our own teaching practice; and, most importantly, the messy complexities of information literacy in stratified and structurally unequal societies are all reasons why I find these articles so thought-provoking. Whilst all of these articles emerge from the US, I;m interested to see whether they strike a chord with British librarians- where else do you see instances of deficit thinking in our information literacy teaching and research? Have you applied a strengths-based pedagogy in your work? What are the challenges of doing so? What barriers stand in your way? I look forward to research that continues developing and building upon these important topics in the future.

Accardi, M., Drabinski, E., & Kumbier, A. (2014). Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. Duluth: Library Juice Press.
Folk, A. L. (2018). Drawing on students’ funds of knowledge: using identity and lived experience to join the conversation in research assignments. Journal of Information Literacy, 12(2), 44-59.
HEFCE (2005). Young participation in higher education. Bristol: HEFCE. Retrieved from
Heinbach, C., Fiedler, B. P., Mitola, R., & Pattni, E. (2019). Dismantling deficit thinking: A strengths-based inquiry into the experiences of transfer students in and out of academic libraries. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Retrieved from
Ilett, D. (2019). A critical review of LIS literature on first-generation students. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 19(1), 177-196.

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