Critical Information Literacy for Collective Action

Library workers have a crucial role in the contemporary information environment.
By Reanna Esmail

Libraries are currently facing threats on multiple fronts. Library budgets are dwindling while vendor pricing is skyrocketing. Professional ethics related to intellectual freedom and privacy rights are increasingly politicized, often resulting in targeted harassment campaigns against individual library workers. Reports from PEN America and the American Library Association (ALA) show that censorship challenges, which the ALA defines as attempts to “remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group,” are up 450 percent from 2019. Libraries are social institutions of information, and thus these threats should be understood as attempts by coordinated networks to control information access either to gain or to maintain power. However, each new threat also presents new opportunities for resistance and collective action.

Libraries have long taught their patrons a set of key skills known as information literacy, including how to find, evaluate, and use information. While information literacy refers primarily to competencies taught by instructional or public-services staff, many practitioners have recently taken a critical approach to information literacy, focusing on how systems of power influence information access, production, and evaluation. Critical information literacy thus presents a set of tools for understanding not only the research process, but library work itself.

Harassment and censorship campaigns may seem like issues related to individual workers, books, or libraries. However, these are collective issues, as politicized attempts to exert control over libraries pose threats to intellectual freedom, which the ALA defines as “the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.” The ALA maintains that intellectual freedom is critical in the resistance against censorship, and it further affirms the importance of addressing systemic inequity and bias in library practice.

In June 2021, the ALA updated its professional ethics code to include language acknowledging systemic oppression and commitments to confronting oppression and inequity in our practice as library workers. Yet, following the national public reckoning with racism and oppression in 2020–21, now-familiar campaigns targeting K–12 curricula, higher education, and libraries emerged. Ongoing assaults on information and education can thus be understood as reactions against renewed commitments to social justice and critical practice. The rise of book bans and disinformation coincides with the equally alarming rise in surveillance and big data. Critical information literacy illuminates the interconnectedness of these complex issues, which are usually treated as separate, and suggests means of developing appropriate forms of resistance that combine critical thinking and collective action.

Censorship: Then and Now

Critical information literacy can help us better understand how censorship functions, particularly in the twenty-first century. When we discuss censorship, or the suppression of challenged ideas, we need to understand the role of power. While the ALA posits that individuals can enact censorship, I would concur with Emily Knox’s argument in Book Banning in 21st-Century America that censorship should be considered the suppression of ideas or information by institutions or groups.

As Knox’s work highlights, book censorship is arguably as old as books and libraries. Examples of challenges and bans can be found throughout classical and medieval history, as powerful institutions, such as the church, governmental bodies, or the noble classes, censored materials. Throughout this history and especially in recent years, library workers have been powerful opponents of censorship and advocates for intellectual freedom. The ALA first drafted and released the Freedom to Read Statement in response to the rise of censorship attempts stemming from McCarthyism. However, library workers have also been on the wrong side of the right to read, as, for example, some libraries opted to close rather than desegregate in the 1960s. As Zeyneb Tufekci argues in Twitter and Tear Gas, “information is experienced and disseminated collectively and socially,” and thus censorship is similarly experienced collectively and socially. Because information and power are both social phenomena, we need to examine the societal contexts that shape them.

Censorship in the twenty-first century exhibits similarities with and differences from preceding histories of censorship. As Knox contends, ubiquitous access to materials means that those challenging books today use censorship of books in libraries and schools to signal community morals and ethics. Current challengers argue that, since certain materials are available elsewhere, libraries should either not purchase them or restrict them by labeling them as explicit, as with musical recordings, or by using content ratings, as with films.

However, as evidenced by the history of music and film censorship, these labeling and rating systems are also influenced by power and politics. Tipper Gore infamously helped found the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) after deeming Prince’s song “Darling Nikki” inappropriate for her teenage daughter. In November 1985, the PMRC used its political and social connections to establish the parental advisory label for musical recordings, drawing inspiration from the Motion Picture Association (MPA) film-rating system.

Founded in 1922, the MPA, then known as Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), had its own political ties. While its first president, former postmaster and politician William Hays, spoke out publicly against censorship, he also developed a dos and don’ts list that by the 1930s was developed into the MPPDA production code. Film scholars note that the “Hays Code” prohibited depictions or discussions of LGBTQ characters or lifestyles and placed similar restrictions on representations of miscegenation and critiques of the clergy. In 1968, by the time the Hays Code had lost some of its social power, it was replaced with the current film rating system amid threats of federal regulation.

Groups, organizations, and collectives clearly played a key role in the creation and maintenance of these labeling and rating systems. By comparison, current censorship efforts may appear to be put forth by individuals. However, Banned in the USA, a September 2022 report from PEN America, found that organized group efforts were responsible for a majority of current challenges. A large percentage of these groups are, according to the report’s findings, less than a year old. Despite being newly established, these organizations are well funded and well prepared.

With over one hundred local chapters nationwide, Moms for Liberty claims to be a grassroots organization, but there is media speculation about its ties to Republican politicians and large political action committees (super PACs). Another supposed grassroots organization, No Left Turn in Education, has offered free legal services and templates for challenging materials, including potential complaints, prewritten letters, and talking points for school board meetings. Parents Defending Education (PDE) provides tool kits and instructions on how to influence parent-teacher associations and how to infiltrate school boards. A January 2022 article from The Guardian notes that PDE’s founder and president, Nicole Neily, previously served as executive director for a right-wing think tank funded by Charles Koch. Armed with legal funds, ready-made resources, and media consultants, these groups are far more than a couple of outraged parents.

There have been similar reports about ties between conservative donors and groups targeting higher education, based on findings from Media Matters for America. The Leadership Institute, which oversees Campus Reform, received donations from organizations including the Charles Koch Foundation, DonorsTrust, Donors Capital Fund, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. Another conservative watchdog publication, College Fix, is a project of the Student Free Press Association, which has received donations from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund and has ties to the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. The Professor Watchlist, which regularly cites Campus Reform and College Fix, is a project of Turning Point USA. Founded by Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist and previous speaker at the Republican National Convention, Turning Point USA also notes an affiliation with the Leadership Institute.

These highly interconnected groups have been extremely influential in harassment campaigns and lobbying for educational “reform” legislation, often by concealing their political connections and presenting themselves as grassroots movements. By leveraging their massive resources, these groups aim to disempower library workers, to undermine their expertise, and to prevent educators from selecting materials and creating a curriculum. This is the new form of networked censorship in the twenty-first century, which often involves updating established practices and applying them to a new media and political landscape. Critical information literacy reveals how power perennially shapes the perception and dissemination of, and ultimately access to, information.

Privacy and Data Capitalism

Contemporary censorship networks are helped by the centrality of data collection and surveillance in our current digital environment. These trends should be alarming, given the mission of libraries to provide equitable information access and protect intellectual freedom. The ALA’s statement on privacy asserts that “the possibility of surveillance, whether direct or through access to records of speech, research, and exploration, undermines a democratic society.” While libraries have long opposed the surveillance of library patrons, examining surveillance systems as information environments shows that libraries are also susceptible to systemic influence.

One key example can be found in the mass requests for patron borrowing records that libraries received following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The USA Patriot Act, which was enacted in 2001 and expired in 2020, allowed the US government to surveil the email, phone, banking, credit, and other records of individuals in the name of national security. Section 215 gave the FBI broad authority for surveillance and wiretapping, including patron borrowing records, as data obtainable under this authority.

Upholding our ethics of privacy, many libraries and library workers resisted requests made under the Patriot Act. The ALA encouraged libraries to collect records only when necessary and created tool kits on how to protect patron records. When served with warrants, some libraries and staff refused to comply, and others created policies to purge records daily. Some libraries used creative signage, known as warrant canaries, to alert watchful patrons if the FBI had come to their library. Libraries now collect and generate far more data than in the early 2000s, including not only borrowing records but also browsing records and other personal patron information.

Today, most libraries exist as both digital spaces and physical spaces. But the borders are increasingly blurring between online and offline interactions. As privacy-rights advocates and educators maintain, every social interaction creates information, whether swiping a credit card, looking up directions, or searching a library catalogue. Every day, we generate countless data points and leak personal, identifiable information.

These data have immense value. While some argue that data can be used to advocate for increasing library budgets, others are quick to point out that they can also be used to track users, determine what information is readily accessible to those users, and undermine democracy. Scholars including Cathy O’Neil, Safiya Noble, and Ruha Benjamin have examined how reductive data analysis without nuance or context can reinforce systemic bias and oppression. While acknowledging that our digital information landscape enables library patrons to access more information than ever before, we should also be mindful of ramifications for our ethics and practices.

Research by librarian and legal scholar Sarah Lamdan on “data cartels” shows how library vendors are using patron data to break into the data-brokerage space. Giant vendors like ProQuest, Taylor and Francis, RELX (which owns Elsevier), and Thomson Reuters (which owns Reuters and Westlaw) are purchasing smaller ones and expanding their reach. News reports have revealed that LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters have been selling patron data either directly or through third-party contracts to policing agencies and governmental entities, including the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both vendors also sell investigative products directly to police departments.

While the Patriot Act required a warrant to subpoena or request patron data, such data are now readily shared by corporations without notifying libraries or allowing for any interventions. The issues involving vendors are becoming only more and more complicated as data brokerage makes more and more connections across once-distinct industries. For instance, Clarivate, a British-American data analytics company, recently acquired ProQuest for over $5 billion.

Patron data are not being used solely to improve products but also are themselves a product. Lamdan’s work underscores that vendors do not necessarily share libraries’ ethics of privacy, intellectual freedom, and equal access to information. Because companies view data as an asset, data collection and analytics are built into the software, vendors, and platforms we use every day.

Algorithmic systems play an equally critical role in the digital information pipeline and information access. Embedded in most search-and-discovery systems, algorithms determine how information is prioritized, discovered, and utilized, and they have a direct impact on the lived experiences of communities. Many algorithms are proprietary, and most companies are not eager to share this proprietary knowledge with scholars and the public. In recent years, some tech companies have even created their own independent research institutes while simultaneously limiting access to their knowledge base and data for external scholarly researchers. The field of critical data studies works to address this power imbalance.

Given the significant role that data and algorithms play in information access, we must incorporate critical data studies and algorithmic literacy into our formulation of critical information literacy. The social media timelines and newsfeeds of the reactionary parent groups challenging books are similarly shaped by algorithmic systems, especially what are known as preferential algorithmic systems. By using past search behavior and data profiles to recommend results, preferential algorithmic systems can reinforce their users’ existing biases and beliefs. Overall, this has the effect of amplifying parent groups and their manufactured crisis.

Constant surveillance is a hot commodity. According to Harvard Business School emerita professor Shoshana Zuboff, we are living in the “age of surveillance capitalism.” Surveillance allows data collection en masse, and the data have both economic and political power. Participating in this economic system of data collection, brokerage, and usage is not only antithetical to valuing privacy. It also means supporting the system that makes possible widespread attacks on intellectual freedom.

Information Weapons

Ubiquitous access to information goes hand in hand with information overload. To nefarious agents, this information glut represents a systemic weakness that is easily exploited through the spread of misinformation and disinformation. While misinformation describes any information that is inaccurate or misleading, disinformation refers to the deliberate spread of inaccurate or misleading information. Both play a pivotal role in online access to and public perceptions of information. Both have also been used to control perceptions of library workers and materials that address topics related to race, gender, and sexuality.

By leveraging algorithms and big data, disinformation campaigns have weaponized information and led to intense surveillance of educators and library workers. Reactionary media organizations encourage students to report on their teachers and librarians. Salacious social-media accounts harass professors, teachers, and library workers. The process of sharing private or personal information intended to cause harm is referred to as malinformation: examples include doxing, phishing, and revenge porn. Instead of spreading inaccurate information, it weaponizes private information, especially in targeted harassment campaigns. Malinformation can be gathered through online stalking; through direct-to-consumer data brokers; in some extreme cases, through targeted hacking attempts; and through Freedom of Information Act requests.

This latter technique illustrates a worrisome trend in which right-wing networks misuse and exploit tools originally meant to provide oversight of systems of power and to increase equitable access to information. Other examples include one campaign, wherein a conservative organization instructed its followers to check out LGBTQ+ books on display for Pride Month at local public libraries to keep patrons from accessing them. This “Hide the Pride Campaign” turned book displays, tools intended to promote information access, into censorship tools. Similarly, the common refrain “do your own research” distorts the actual research process into a propagandized method of finding agreeable resources instead of factual ones. Reinforced by algorithmic systems, online disinformation campaigns have culminated in real-world mass murders like those committed by Dylann Roof.

I have elsewhere argued that harassers aim to distract from systemic problems, particularly those related to social justice, and to undermine everyday library work. Harassment networks weaponize information into malinformation, targeting library work related to developing diverse collections, teaching patrons about the harms of misinformation, and supporting our communities. Powered equally by political and economic networks and by everyday surveillance and big data, harassment and disinformation campaigns aim to sow distrust of library workers and librarianship. As Tufekci observes, the “lack of broad agreement about who is an expert or what constitutes expertise, combined with the lack of usual indicators of expertise provided by gatekeeping institutions, makes it easier for those in power to induce political paralysis through confusion.”

While our digital landscape facilitates the spread of propaganda and harassment, the tactics used are not necessarily new. Many recent critical studies have documented the distortion of critical thinking by reactionary campaigns, most notably for the purposes of climate-change denial. Though traditionally associated with the power to create social change, critical thinking is now being exploited to prevent social change, as is also evident in reactionary attempts to decodify and recodify terms like critical race theory. How might we prevent critical information literacy from following a similar path? Collective action is crucial for connecting the skills of information literacy to a more holistic approach by examining not only the information found but also the process through which it is found, created, and disseminated.

Collective Action

While networked information has clearly led to ubiquitous information access, it has also enabled tech companies, social-media platforms, and public figures to gain political and economic power and to reinforce their social and political networks. Book bans, censorship challenges, harassment campaigns, and other related trends are routinely described as “attacks” on libraries that require an appropriate “defense.” However, we might think more progressively and proactively in terms of attempts to “control” information access and potential “resistance.”

College and university faculty members will be well aware that libraries are not the only institutions being targeted and that librarianship is interconnected with many other professions in the information and knowledge economies. By expanding our valuable work on information literacy into critical information literacy programs, we can help patrons not only distinguish credible sources from biased ones but also build critical thinking skills that will make it possible to evaluate policies, benchmarks, and other documents without falling prey to distortions of the actual research process.

To this end, we also need to update our policies related to intellectual freedom and privacy rights and hold ourselves accountable to them. The ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement contends that libraries should “trust [patrons] to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe.” However, the last amendment to this statement was in 2004, which predates our current information environment and the 2017 ALA resolutions related to accurate information access. If disinformation and malinformation jeopardize intellectual freedom, then we need to account for them in our policies.

Allowing vendors to collect data about library patrons not only sacrifices patron privacy rights but also helps data brokers continue to influence information access. Holding ourselves accountable should thus not be limited to issuing broad statements. Libraries have already started to reexamine their contracts, with some canceling ones with vendors that have sold patron data and others exploring smaller and less-established vendors. To help library workers audit potential vendors, individual library workers and groups like the Library Freedom Project, Library Futures, and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition have created vendor scorecards, rubrics, trainings, and other resources.

Ultimately, legislation and other future-oriented protections against data collection, disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation are needed. But this does not mean that we have no agency in the present. In his essay “Critical Media Studies 2.0: An Interactive Upgrade,” Mark Andrejevic argues that critical media studies today needs to update the catchphrase “Where there is power there is also resistance,” since “where there is resistance there are always new and realigned strategies for control.” Libraries and library workers need to take a similar critical approach to updating information literacy.

Critical information literacy expands on the framework of traditional information literacy and helps us understand the roles information and literacy play in our own practices and policies. By becoming aware of the interconnectedness of the different facets of our work and our professional connections to other institutions upholding academic freedom, we can better understand how information and power shape our practice of librarianship.

Information literacy and privacy rights are topics that should not only be taught to patrons but also discussed and practiced by library workers, and yet this is only the first step to engaging in critical information literacy praxis. To intervene meaningfully in complex feedback loops of control and resistance, we need to continue examining how our contemporary information environment affects intellectual freedom, privacy rights, and our critical practice as library workers. Critical information literacy is crucial for collective action.

Reanna Esmail is the lead librarian for instruction at Cornell University, where she oversees Olin Library’s information literacy program. Her research interests include critical pedagogy, algorithmic literacy, data brokerage, intellectual freedom, and the intersections between social justice and privacy.