on information privilege.

bookchain_flashThe concept of information privilege situates information literacy in a sociocultural context of justice and access. Information as the media and messages that underlie individual and collective awareness and knowledge building; privilege as the advantages, opportunities, rights, and affordances granted by status and positionality via class, race, gender, culture, sexuality, occupation, institutional affiliation, and political perspective.

In an extended period of relative disengagement with writing I have started and stopped and restarted this post so many times that it’s become a bit ridiculous, but based on the interest generated by discussions of information privilege in my teaching and speaking contexts it’s clearly time to finish. An approach that’s guided my own work for some time, I explored this framing of information literacy in depth in a closing keynote address (see video and slides) at the 2013 Digital Library Federation Forum in Austin – easily one of the most satisfying talks I’ve given to date. Grounding my argument was the idea that information (and all) privilege must be recognized and challenged by those working in libraries and allied fields as problematic, and used as a guiding principle in the design of resources and methods that combat the division between those who can and cannot access what we create and curate.

information privilege in practice

A powerful example of the importance of circumventing information underprivilege in my own career came in the form of a friend of friends who made an avocation of traveling around the country leading workshops on fermentation, with a profoundly evidence-based orientation to the work. He lived in an isolated rural location without recourse to the research base he needed to inform an ongoing writing project, and so reached out to librarians and others with the necessary credentials to help him secure obscure articles from back issues of scientific journals. This content would have translated to untold thousands of dollars if he had followed the traditional routes available to him, and if those contacted for off-the-grid support had not taken the time to do him a series of modest solids he would not have been able to produce this amazing, best-selling fermentation bible.

For the institutionally unaffiliated and indefatigably curious this is a commonplace scenario, and librarians and other information professionals are best equipped to shift the dynamic towards a freer flow of knowledge unattached to markers of access privilege. Who among us has not had a similar experience and responded in kind? Our responses take institutional as well as individual forms – consider Radical Reference, Creative Commons, the Open Access movement, and countless acts of community support and defiance that attempt to liberate constraints to informed inquiry in spite of the potential consequences.

Any type of information worker can examine this phenomenon and develop strategies to counter it. Based on my educational orientation to librarianship I most often approach information privilege in teaching and learning scenarios, and in practice it is the most effective framework I have identified to engage learners and collaborators with a wide range of skills and perspectives that constitute (critical) information literacy. Presenting information literacy through a lens of privilege problematizes and connects individuals with what can easily become a worn, procedural, and overly didactic series of concepts (worse: tools). More importantly, it exposes the fallibility of assumptions about information and its ecology, identifies hidden injustices, encourages more open forms of participation in a knowledge polity, critiques the information-for-profit imperative, and demands the examination of personal and institutional privilege within scholarly (and not so scholarly) communication.

information privilege as pedagogy

A growing focus on critical and feminist pedagogies[1] in libraryland combined with the prevalence of threshold concepts in ACRL’s information literacy framework revision[2] creates the potential to connect our conceptual base to powerful dialogues across other fields of inquiry. Challenging unquestioned and entrenched social and structural systems through information privilege thus becomes a library application of feminist and critical pedagogy, and an on-the-ground means of encouraging IL threshold experiences among our learners, educators, and colleagues. Considering inquiry, evaluation, attribution, communication, and authority and other facets of information literacy through a critical lens has the potential to build important connections to larger frames of understanding.

It is important to share additional background on underlying ideas that can inform an educational orientation to information privilege. Feminist pedagogy attempts to expose, critique, and flatten power-based learning, gender, and social hierarchies, while the closely related construct of critical pedagogy seeks to disestablish ideological systems that oppress and repress. Critical and feminist positions play out directly in learning interactions by challenging behaviorist and cognitivist assumptions of authority in teaching, extending their critiques of social and power dynamics to learning spaces. This results in a far more revolutionary classroom ‘flip’ than its oft-discussed technological counterpart: learners become facilitators in the sense that they are challenged to enrich educational spaces in pursuit of critical insight into the systems that surround them.

In the simplest terms, we are critical educators when we compel ourselves and others to think about power and privilege, and we are feminist educators when we dig beneath the status quo of our content and identify justice-focused approaches to engaging learners in a process of safe/radical self- and system-examination. These are beautiful ideas, but like any theory they can feel detached from immediate practice. Rather than adopting a completely new set of beliefs and approaches, implementing information privilege as an element of library discourse can be as simple as examining how you understand and approach information literacy, and identifying ways to explore underlying assumptions in dialogue with learners and/or colleagues in order to encourage this process of questioning more broadly. A few examples from my own experience follow.

scaling the paywall

This semester I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with a fabulous Pomona mathematics professor, Gizem Karaali, on a new first-year seminar course called Education and its Discontents. My role in this course ranged from contributing to the development of the syllabus to co-facilitating discussions as well as workshops related to specific research-based writing assignments.

I am not often able to embed with a group of students to this depth, and combined with the subject matter this context offered an opportunity to examine information privilege as a process of inquiry informed by social justice and as an applied critical pedagogy. Several early weeks of course readings were devoted to critical/feminist/progressive theorists such as bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and John Dewey, which provided a foundation of questioning privilege and the role of education in liberation, anti-racism, and fostering functional democracies. Listening to students grapple with education from perspectives in conflict with their personal experience as learners has been fascinating, especially so in a seminar environment that encouraged all contributions as valid to discourse by a professor likewise engaged in a process of self-education about the subject matter (embodying critical and feminist pedagogy, in other words).

hooks and Freire provided a perfect segue to our first IL-related workshop, which I opened by challenging the fallacy that information is free by diagramming the library’s multi-million dollar materials budget against the “open web,” then facilitated a discussion about the implications of a system in which significant areas of knowledge are available to a privileged few (e.g., them). This may seem like a counterintuitive approach, but among my students it was a literally jaw-dropping illustration of a paywall that none of them knew existed. Choice responses (mirrored in other classrooms where I’ve used this approach) included:

“Why in the world does it cost so much?”

“It doesn’t make sense!”

“You mean all libraries have to pay like this?”

“Why can’t we use this stuff after we graduate?”

And so forth – this is a perfect illustration of a threshold concept at work. Problematizing assumptions about information access isn’t really possible without examining the profit drivers that exist beneath the mechanism of scholarship, which opens topics ranging from open access to privacy to intellectual freedom to the digital divide – all easily identifiable incarnations of information privilege in lived experience. From this point in the workshop, discovering and evaluating scholarship in support of an assignment took a very different tone, undergirded by a sense of responsibility afforded to students by their own institutional privilege. Call it information gravitas.

wikipedia as participatory action

I have long held the opinion that far too much student work disappears into a sort of curricular black box; learners in higher education are typically asked to create isolated products meant not to inform but to mimic a scholarly conversation going on somewhere just above their heads. One facet of challenging information privilege is involving students in a process of leveraging institutional resources to create products that contribute to a broader public discourse (as opposed to ending up in recycling bins and/or behind closed institutional doors). In its dual role as public knowledgebase and lightning rod for skeptical scholars, Wikipedia provides a touchstone for conversations about accuracy and authority and a means to engage students with these questions in their own work.

In Spring of 2014 I had the pleasure of watching the most recent crop of student-created Wikipedia articles come to fruition in a long-running course collaboration with my Claremont Colleges Library colleague Sara Lowe and Prof. Amanda Hollis-Brusky of Pomona College. The articles, all expanded “stubs” from the Wikipedia Politics portal, were painstakingly crafted through multiple rounds of feedback in the most intensive and effective information literacy assignment I have ever had a hand in designing. The LA Times did a wonderful student-focused write-up of this and similar projects this summer, and I’ve discussed the Wikipedia collaboration several times before as well. I encourage you to take a look at the assignment structure via our Wikipedia Education Program course page. These articles have been viewed hundreds to thousands of times since their completion:

1 – FairVote

2 – Clean Diamond Trade Act

3 – Federalist No. 70

4 – Consent decree

5 – Bob Jones University v. Simon

6 – First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti

The reality of a reading public predominantly without institutional entrées makes Wikipedia-based assignments excellent fodder for engaging information privilege, not to mention strong motivators for the production of quality work. The power of this process is the mind-bending leaps students must master to do it well, including “neutral” and non-argumentative writing, rigorous and impartial substantiation, coding, OA sourcing where and whenever possible, and group content creation. To get a sense of the rigor that we expect of these first and second-year students, review the reference list on any of the articles, where you’ll see a breadth and depth of sourcing unusual even for advanced undergraduate research.

The Wiki Education Foundation is supporting these course collaborations to improve Wikipedia through student brainpower and institutional knowledge access, a smart move in a concerted effort to sharpen and deepen Wikipedia’s collective knowledgebase. Wikipedia editing is only one way to encourage students and faculty to produce participatory work that leverages paywalled information resources for the public good – encouraging capstone and other student project uploads to OA repositories is another (see 1 and 2 for more on this).

working through information privilege

Questioning underlying assumptions takes effort, but effort is far more compelling than internalizing and reproducing obligatory tasks. Due to prevailing cultural and media narratives, information is far too easily seen as universally accessible until its nuances are critically examined. By encouraging learners to wrap their minds around information imbalances from personal and relative perspectives, I have observed a greater sense of responsibility toward the effective application of IL concepts, as well as increased insight into the importance of open access.

At their best, libraries are an institutional form of social justice that equalize information availability and provide safe public space for learning and doing. At their worst, they perpetuate inequities and apportion resources among the intellectually sanctioned. In an increasingly activist profession, working with a recognition of information privilege can motivate those of us who labor to preserve access to information to take steps such as challenging draconian licensing agreements, moving accessible and usable design to the forefront of development processes, and supporting students, scholars, and all others identify strategies to circumvent their barriers (known and unknown) that keep certain ideas trapped behind paywalls or impenetrable design. It’s my belief that this ethic can and should support libraries in our fight to remain relevant at one of many pivotal moments in our trajectory.

Perhaps the best way to confront information privilege is to work from an understanding that it undergirds the efforts of libraries and wider knowledge production. If you seek to address structural information inequities, it is essential to develop a professional value system that perceives and opposes injustices not only within our institutions, but beyond them. In this sense information privilege is not just about asking our students to examine themselves and their position behind the paywall, it is about informing the way we collaborate, design, manage, lead, and advocate. For most of us, this will mean examining our own privilege and how we have been teaching and working in information contexts thus far. We can begin by asking ourselves simple questions – how do I approach access and authority in my practice? Do I broach subjects like inequity or justice? What can I do to develop a more open sense of access?

As always, onward and upward.

[1] See Accardi, Drabinski, & Kumbier (2010); Elmborg (2006); and Accardi (2013).

[2] See http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/?page_id=133.

Many thanks to Lia Friedman for her limitless editorial acumen.

11 thoughts on “on information privilege.

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  1. I appreciate this post on information privilege, in particular, as it relates to incarcerated students our colleges and universities work with.
    If anyone has ideas for helping inmates improve their information privileges, especially for those who are incarcerated college students, please contact me.
    Lisa Foley
    Founder of the Incarcerated Student Program at
    Lake Tahoe Community College
    Library Director

  2. Thank you very much for writing about this and linking to your keynote address. Very inspiring stuff.

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