Why should critical literacy matter to information professionals?


Critical literacy is an approach to learning and teaching that has gathered momentum in recent years as it has become widely used in classrooms around the world. Critical literacy is not just important for formal education settings however. It is also relevant for libraries because it is an approach that can engage students (or other users)in more active forms of reading and more creative ways of critiquing texts, as well as equipping them with skills and strategies to challenge social and political systems.

What is critical literacy?

Critical literacy differs from most models of information literacy because it is not simply about the ability to evaluate information for features such as authenticity, quality, relevance, accuracy, currency, value, credibility and potential bias. Instead, it addresses more fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge.

One way of describing critical literacy is as a process that, ‘challenges the status quo in an effort to discover alternative paths for self and social development’ (Shor, 1999). This description highlights two key components of critical literacy. Firstly, it has a focus on practical action and community engagement. Secondly, critical literacy is concerned with the social and cultural contexts in which traditional, digital, multimedia and other types of texts are both created and read. Critical literacy is not about studying texts in isolation, but developing an understanding of the cultural, ideological and sociolinguistic contexts in which they are created and read. It involves an explicit commitment to equity, social justice and inclusion.

Authors and readers

A fundamental notion of critical literacy is that all texts are constructed(by one or more authors) and serve particular interests or purposes. As texts are written or created by people, who all have their own views of the world, no text is completely neutral and objective. For example, when they write, an author makes conscious and unconscious choices about what to include and exclude and how to represent the things or people they depict.

However, it is not just the author who has an important role. Just like authors, all readers have their own experiences and knowledge whichthey bring to a text. This means that each person interprets a text differently and multiple ways of reading a single text are not just possible, but inevitable. In contrast to more conventional approaches to resource evaluation, with critical literacy there is no single ‘correct’ way to read and respond to a text.

This means that critical literacy can allow students to move beyond merely retelling information to become actively engaged with texts as they start to exercise their power as readers to interrogate what is written and question the ideological standpoint of the author to form their own interpretations. Critical literacy also helps students to see connections between texts they read and the ‘real world’ as they come to realise how the experiences and opinions of both the author and reader are integral in shaping any text.

Some practical examples

Critical literacy is a theory that is highly relevant to the practical work of library and information workers across all sectors including academic, schools, public, workplace, prisons and health. In the case of public libraries, it can support social inclusion activities and offer alternative ways of framing reading promotion. In healthcare settings, critical literacy approaches can empower patients and challenge stigma. When working with young offenders, or at-risk young people, critical literacy can help to improve decision-making skills. In schools, it can have a role both within subjects such as Communication studies and in extra-curricular activities. It can also enhance the school librarian’s role within the school as they become engage in debates around the use of new media and academic honesty. When working with both undergraduate and post-graduate university students, critical literacy can move the librarian’s contribution to the learning process far beyond the simplistic database demonstration session to a more active, questioning approach that can profoundly impact on how students interact with information. Critical literacy can also support librarians’ work with particular user groups. For example, in the case of international students, disabled users; or adult learners, critical literacy can help to reframe difference as an asset rather than a deficit.

There is no doubt that adopting a critical literacy approach in a library setting can be highly challenging. Teaching students that there is no single ‘correct’ way to read a text and that evaluating a resource is not a process which can be reduce to a simple checklist requires considerable time, skill and confidence. However, the potential benefits can be immense.

These are just some brief examples of the ways in which critical literacy can be used within libraries and information services. Is your library using (or planning to use) critical literacy approaches in any way? If so, please let us know.

About ‘Critical Literacy for Information Professionals’

Critical Literacy for Information Professionals edited by Sarah Nicol

Critical Literacy for Information Professionals, edited by Sarah McNicol, provides a foundation of critical literacy theory, as applied to libraries, combines theory and practice to explore critical literacy in relation to different user groups, and offers practical ways to introduce critical literacy approaches in libraries.

You can buy the book from this link.

Social Haunting: Talking To The Ghosts Of Our Past

Social Haunting: Talking To The Ghosts Of Our Past is a radio documentary about an ambitious research project that uses arts practice to explore the idea of ‘social haunting’. A ‘social haunting’ is said to occur in circumstances where there’s been repression or trouble in society and as a result, the past presses in to the present in ways that aren’t obviously visible. ‘Ghosts’ appear when the pressing concerns of the past have not been attended to. The Working with Social Haunting project explored the usefulness of this concept with two groups of people, those involved in the cooperative movement in Lancashire, and in trade unionism in the former coalfields of South Yorkshire. 

The 30 minute radio documentary Social Haunting: Talking To The Ghosts Of Our Past will be broadcast online and on community stations in Lancashire and South Yorkshire. The times and web links to listen, are below.

The project ‘Working with Social Haunting’ isn’t the sort of research that is kept within a small group of university academics. We think that the questions that the project explored, might be relevant and important to you and your communities. 

Questions like: 
– How does the past impress itself on us in the present? 

– Are there traces of ideas and ways of living from that past that are not simply done and gone, but could be brought to life again? 

– And, even if you don’t believe in ghosts, could we still be haunted by our communities’ past?

Tune in through one of the links below to hear 

Social Haunting: Talking To The Ghosts Of Our Past

Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/socialhaunting

http://www.crescentradio.net/ (21:00 on Monday 8th February) 



On Twitter: #socialhauntinglive
Please be aware that if you post on Facebook, the comments will be public. We may use comments on social media or by email in project reports, but will ensure they have been made anonymous.
You can email comments to the programme’s producer, Max Munday via 
mouthpiece@sheffieldlive.org. On social media, please do not refer by name to any of the participants who you may know; comments will be moderated.

The research project, called ‘Working with Social Haunting’ was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), grant number: AH/M009262/1.

Here’s a taster of one of the workshops, termed ‘Ghost Labs’, as promoted in advance of the project on the site of Barnsley Community Support Centre 

“Overall, the project focuses on how past social and political upheavals and conflicts continue to show themselves in the world in many different ways, even when those in power prefer to argue that ‘they are over and done with’ and are ‘best forgotten’. In South Yorkshire, the end of the mining industry and the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike are obvious, but not the only, examples of what we can call a social haunting.

Ghost Lab Barnsley will bring together Unite Community members with a small group of artists and specialists to investigate social ghosts, both in their positive aspect – memories of solidarity and humour, say – and their negative guise, such as the traumatic shock of policing during the strike. Social ghosts are also among us in less obvious ways too: in the landscape, as roads that don’t go anywhere, as journeys to work that nobody makes anymore, as grassed over pit tips that call themselves ‘country parks’, as zero hours work in call centres that carry the names of pits that were renowned as centres of high wages won after 200 years of collective action.”

Evaluation of the 2014 School Library Pack

Two ESRI researchers, Sarah McNicol (PI) and James Duggan (Co-I) have recently completed an evaluation of the Book Trust’s School Library Pack. The evaluation included 21 exploratory interviews with librarians (or other staff responsible for administering the School Library Pack) from a range of schools which have used the School Library Pack, and 6 case studies involving staff interviews, student focus groups, observation of activities and other data as appropriate. The report available to read or download below includes recommendations for the Book Trust and librarians.

School librarians (or other staff member with responsibility for the library) should consider:

    • Sharing ideas for using the School Library Pack, and promoting reading for pleasure more generally, for example, at local networking meetings or online
    • Using the School Library Pack to support transition, for example, through running joint activities with primary feeder schools
    • Stimulating wider interest throughout the school through celebrating activities carried out with the School Library Pack (e.g. presentation assembly, award ceremony)
    • Encouraging students to use the multiple copies to read in friendship groups (especially if it is not possible to organise a formal reading group in the school)
    • Planning a celebration activity around the opening of the School Library Pack to generate interest
    • Sharing the School Library Pack books with teachers
    • Reflecting on the case studies for ideas and inspiration on alternative ways to make use of the School Library Pack.

Download (PDF, 1.85MB)

James Duggan


Hulme Treasure HuntYou are invited to the Hulme Treasure Hunt! 

On Sunday 25th October we’ll be running a treasure hunt, starting and finishing at Hulme Garden Centre. We’ve bought books from the Waterstone’s ‘buy books for Syria‘ campaign. Those that complete the hunt will get a book and the money will go to help refugees. There’s also free cake and drinks (T&Cs apply)! The event will start at 11 and finish at 4 but it should only take 30 minutes or so to finish the hunt.

The treasure hunt will be using ActionBound, an app to make digital scavenger hunts, you can download it from the App Store or on Google Play. Someone in your group will need to have a smart phone.

Hulme Garden Centre is running a pumpkin carving event and there’s lots of other activities.

James Duggan

This project is the culmination of a youth self-organisation project. You can read more about the ‘Design Research Get Lost’ project here.

Co-operative Academies: Tensions and Possibilities research talk

PhD candidate Jo Dennis gave an update on her research into co-operative Academy schools at the latest instalment of lunchtime session Holyoake House Hour.

Jo is undertaking a doctoral studentship at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research concerns the expansion of the co-operative schools model, which was developed by the Co-operative College in 2008 and has grown to a network of more than 800 schools across England. Initially based on the co-operative Trust model, where schools continue to receive funding directly from their local education authority but seek greater stakeholder engagement in the running of the school, the sector expanded to encompass co-operative Academies in 2010. Academies are independent state schools which are taken out of local authority control and receive funding directly from the government. They are often driven by rhetoric such as ‘innovation’ and ‘autonomy’.

Jo reminded colleagues from the Co-operative College of the background to the co-operative Academies model. Though co-operative schools had been presented as an alternative to government ambitions to turn schools into Academies, the co-operative Academies model was developed as a necessary response to the increasing trend for schools to become Academies. Jo explained that Academies remain a “highly contested model”, with low levels of support among education professionals and a high level of centralisation that “raises questions for democracy”. Although there are also tensions within the co-operative Academy model, she says, there is also “masses of possibility”, which is supported by people working in schools.

In the course of her research Jo has visited a range of co-operative Academy schools in order to understand the motivations, expectations and experiences of stakeholders such as staff and students. She has sought to find out how co-operative practice is embedded in schools, which have already got long histories and embedded interests, and to explore the challenges presented by the process of becoming a co-operative school. Jo chose schools which were deemed to be performing (by external standards, such as Ofsted) at differing levels, aiming to go beyond the small number of ‘flagship’ schools which receive most attention. This raised questions about how school success is measured, and which factors should be taken into account when judging schools to be ‘successful’ or ‘failing’. A school can be unsuccessful by narrow Ofsted criteria such as exam pass-rates, but be an example of successful co-operative practice by, for example, encouraging student voice and maintaining strong links with its wider area. Jo’s PhD research makes use of qualitative methods such as case studies, interviews, observation and photos. It also involves document reviews and thematic analysis around the key themes of engagement, community, structures, pedagogy and development.

Jo argued that, despite the challenges, co-operative Academies are a “very, very exciting, positive prospect for people who work in education”, due to a “values-driven approach” that “is what schools, professionals and school leaders want”. She commented: “As educational professional I think it is vital that values-based alternatives are explored, as that’s how schools work.”

The session also enabled College staff to feed in with observations from their own experiences of working with co-operative schools. Julie Thorpe, Lead: School Programmes and Digital Learning, commented: “The rules of the game have changed several times over the past ten years, and the goal posts have changed as to what constitutes success or failure. However, Academies are here to stay, and co-operative Academies can change the way success is measured, for example by looking at what type of people schools turn out at the end of their school experience.”

Dr Cilla Ross, the College’s Vice Principal: Education and Research, commented: ““Co-operative schools are a critical part of the College’s work and it is incredible to have such a critical lense with which to view co-operative Academy schools. It is really valuable for colleagues in the College, who work with and hear about co-operative schools all the time, to have that understanding of key issues around co-operative schools and models.”


This was originally posted on the Co-operative College’s School.Coop blog.

Check out @EdLabMMU

The Faculty of Education has launched @EdLabMMU! The project is based on 3 interlinked ideas:

Doing Good Stuff

By doing good stuff based upon the interests of students and the needs of the community, EdLab encourages students to enrich the experiences of learners, youth and communities through the opportunities present in informal spaces.

Exploring Innovation in Education

EdLab enables students to explore and create innovation in education through ‘real life’ challenges posed by partner groups. This is supported by workshop spaces, inspiring talks, project development with outside partners and reflective practice.

Enhancing Employability

EdLab is a creative space in which students can develop employment skills by engaging with ‘real world’ educational experiences driven by their passions.

@EdLabMMU works by providing students with inspirational talks and great opportunities to respond to ‘challenges’ to contribute to great projects in-and-around Hulme. For example:


Support and Improve Manchester’s Code Clubs

 Code Club builds a community of volunteers who share their passion for digital making with children and teachers across the UK.

We support our volunteers, who inspire the next generation by running weekly Code Clubs in their local area.

Design Fiction Workshop – @EdLabMMU


2nd Floor Resource Centre MMU Brooks Building
M15 6GX Manchester
Wednesday, October 28, 2015 from 12:00 PM to 2:30 PMOpen to all – Please reserve tickets here. 
Design fiction is part science-fiction and part science-fact and it allows you to develop new ideas and then prototype them in storyworlds. We’ll be creating design fictions to explore how MMU can support the Manchester Hive in providing young people in Manchester with exciting opportunities to develop the digital skills they’ll need to survive and thrive in the future.

What if we gave every young person in Manchester a robot with a virus and they had to learn to re-programme it in order to save the robot’s life? Would that work? Would it be too expensive? Would the young person be traumatised if they failed? Would it lead to back-of-the-playground robot wars competitions? These are the kinds of scenarios you can play out through design fictions but in the end we think through bigger questions such as what’s it like to be young in a changing world, what do we owe children, how might we build stronger communities?
Open to all – Please reserve tickets here. 

If you’d like more information please contact…

j.duggan@mmu.ac.uk |+44(0)161 247 2083 | @dugganjr