Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines

Nicholas Joint (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 11 October 2011




Joint, N. (2011), "Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines", Library Review, Vol. 60 No. 9, pp. 832-833.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book will fascinate some and infuriate others. It attempts to apply “critical theory” to library and information science (LIS) – critical theory being described in the introduction as “the project of illuminating how ‘traditional’ theories of modern society […] start out from largely implicit yet highly problematic assumptions about the relationship between social science and society […]” (p. vii). Critical theory in this sense is distinguished by a broadly left‐wing political stance, high linguistic complexity, and dense theoretical argument, much of which is based on Marxist and post‐Marxist thinking and writing. And many everyday practitioners will probably find such an approach narrowly academic and largely incomprehensible. However, I will try and give a fair account of this offering, singling out its strengths and weaknesses, thus attempting to give the otherwise disinclined reader some plausible motivation for opening the book.

The notable strengths of this work are its great intellectual sophistication and genuine commitment to applying progressive social philosophies to LIS research and practice. Although it is a long work, its fairly brief chapters give a good potted account of some 26 critical theorists, for the most part with one dedicated chapter to each – though chapter 9 sprints through four psychoanalytical theorists in a single section. This means that the work is reasonably digestible, especially if approached in a piecemeal way.

The first chapter is entitled “The necessity for theoretically informed critique in library and information science (LIS)”, and for the average reader the success or failure of this chapter will determine whether they go on to read further. To be frank, once you have read this chapter, you will know what to expect from the rest of the work. The prime argument is that critical theory promotes “reading our own scholarship against the grain”, thus helping us “to examine the unexamined and question the unquestioned” (p. xi). Given the commitment of critical theory, in some way or other, to examining, questioning and overturning a static political and cultural order, it is not hard to see how its ideas can challenge the standard notions of LIS, which by and large rest on ideas of settled order.

Inevitably therefore, one expects to go on and read that “both Charles Cutter and Melville Dewey used military metaphors to describe how their systems of classification provide rational, efficient means of organizing information.” Unsurprisingly, this imposition of structure can be examined and questioned by the critical theorist, since the “organization of a mob into an army […] always causes violence by imposing a marginalizing and exclusionary order” (p. 84). So in some way, (the argument goes) the settled nature of LIS theory can be always be fruitfully challenged by an intellectual system which offers the energising benefit of oppositional currents and overwhelmingly progressive dynamics.

Unfortunately, given that there is at present only limited use of critical theory in the LIS literature it is hard to get any real sense of what a system of LIS that is pervasively informed by critical theory would actually look like. Many of the book's chapters consist of a broad, even masterly general exposition of a particular theorist's point of view, concluding with a slightly tacked on indication that there's something in all of this for librarianship, which will have to be the subject of some future development: for example, “Such a framework [psychoanalysis] allows for the excavation of information phenomena in terms that LIS broadly has yet to interrogate” (p. 115, my italics). So, there is often a feeling of “jam tomorrow” about a lot of this writing, though not always – the chapter on Freire, for example, where LIS principles are pervasively related to that particular school of critical theory, is a welcome exception to this.

However, progressive and liberal‐minded LIS practitioners who want immediately applicable strategies and ideas for real‐life practice will probably regard such high‐level theorizing with frustration. From their point of view, non‐theoretical, and even non‐political approaches are probably more attractive. After all, as one of the book's contributors half‐admits, the present political order is not that bad: “The cultures of Western capitalist democracies manifest a real commitment to human rights, and the nation‐states based on these cultures display pluralist polities that represent diverse political interests […] ” (p. 156). By extension, therefore, we can probably achieve significant social advances in our contemporary information society by means of a LIS practice based on established, straightforward principals – which is something most librarians felt without having to reading this work.

But, if an enthusiastic and extremely cerebral librarian reads this book and feels inspired to create a comprehensive system of LIS that is pervasively informed by critical theory, then they have an extremely well‐produced starting point for such an endeavour in this text from Leckie, Given and Buschman. It will be interesting to see if this is in some way an outcome of this publication, and if so, we will owe a debt of gratitude to the editors. As it stands, this book is a remarkable intellectual achievement which does much to promote one of its objectives, which is to improve the standing of LIS research within the academic sphere: “Sophisticated use of critical theory makes our scholarship and practice more relevant to a larger academic society and wards off the danger of LIS isolationism” (p. xi). This is an aim which most librarians will readily endorse.

Related articles