• Information Literacy Teaching in BC Academic Libraries: Research into Critical Approaches to Library Practices / L’enseignement des compétences informationnelles dans les bibliothèques universitaires de la Colombie-Britannique : une recherche sur les approches critiques des pratiques dans les bibliothèques

This article reports on research into librarians’ critical information literacy (CIL) awareness and teaching practices in BC higher education. The research conducted through online surveys and in-person interviews explores the perceived gap in librarians’ knowledge of critical theories that underpin their information literacy practices—that is, the value of learning about and applying theories and measuring the success of information literacy teaching. This research builds on the scholarship of information literacy teaching practices in other Canadian jurisdictions and addresses a gap in the research and scholarship related to CIL pedagogy in Canadian higher education.


Cet article rend compte de la recherche sur la sensibilisation des bibliothé-caires aux compétences informationnelles critiques (CIC) et aux pratiques en seignantes dans l’enseignement supérieur en Colombie-Britannique. La recherche, menée au moyen d’un sondage en ligne et d’entrevues en personne, explore l’écart perçu dans les connaissances des bibliothécaires sur les théories critiques qui soustendent leurs pratiques de maîtrise informationnelle, la valeur qu’il y a à apprendre et à appliquer les théories et à mesurer le succès de l’enseignement de la compétence informationnelle. Cette recherche s’appuie sur les connaissances accumulées dans les pratiques d’enseignement de la maîtrise informationnelle dans d’autres domaines de compétence canadiens et comble une lacune dans la recherche et l’érudition liées à la pédagogie des CIC dans l’enseignement supérieur canadien.


critical information literacy, information literacy teaching, library pedagogy


Compétence informationnelle critique, enseignement de la compétence informationnelle, pédagogie de la bibliothèque

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Introduction and overview of the research

This research was conducted to investigate librarian practices and theoretical understandings for the application of critical information literacy (CIL) in higher education in British Columbia, Canada. There is a need for greater knowledge in this area as there is little scholarship on the teaching of information literacy within the BC context as well as a gap in the understanding of librarians’ knowledge and application of CIL concepts and practices in Canadian higher education. Library pedagogy and information literacy teaching are areas of development and tension amongst higher education librarians in British Columia and beyond. These tensions stem from challenges to the traditional perspective of librarianship as a “helping” profession that focuses on addressing the developmental needs of students with regard to information access and retrieval and is often realized through tool-based training or library orientations. A developing argument within the literature and the profession promotes the position that higher education librarianship should incorporate more theoretical underpinnings in the work of librarians and explicitly incorporate developments in pedagogy and critical approaches to all aspects of librarianship (Accardi, Drabinski, and Kumbier 2010; Downey 2016; McNichol 2016).

The lack of consistency of librarian professional roles within higher education, in Canada and elsewhere in the world, continues to drive the conversations regarding what is the responsibility of librarians vis-à-vis teaching faculty and how librarians can develop their information literacy practices in alignment with pedagogical developments in higher education.

CIL defined

Information literacy teaching developed as a response to the explosion in digital publishing and the rise of technological tools that forced a mediated approach to information access and retrieval (Eisenberg, Lowe, and Spitzer 2004; Whitworth 2009, 2014; Pinto, Cordón, and Diaz 2010; Leaning 2017). The recognition of barriers to accessing and utilizing digital information for citizens across the world—the digital divide—led to the development of information literacy policy statements by a governmental and non-governmental bodies globally (IFLA and UNESCO 2005). Reducing the digital divide was one aspect of this movement. The second focus involved addressing the conceptual barriers to access, including the processes involved in identifying an information need, accessing the required information, and being able to use the retrieved information.

CIL seeks to transform information literacy beyond these initial definitions, moving it away from a skills-based, instrumental teaching approach to one that encourages students to develop their own critical responses to information. CIL approaches draw on theories underpinning critical pedagogy and critical literacy. It is informed and shaped by the recognition of power structures inherent in pedagogy and information creation and dissemination and posits that information is socially constructed (Graves, McGowen, and Sweet 2010; Elmborg 2016). The development of CIL was predicated on the formal recognition that library practices are not neutral within culture and society and that librarianship [End Page 49] has a fundamental responsibility to address social justice issues (Accardi, Drabinski, and Kumbier 2010; Downey 2016; Gregory and Higgins 2017).

Developments in social justice awareness within society at large have had a direct impact on the development of critical pedagogy and critical literacy concepts and practices. These, in turn, have led to the development of the concept of critical librarianship (Bales 2017). Paulo Freire (2000) is credited with raising awareness of the teacher’s responsibility towards enabling students to form critical reflections on their learning and their ability to contribute their voices to effect a transformation in society (Darder, Torres, and Baltodano 2017). The literature on critical pedagogy and critical literacy, from such scholars as Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Ivan Illich, and Peter McLaren, was fundamental to the development of the critical conversations within librarianship (Sinkinson and Lingold 2010; Bales 2017). From these early influences, librarians began to develop an understanding of the potential for critical librarianship, from which a new form of information literacy—critical information literacy—began to be considered (Luke and Kapitzke 1999; Swanson 2004; Elmborg 2006). The development of the Association of College and Research Libraries’s (ACRL) (2015) Framework for Information Literacy (Framework), while not explicitly an information literacy model to support CIL, nonetheless has been influential in engaging librarians in discussions on teaching and learning theories related to information literacy (Bauder and Rod 2016; Jackman and Weiner 2017).

Current debates in the library literature involve discussions of the existence of a “critical” information literacy, its definition, and its purposes (Downey 2016). Much of the literature is concerned with how to apply CIL and, at the same time, addressing the implications of adhering to expectations of account-ability within neo-liberal institutions (Gregory and Higgins 2013; Downey 2016). Debates in online communities and in the literature regarding the replacement of the ACRL’s standards with the ACRL’s (2015) Framework have also been extensive, including the role of the ACRL’s Framework in advancing the development of new theories in information literacy practices (Bauder and Rod 2016; Jackman and Weiner 2017).

Literature on Canadian higher education teaching practices

Although there is a rich history of librarianship within Canada, and strong support for libraries in most higher education institutions in British Columbia, there is a limited amount of research into information literacy practices within Canada (Bradley 2013; Julien, Tan, and Merillat 2013; Badke 2017; Polkinghorne and Julien 2018). This is due to a combination of reasons, including the nature of higher education accreditation and the lack of a national academic library association. Some notable research into information literacy teaching within Canada, however, has been conducted recently. The exploration of information literacy teaching in Canada, which is of particular relevance to this research, involves a series of studies of information literacy teaching in Canadian universities and college libraries (Julien and Leckie 1997; Julien 2000, 2005; Julien, Tan, and Merillat 2013; Polkinghorne and Julien 2018).With the most [End Page 50] recent (fifth) version of the research published in 2018 (Polkinghorne and Julien 2018), these studies provide an overview of information literacy teaching devel opments in Canadian higher education over a 20-year period.

The studies by Julien and Leckie (1997) and by Julien (2000, 514) reveal that librarians ranked the importance of their teaching outcomes identically over the two studies, demonstrating that “teaching clients to find information in various sources continues to be the primary objective of instruction in Canadian academic libraries.” Little reference to the critical application of information literacy, other than teaching to critically evaluate sources, was noted. The follow-up longitudinal study by Julien, Tan, and Merillat (2013) provided comparison with the earlier studies and identified a departure from teaching physical resources and a move towards digital resources as well as the influence of technology on teaching practices. One notable result was the increase in librarians’ identification of taking more critical approaches to their teaching practices, such as through teaching students how to critically evaluate information, even though there is little reference to CIL practices as a conceptual approach to information literacy teaching.

The fifth and most recent longitudinal survey of Canadian information literacy teaching asked librarians to identify the roles responsible for teaching, the types of learners, how they assess learning, and teaching objectives (Polkinghorne and Julien 2018). Of particular note were the responses to the impact of information literacy models on teaching, specifically the ACRL’s (2015) Frame work, which identified that 32 per cent of respondents recognized a significant impact to their teaching, while 66 per cent perceived little or no impact. As in previous studies, challenges to information literacy teaching were identified, including the disconnect between librarians’ information literacy objectives and their preferred teaching objectives (Polkinghorne and Julien 2018).

In an earlier qualitative study, Julien and Pecoskie (2009) conducted semi-structured interviews with 56 librarians and library workers across Canadian academic and public libraries regarding their perception of themselves as teachers. Using a grounded theory approach, the authors identified themes related to the experience of library workers, with a significant identification of success as “faculty negotiation and relations, rather than in terms of students’ learning” (151). Several themes resonated with the findings in this study; the themes of “gift giving” (151), “defence behavior” (151), and “experiences of disrespect” regarding interactions with faculty (152) are comparable to the findings in my research.

Focused research on practices within institutions in several Canadian jurisdictions have also been published. Research areas included the perception of the teaching faculty in librarians’ information literacy teaching at York University in Ontario (Bury 2011); the success of specific collaborative teaching programs at Ryerson University in Ontario (Reed, Kinder, and Farnum 2007); and credit-bearing information literacy courses at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus (Goebel, Neff, and Mandeville 2007). Other scholarship in Canadian information literacy teaching looked at specific forms of information literacy teaching, such as the teaching partnerships between the discipline faculty and [End Page 51] librarians at the University of Manitoba (Ducas and Michaud-Oystryk 2003); the University of Manitoba’s library case study related to improving information literacy teaching by embedding librarians within a textiles program (Dakshinamurti and Braaksma 2005); and Canadian library involvement with first-year experience activities through a literature review of “library instructional services to first year students,” which outlined the differences between Canadian and US higher education teaching experiences (Trescases 2008, 308).

More comparable to my research, a study was conducted of information literacy teaching across institutions in the Atlantic provinces (Cull 2005). In this research, Cull conducted interviews with a representative sample of teaching librarians at six higher education institutions in the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. From a total population of 31 teaching librarians at these institutions, 18 librarians participated in in-person interviews. The results of the research, while not generalizable, did provide a snapshot of the experiences and challenges of teaching in university settings in the Canadian Atlan tic provinces early in this century. Of particular interest was the self-perception of the librarians as teachers both in the classroom and in individual research support roles.

A recent literature review by Dunn and Xie (2017) examined peer-reviewed articles on the teaching of information literacy within science programs in Canadian higher education. The themes identified in their review provide important validation of themes that have arisen in the literature of information literacy teaching across jurisdictions, indicating that the teaching experiences in any institution or province are not unique when compared across many institutions. Significant themes from their review included collaborations; the use of information literacy models and guidelines; curriculum development; teaching practices; and assessment.

A gap in the published research has been identified in the British Columbia’s higher education context in relation to the scholarship of “critical” information literacy teaching. This current research responds to the call to action that Cull (2005), Dunn and Xie (2017), and others have made to address this perceived gap in understanding information literacy teaching in different jurisdictions in Canada. The findings and implications for practice that this article presents constitute a significant contribution to this much-needed knowledge related to Canadian higher education librarianship.


A mixed methods approach was used for this research—specifically, an explanatory design approach—to answer the overarching research question: how are librarians in BC higher education applying CIL in their practice (Creswell and Plano Clark 2007)? There were three phases to the research employing three methods of data gathering: (1) documentary content analysis of documentation related to information literacy teaching and the critical aspects of the ACRL’s (2015) Framework; (2) web-based survey questionnaires, distributed through the BOS online survey tool through Jisc, a not-for-profit digital information [End Page 52] company in the United Kingdom, to a purposive sample of higher education teaching librarians representing information literacy teaching at each of the 25 public institutions in the province (with the intention of receiving 25 responses); and (3) semi-structured interviews with a self-selected sample of 13 public higher education librarians from the population of survey respondents. The research received approval as minimal risk research through the University of Edinburgh’s Research Ethics Board.

This methodological approach allowed me to identify themes that arose during each phase and which ultimately contributed to the development of the inter view questions. The multi-stage approach of the documentary analysis, followed by the survey, revealed data related to both high-level and specific perspectives on information literacy teaching as well as demographic information that allowed for comparison about the type of institution, the location, and individual librarian’s tenure and expertise. The in-depth exploration and contextual clarification of the interview data allowed me to confirm and validate the data from one set with the other. The quantitative and qualitative data were analyzed through the NVIVO system, allowing for the identification of themes across the research phases.

Table 1. Participating institutions
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Table 1.

Participating institutions

Demographic information

Overall, 24 librarians responded to the survey, representing 22 of British Columbia’s 25 public academic libraries, equating to the participation of 88 per cent of the public higher education institutions in the province. Of the survey respondents, 13 librarians agreed to participate in follow-up interviews. Table 1 describes the types of libraries that participated in the research, through the survey and interview processes. Out of a total of 24 public institution respondents, [End Page 53] all of the institution types were represented, with over-representation in the category of research universities (seven from five institutions) and a slight underrepresentation in all of the other categories.

Since the research was intended to elicit information from the librarians who were responsible for library pedagogy at their site, each participant’s professional responsibility regarding teaching practices at their institution was important to identify. Sixteen of the 24 respondents (66.7 per cent) indicated that they were solely responsible for their library’s pedagogical practices, while three (12.5 per cent) were not. For the five remaining survey participants (20.8 per cent), the responses provided further details or reflected particular approaches to teaching responsibilities, based on the mandate or structure of their libraries. While roles differed slightly between institutions, the librarians who participated, with only one exception, were able to speak on behalf of their institution regarding information literacy teaching practices and as librarians who actively teach information literacy.

The overall responses indicated that 21 of the survey respondents (87.5 per cent) were confidently able to describe and discuss the teaching principles and practices at their library, either as the single lead or in a shared leadership role. Interviews were conducted with 10 women and three men, who had an average of 12.5 years of experience as academic librarians and work experience that ranged from one year to 32 years. Minimal personal information was collected, and, to preserve anonymity, pseudonyms have been used when reporting participant statements.

Key findings

What is revealed in these findings is that librarians in British Columbia are aware of CIL and strive to incorporate criticality, to some degree, in their practices. While the literature discusses many aspects of CIL, a specific social justice focus in this environment was that of raising awareness of the concepts of the authority and power related to information as means to decolonize the library. At the same time, some resistance to applying a critical lens also surfaced. The findings from the first phase of the research—documentary content analysis of policies influencing information literacy teaching—revealed that there were no information literacy policies publicly available through institutional websites and no such policies that were able to be shared by librarians in this study. The second aspect of this phase—the critical aspects of the ACRL’s (2015) Framework—while interesting, is not the focus of this article. The following section reports on the results of the survey and the follow-up interviews.

CIL awareness

As noted earlier, there is limited research on librarians’ understanding of the concept of CIL; however, a recent survey on librarians’ familiarity with critical theory determined that “roughly two-thirds of the respondents reported that they had some understanding of a critical theory” (Schroeder and Hollister 2014, 99). In comparison, while the majority of participants in this study expressed an awareness of CIL, both as a concept and in its potential to impact [End Page 54] information literacy teaching, participants were not able to articulate clearly its practical application. While survey respondents demonstrated an awareness of CIL, 58 per cent (n = 14) agreed or strongly agreed that they understood the concept, while 25 per cent (n = 6) felt that they did not understand the concept. A large percentage of respondents had been exposed to the concept, but, at the same time, 87.5 per cent (n = 21) felt the need to better understand CIL.

With respect to the survey question asking librarians which aspects of CIL did they need to understand better, the majority (13 of 17 who responded to the question) stated that they needed to learn how to apply CIL in practice. The application of CIL included its potential to impact their teaching and reference practices, and some of the responses included: “applying it in a meaningful way”; “we could be more intentional and consistent about our application of CIL theory”; and “apply it effectively.”

In many cases, and as the survey comments below demonstrate, librarians in the study used language that indicated a level of hesitancy in confirming their application of a “critical” information literacy in their practices: “I think we do something like CIL, although we don’t call it that, but getting students to critique information and understand that there is more than one opinion/side/story/narrative, that there is more than one lens to be put on a topic” (survey respondent, research university). While not all survey respondents were comfortable identifying a definition for CIL, all of the librarians, when the concept of CIL was further probed with them in the interview, were able to provide a definition for CIL. These definitions ranged from a simple focus on critical thinking concepts to broader social justice terminology. One interview participant with 32 years of experience in academic libraries defined CIL as a focus on critical evaluation of information: “Being able to locate those . . . information pieces that . . . you need, then to be able to take those pieces and pull them all together . . . demand some critical thinking or some . . . evaluative thinking” (Talya). Another partici pant at the beginning of her career expressed CIL as a form of questioning: “I think to me critical information literacy is . . . all about skepticism . . . and . . . to question, not only the information that you find but to question the structures that created that information in the first place” (Hailey). This latter definition seems to reference the social justice aspects of CIL, which have been more explicitly addressed in the information literacy literature of recent years. Language related to critiquing information for bias appeared within both the survey and inter view responses in this study.

CIL defined in the literature

While librarians were able to describe aspects of CIL and demonstrate an under-standing of applying criticality in their information literacy practice, few were able to explicitly define the multiple aspects of CIL as identified in the literature. The descriptions provided by the participant librarians, however, do reflect what Downey (2016) and Accardi, Drabinski, and Kumbier (2010) have described as the initiation of a CIL approach. This approach is the application of theory and practice that “promotes a critical engagement with information sources, considers [End Page 55] students collaborators in knowledge production practices . . . recognizes the affective dimensions of research, and (in some cases) has liberatory aims” (xiii).

Recently, CIL has been described as “an approach to education in library settings that strives to recognize education’s potential for social change and empower learners to identify and act upon oppressive power structures” (Tewell 2018, 11). Comparing BC librarians’ definitions with those published in the literature, participants were able to specifically identify the critical reflective practices of assessing information and its sources, as they sought to define CIL in their own terms. However, there were few references to the potential for CIL to address inherent power imbalances with information literacy teaching practices. The participants’ focus on critiquing information for bias, however, is directly linked to the language used by CIL scholars, such as Downey (2016, 18), who describe how CIL “urge[s] students to approach all information, regardless of the type or source, with a critical eye and to be reflective of their role as information consumers and producers.”

CIL in practice

CIL, as defined by the research participants, included supporting students to be more effective researchers and scholars. In many cases, librarians used language that indicated a level of hesitancy in confirming their application of a “critical” information literacy in their practices. Other participants were able to reference the discussions that are taking place in the literature regarding librarians undertaking to critically evaluate their own practices. In particular, one librarian identified the #critlib Twitter discussion that offers a forum for librarians to discuss critical practices in librarianship. Another participant reported that the political and hegemonic critiques of library practices that are taking place in library discussion forums have impacted his teaching practices: “I’ve been thinking about . . . my #critlib colleagues who talk about everything from LBGTQ identity to . . . questioning neoliberalism in the academic institution.. . . [T]hat’s another form of this . . . critical information literacy world” (Simon). For other librarians, however, these types of discussions have had limited impact on their information literacy teaching development or at least were not reported to have been an influence.

Beyond the self-identified hesitancy to call themselves experts in applying CIL, librarians were able to describe the application of CIL in their teaching. For example, participants described how they focused on different aspects of information evaluation, on the information creation process, or on encouraging a critical approach to understanding information sources and their associated biases. From a decolonization perspective, one librarian provided an example of applying a critical approach to information literacy teaching: “I’ll use residential schools as my example, making sure they’re looking at bias, making sure they’re looking at . . . geography . . . making sure they’re treating a subject in a respectful manner, and that the resources they’re choosing are also showing those same levels of respect” (Deanna). Others addressed concepts of feminist pedagogy and offered examples related to the concept of authority, linking their information literacy teaching to a CIL response to power and authority. What has been revealed is [End Page 56] that a significant sample of librarians in British Columbia’s higher education are integrating (or aspiring to integrate) aspects of critical pedagogy and critical perspectives into their library practices, regardless of how they define it.

What is also notable is that, beyond the contrast between understanding and applying CIL by participants, reservations in taking a CIL approach are surfacing: “I think that’s very . . . high level. I would not expect one of my first-year students to be able to ask all of those questions, but to me that’s what critical information . . . literacy . . . is. It’s being sceptical of everything and asking questions about everything” (Hailey). In other responses, librarians felt that CIL is a concept that does not have practical application in their teaching or academic environment: “I think of it as more of an aspirational thing than a practical one . . . in my environment” (Nicola). This sentiment is significant in the barrier to information literacy teaching that is revealed in some higher education contexts, specifically with vocational programs, science programs, and programs for first-year students.

And, finally, a minority of respondents indicated a disconnect between the concept of information literacy and a “critical” information literacy: “The term doesn’t meaningfully speak to my theoretical and practical experience with the concept of IL [information literacy]” (survey participant). What those experiences may have been were not described; however, this sentiment is consistent with the literature, which describes librarianship as a profession that needs to reflect more critically upon its practices (Ryan and Sloniowski 2013; Downey 2016; Gregory and Higgins 2017). Librarians’ perceptions about their inability to take more critical approaches to teaching information literacy—due to students’ ages or the nature of their educational programs—directly contradict the current library discourse that expresses significant urgency with which libraries should address their information literacy practices. This is particularly influenced by the “fake news” phenomenon and, with it, the perceived need to develop more critical approaches to teaching information literacy, regardless of context. It is interesting to note, however, that it was a small minority of the librarians within this research study who expressed a lack of engagement with some form of CIL. Overall, librarians reported an awareness of the term “critical information literacy” and, in many cases, provided information about attempts they have made to apply CIL in practice.

Indigenization: decolonizing the library

Application of CIL, beyond information literacy teaching, was also revealed in librarians’ reflections on their need to take a more critical approach to library practices. While examples such as feminist and queer pedagogy were described, what emerged most frequently was reference to indigenization practices. Just as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (2015) calls to action asks Canadians to change their behaviour and take action to respond to injustices, the implications of taking a critical approach to information literacy teaching and other practices require a change in understanding and behaviour (Elmborg 2006; Jacobs 2008; Downey 2016). In this vein, some librarians felt [End Page 57] that critiquing library practices, such as through the work of indigenizing their academic environment, had already transformed their practices: “We’re really focussed on decolonizing the institution. Our Dean talks a lot about that and it’s really in conversation in the institution . . . so kind of bringing a de-colonia l. . . lens to library instruction” (Deanna). Others had yet to implement changes but were anticipating how these critical perspectives would encourage change in their library practices: “I think the indigenization would help us in general to bring that critical focus to everything” (Martin).

This research identified that librarians’ perception of taking a critical approach to library practices is a natural progression in higher education. It is also clear in these findings that there was significant energy related to identifying ways to improve library practices by applying a social justice lens. What is particularly interesting to note in the results of this study is that, while librarians made some reference to applying a critical lens to their pedagogy, it was the specific sensitivity to Indigenization, that emerged as the most prevalent focus of the librarians’ critical reflections.

Collaboration and cooperation with teaching faculty

One of the most prominent themes that emerged from the survey and interviews concerned the relationship between the librarians and the teaching faculty. In general, relationships, both with library peers and the teaching faculty, were identified as the most important factors in librarians’ perception of “success” in their information literacy pedagogy. This is consistent with the literature that has demonstrated that librarians who have close relationships with the faculty are better able to engage in information literacy teaching practices in an effective manner (Drewes and Hoffman 2010; Dunn and Xie 2017; Hooper and Scharf 2017).

In all but two of the survey responses (22 of 24), librarians reported that the faculty were generally supportive of information literacy teaching. Librarians at the research universities reported most strongly the level of faculty support for incorporating information literacy teaching into their courses. What was revealed in the interviews, however, was that librarians from smaller institutions felt they had an advantage of being able to develop closer relationships with their discipline’s faculty than did the larger institution librarians. When compared to the overall survey results, however, there is little evidence that institution size, type, or geographic situation generates an advantage in creating effective relationships with the teaching faculty. Regardless of whether librarians at smaller or larger institutions were able to develop the most supportive relationships, what is most clearly defined by the findings is the necessity for strong relationships between librarians and teaching faculty. These relationships have an impact not only on the ability of librarians to participate in teaching information literacy across disciplines but also on their ability to assess and understand the success of their information literacy teaching.

While most librarians responded that they felt that the faculty was generally supportive, participants also reported that faculty relationships ranged from a [End Page 58] lack of interest in collaborating to fully engaged peer partnerships that resulted in shared curriculum development and teaching. Some participants referred to their ability to work with the faculty on incorporating information literacy teaching into their curriculum or course outcomes. Such collaborative practices included the ability to participate in developing and assessing information literacy modules within courses: “I can say that we create the materials and we teach those components of it . . . so we create them, we teach them, we grade them . . . and then they are a component of the grade” (Deanna). They also involved participating in the development of assignments related to library research.

Librarians identified these high levels of collaboration and cooperation between the faculty and librarians, including embedded teaching opportunities, as the ideal situation. Participants frequently described success in information literacy teaching that hinged on the engagement of the teaching faculty and the librarian’s participation in the development of the assignment associated with the class: “So, the best case scenario: I’m on the syllabus, the class is booked ahead of time, the faculty member is super involved, it’s related to a real assignment” (Nicola). Embedded teaching, however, occurred only within small numbers of courses and programs. These identified challenges to incorporating new teaching approaches are consistent with the themes that have arisen from studies in other Canadian jurisdictions (Ducas and Michaud-Oystryk 2003; Julien and Pecoskie 2009; Dunn and Xie 2017).

Time and resistance: barriers to applying new theoretical approaches

Beyond the ability to engage in scholarship or professional development related to new pedagogical theories, almost three-quarters of the librarians in the survey (n = 17) reported encountering barriers to applying new theoretical approaches. A number of consistent responses related to these barriers were gathered, including a majority that identified a lack of time or capacity (65 per cent of those who responded [n = 11]), while, notably, more than half of librarians responded that resistance from the teaching faculty was a critical barrier to librarians’ ability to implement new theoretical approaches. It is also interesting to note that a full quarter of librarians (n = 6) also pointed to librarian resistance or a lack of interest by their librarian colleagues as other barriers.

While there were a number of references to successful partnerships with the teaching faculty, few librarians described being fully engaged with the faculty at the curriculum development level. More frequently, they reported frustrations with the limited benefit of tool-based (versus critical) information literacy teaching, much of which stems from the discipline faculty’s expectation of what is librarian work and the limited time allotted to information literacy teaching. As reported by the participants, misunderstandings about the role of librarians in higher education teaching leads to conflicted expectations and negatively impacts librarians’ expectations and aspirations regarding their contribution to higher education teaching.

A number of examples regarding librarians’ inability to teach information literacy in a more meaningful way also emphasized a fundamental lack of access [End Page 59] to the students within their courses. Even though the discipline faculty may attempt to include an information literacy module within their course, the limited time allocated to information literacy teaching was identified by librarians as the most significant barrier to applying more CIL teaching approaches. Further to the barrier of a lack of time, the teaching faculty’s lack of under standing of the nature of information literacy teaching and library pedagogy was raised as another significant barrier. The lack of faculty understanding of library pedagogy was prevalent amongst responses, and these findings are consistent with the longitudinal studies of Julien and Leckie (1997), Julien (2000), and Julien, Tan, and Merillat (2013). As noted above, sometimes the minimal time provided for information literacy teaching within their curricu lum was perceived by librarians as a lack of understanding about library pedagogy. On other occasions, as noted below, some of the librarians’ experiences involved the need for student instruction on the “mechanics of research” rather than the deeper aspects of information literacy: “When 70 per cent of your instruction efforts are targeted at first year students who are not familiar with the library, the structure of libraries, the research process . . . you spend a lot of time of talking about the mechanics of research, over and over and over. It doesn’t leave a lot of energy or time to really focus on . . . some of the higher order thinking skills” (Monica). While librarians understood the need to reach students at appropriate times within their courses, the challenge of access and the ability to address more than the tools or mechanics of research was a consistent theme.

Resistance to change

Beyond the commonly identified barriers of time, another barrier to new theoretical approaches identified was the organizational culture’s resistance to change. Ten of the survey respondents identified the challenge of bringing about change in their institutions as a barrier. This theme, revealed through the questionnaire responses, included the impact of the organization’s culture on the potential to change and evolve (“innovators here are suspect”) or simply the challenge of trying to implement change within the context of teaching within another discipline’s classes: “Mainly convincing faculty to let me try something new.” Other barriers identified included a lack of interest by the librarians themselves (n = 4) and poor training or lack of training in, or understanding of, pedagogy (n = 2), as noted earlier in this article.

What has been revealed in this research, which supports findings from other studies (Bury 2011; Julien, Tan, and Merillat 2013), is that barriers to incorporating new theoretical approaches are often institutional rather than internal to the library. The interviews brought to the surface experiences related to barriers, such as the teaching faculty being unsupportive or disengaged from librarian pedagogical developments. Librarians felt discouraged by a lack of understanding about information literacy teaching and their library pedagogy within their own institutions: “There needs to be awareness at the institutional level . . . among senior educators, the senior leadership or senior education team, about what [are] the [End Page 60] changes in information literacy” (Talya); “There’s often a failure of imagination. And again, I’m peripheral to these facultieslives, and I know that, but it’s my job to sell them on the idea that they need me, and I can do that effectively if they have an open mind and see that need ” (Nicola). The specific experience of a lack of imagination suggests that the reason for librarians’ limited engagement in new theoretical approaches is a response to the historic barriers to introducing changes to their practices.

Some librarians identified examples of their ability to engage with theory related to CIL, threshold concepts, and other learning theories. In particular, the respondents explained how their interactions with the teaching faculty improved after they had engaged with the theories highlighted within the ACRL’s (2015) Framework. Using the Framework was reported to offer one means of gaining the interest of the teaching faculty, particularly with the theory of threshold concepts.

Identifying gaps and measuring success

Improving information literacy teaching

In response to the survey question: ‘how would you like to improve library teaching?’ a relationship between improving teaching and engaging with library pedagogy or teaching and learning theories was not identified. Only five survey respondents identified these as ways to improve their library teaching. Other responses related to improving practices included: “use a more critical framework”; “more focus on higher level concepts rather than the mechanics of research”; “more integrated approach through curriculum mapping to our program and courses”; and “move towards a more embedded model at an institutional level.” A general sentiment of making information literacy teaching more relevant to the curriculum was expressed: “I would like all of our teaching to be tied to a current need as op posed to a generic introduction to library resources. Scaffolding of information literacy concepts throughout studentscareers through more frequent, shorter, applied interactions (survey respondent). This idea that information literacy should be tied to the point of need within a student’s academic career shows how librarians are acutely aware of the implicit barriers to information literacy that arise when information literacy teaching is constrained to preliminary conversations about library resources and search tools. This idea is also consistent with the research into information literacy teaching elsewhere in Canada (Julien, Tan, and Meril lat 2013; Polkinghorne and Julien 2018).

Evaluation and measures of success

With respect to information literacy teaching evaluation, the data revealed a wide array of these types of measures across the participant institutions. Through the questionnaire, impacts to the success of information literacy teaching were identified primarily as resting with the teaching faculty either by not understanding what library information literacy teaching involves (or should involve) or not supporting librarians to achieve their teaching objectives (n = 14). Survey respondents noted their concerns such as “faculty who want a library session without being open [End Page 61] to collaborate”; “faculty who are absent, disengaged or dismissive”; or “unrealistic expectations re library instruction.” These comments connect to the consistent theme of relationship building between librarians and teaching faculty in this and other studies (Julien, Tan, and Merillat 2013; Polkinghorne and Julien 2018). Relationships and collaboration with faculty were further emphasized by respondents as the means by which library teaching can be made more effective.

From the survey responses, participants’ perceptions of the greatest success between librarians and teaching faculty involved collaboration and communication (n = 20)—“strong one-on-one librarian-faculty relationships that embed information literacy deeply into curriculum” and “rapport, mutual respect for information literacy principles, embedded opportunities in LMS”—were examples of both in-person and online collaboration opportunities. Furthermore, the importance of the relationship was specifically linked to collaboration for the purpose of improving the nature and impact of the information literacy session within the context of the specific course.


This research offers key insights into librarians’ perspectives on their information literacy teaching practices. First, CIL was considered to be more aspirational than practical in many contexts. While the participants of this research described critical reflections on their practices, many librarians expressed a sense that CIL would not work in their educational environment. The potential to apply CIL to support decolonizing and indigenizing the library are potential areas that are being explored and could provide examples across the sector of how to apply CIL in higher education.

Second, in this research, there were limited references to the application of social justice to information literacy teaching—decolonization or Indigenization being the significant exception. There were some references to the application of social justice approaches applying feminist or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer perspectives, but, notably, these examples were few. While some librarians did explore concepts of critical approaches generally, most of the consideration specifically dealt with classroom teaching. These results, in turn, highlight an opportunity for academic libraries to take leadership within their institutions through CIL practices, in the interest of decolonizing and addressing social justice issues across institutions.

Finally, information literacy teaching is at a critical junction today, influenced by evolving higher education curricula with a focus on specific learning outcomes; the incorporation of new technology and social media into higher education teaching; and the publication of the ACRL’s (2015) Framework for Information Literacy, amongst other factors. Changes both within institutions and across higher education sectors have created an environment in which the discourse of librarianship is heavily influenced by developments in pedagogy, learning theories, and how librarians can more fully advance the concepts of library pedagogy and practices. In Canada, while there are many librarians engaged in information literacy teaching and scholarship, there has been a [End Page 62] relatively small set of publications related to information literacy teaching beyond individual institutions and even less related to CIL. Further exploration of information literacy teaching practices in Canada, and the development of new approaches, frameworks, and theories that support the higher education librarians to develop more critical practices, would be beneficial.

Deborah Schachter
Capilano University


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