2019 Research Agenda Conversations

This year the ACRL Instruction Section Research & Scholarship Committee invited contributors to the edited volume, Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science to engage in a panel discussion.

Photo of Shaundra Walker  Shaundra Walker serves as Interim Library Director at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. She earned a Doctor Philosophy degree in Educational Leadership from Mercer University and also holds a Master of Science in Library and Information Studies from Clark Atlanta University, and a Bachelor of Arts in history from Spelman College. Her research interests include the recruitment and retention of librarians of color, organizational development within Minority Serving Institution (MSI) libraries, and critical information literacy. Shaundra is an active member of the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

Her publications related to this topic include “A Revisionist History of Andrew Carnegie’s Library Grants to Black Colleges” in Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science, edited by Gina Schlesselman-Tarango and “Critical Race Theory and the Recruitment, Retention and Promotion of Librarians of Color: A Counter Story” in Where Are All the Librarians of Color: The Experiences of People of Color in Academia, edited by Rebecca Haskins and Miguel Juarez. Currently, she is conducting research that explores collection development work within libraries at historically Black colleges and universities as counter narrative exercises.

Photo of Ian BeilinIan Beilin is Humanities Research Services Librarian at Columbia University. He received his PhD in history from Columbia University, his MSIS from The University at Albany (SUNY), and his BA from the University of Michigan. Ian serves on the editorial board of the open access, open peer-reviewed journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Ian’s scholarship includes articles and chapters on critical information literacy, critical librarianship, and the history of academic librarianship, including “The Academic Research Library’s White Past and Present,” in Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science, edited by Gina Schlesselman-Tarango. Together with Kate Adler and Eamon Tewell, he edited Reference Librarianship and Justice: History, Practice, & Praxis (Library Juice Press, 2018).

Photo of Rafia MirzaRafia Mirza is Humanities Research Librarian at Southern Methodist University. She did graduate coursework in American studies at the University of Minnesota and received her MSI from the University of Michigan. She has publications on digital humanities, project management and popular culture. Her recent publications include: “Who Killed the World? White Masculinity and the Technocratic Library of the Future” in Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science (co-written with Maura Seale and edited by Gina Schlesselman-Tarango) and “They Think All of This Is New: Leveraging Librarians’ Project Management Skills for the Digital Humanities.” in College & Undergraduate Libraries (co-written with Brett D Currier and  Jeff Downing) as well as a Memorandum of Understanding Workbook for collaborative projects (co-written with Brett D Currier and Peace Ossom Williamson).

What can the library and information science researchers and/or information literacy instructors gain from exploring theories and methods from outside traditional library science?

Rafia Mirza – I don’t think there is a single discipline that does not benefit from being self-reflexive in considering the ways in which that discipline’s practices have been shaped by cultural and historical context. Methods of analysis like critical race theory allow us to take a look at assumptions and practices within the field and think about what hierarchies or power structures are being reinforced when we make choices based on “neutrality, objectivity, and rationality.” These are not abstract ideals that exist outside systems of politics and power but they are often used as rhetorical devices to elide power structures while at the same time reinforcing the status quo. In the United States, library science, libraries, and librarians have been shaped by a specific raced and gendered history, as well as being tied to specific ideas about citizenship. This specific history affects everything from how we classify books (critical cataloging) , to how we define authoritative sources (citation as feminist practice),  what kinds of labor we value and make visible in librarianship and information science work, and how we envision the community we are in partnership with. I have found #critilibTwitter conversations  and CritLib.org Recommend Readings useful in gaining a broader perspective on issues within librarianship that are outside of my general areas of knowledge, such as cataloging.

History and context are what make the presence and causes of inequality and injustice visible. In the introduction to Topographies of Whiteness,Gina Schlesselman-Tarango discusses the ways in which the texts engage in “mapping (whiteness in LIS) as an act of resistance . . . It aims to surface rather than resolve such tensions” as well as contextualizing those tensions. Critical race studies, critical university studies, critical library studies (#critlib), critical cataloging  – what they all have in common is that they seek to name, contextualize, and problematize the unmarked neutral, to name that neutrality as an expression of a hidden power structure, whether that structure is whiteness or masculinity or more often a combination of multiple “unexamined norms.”  Power is uncontested when it is normalized and unmarked.

Shaundra Walker– I believe there is so much to be learned from stepping outside of the LIS box.  I first encountered critical race theory while working on my PhD, and initially, I could not see the relevance for the library profession.  But after stumbling upon a presentation at the 2014 ALA Conference in Las Vegas by Dr. Nicole A. Cooke, Dr. Robin Kurz, and Dr. Safiya U. Noble, I was able to make the connection.  Using theories and methods that are unconventional has the potential to help LIS practitioners see how the library does not exist in a vacuum but exists within a larger world. I also believe that being open to different ways of answering questions and gaining understanding  can help us to build relationships and connections with others outside our discipline. In my experience, “teaching faculty” are often surprised to learn that some librarians have faculty status and tenure and that many of us are also conducting research. Very often they don’t understand what we do and more than a few rely on outdated stereotypes of mousy librarians with buns. I’ve been able to bridge the gap by starting conversations about different theories and even bringing them into my instruction sessions. Honestly, I believe that some of my best information literacy work has taken place when I’ve been willing to think outside of the box in that way.

After being introduced to critical race theory, I began looking for ways to learn more about it and how it has been applied in various disciplines.  I discovered a chapter by Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings called “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?” (Gillborn, David, and Gloria Ladson-Billings. 2004. “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?” The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Multicultural Education. London: RoutledgeFalmer: 49-67.). Reading some of Dr. Billings’ and others’ work helped me to see how the theory could be applied to fields outside of law. When I was working on my doctorate, I ran across some information about Carnegie libraries on the campuses of historically Black colleges and universities. It was interesting information, but I had to tuck it away because it didn’t fit my topic. When I saw the call for Topographies of Whiteness, I recalled the information and had a great visual for where those libraries existed on a map. I was also reading some interesting research about the geography and architecture on Black college campuses that gave me some ideas and so I was really excited to make some connections. Along the way, I discovered that others researchers, such as geographers, architects, and historians, were invoking the library in their research, sometimes using critical race theory, so why not use critical race theory in the LIS field?

Ian Beilin – I agree with everything that Rafia and Shaundra have written in response to this question. I work in a library where the presence of the past is very visible and constant, and it’s a history saturated with and burdened by whiteness. As I wrote about in my chapter for Topographies of Whiteness, working in this place, with a sense of history and responsibility both, I needed to grapple with the many ways that the structures of oppression built in the past continue to shape my profession and the place in which I work. I also found critical race theory immensely helpful in this regard. For the chapter in Topographiesin particular, in terms of work outside of LIS, I found the work of the philosopher George Yancy extremely helpful in his analysis of the ways that whiteness functions within the classroom. Specifically, I found what he writes about making the invisibility of whiteness visible to white students greatly relevant to the library classroom (and the library schoolclassroom!).

From your personal experiences, what approaches have been most effective in improving the inclusivity of your information literacy instruction?

Rafia Mirza – This is complicated! There is so much to cover in instruction sessions, one thing that I think helps is when there is inclusivity in the staffing, especially when you can match your patron population. Authority and access are always contingent on power, and acknowledging that they have often been in conflict with inclusivity informs my instruction. For example, an important tenet in the Information Literacy Framework is that “Authority Is Constructed and Contextual,” which I think works well with acknowledging inclusive resources as well as discussing why they may be more difficult to find or access. Balancing the ways in which authority is always contingent on power while acknowledging expertise and the value it can have is a constant tension that informs my instruction. For example, when discussing search terms for indigenous populations, it is important to take the time to discuss the names that people give themselves as opposed to names they are given by others, and how using one or the other in your search changes what results you get, and what kinds of authority those different resources may have.

Shaundra Walker– I agree with Rafia. One of the ways that I believe I’ve made my instruction more inclusive is by acknowledging that many of our information systems are problematic and that often times, finding the “right” or “best” information can be challenging. I also try to show that there are varied routes that ultimately lead to the same or similar information. I don’t shy away from being critical of search engines or databases or the hula hoops we often have to jump through to get the information we need. I also try to bring my whole self into the instruction classroom. When appropriate, I use search and topic examples that are culturally relevant and encourage students to do the same.

Ian Beilin– Teaching more inclusively is a never-ending process in information literacy instruction because of the constant pressures and forces that work to close off access, limit perspectives, and exclude and oppress various identities and groups. Like Rafia and Shaundra, I try to explore, to the extent possible, a variety of issues and factors during IL instruction: the legacies of LC and other classification systems, academic publishing standards and practices, copyright and other property laws, and restrictive library and learning spaces, among others.

Why is it important for information literacy instructors to understand their own racial identities?

Shaundra Walker –Wow! This is such a great question. Identity is such a complex concept. Simply stated, identity answers the question “Who am I?” The answers to that question shape the way that we both see and experience the world. Knowing this helps one to be more self-aware and, as an extension, has the potential to help one to be more considerate of the experiences and perspectives of others. Identity is deeply personal, fluid, and dynamic. Quite often, we assume that identity only deals with one’s physical appearance, but in fact, there is so much more to a person than just how they appear.

I teach a non-credit professional development course called “Cultural Competence for the Academic Librarian.” It’s based on the ACRL Diversity Standards and one of the first exercises that I have students engage in is creating an “I Am Me” poem. This activity requires them to do some background reading on Cross and Helms’ racial identity development models and then list different aspects of their identity. I’ve found it to be quite eye-opening for the students, to say the least. I’ve done the activity several times myself, and no matter what, I always list first the fact that I am Black. I was born and raised in the Southern United States, where racial issues are a part of everyday life. So I very much see myself as Black before anything else. I also identify as a woman. But as I said earlier, identity is very complex. So while I am a Black woman from the South, there are also many things that I enjoy about living in this area. It has made me who I am.  To outsiders, there might appear to be some conflicts there, but at the end of the day, this is who I am.

So, where does this come into play in the information literacy classroom? First and foremost, information literacy librarians are serving a much more diverse group of students. Increasingly, we will find that our classrooms look more and more diverse, at a time when we continue to struggle with recruiting a more diverse group of librarians to the field. With that in mind, it’s very likely that information literacy librarians will have identities that are very different from those of  the students they are serving. Again, identity shapes the way that we both see and experience the world. It’s important that we bring that consciousness into information literacy work, realizing that the way that we approach topics or searches or a whole host of other variables that go into information literacy work may vary greatly from our constituents. For example, we should expect that our students may be interested in topics that we may not understand or see as particularly relevant. There may be times when our identities prevent us from providing the best service, necessitating a referral to someone else. If ultimately, the patron gets their information need met, we should be okay with that.

Ian Beilin – I agree with everything Shaundra has said. I think her observations show why the idea of library/librarian neutrality is potentially so harmful. When white librarians enter the library classroom or sit at the reference desk and assume a “neutral” stance in order to better serve patrons, it prevents them from acknowledging the many ways that our positions within systems of structural oppression make such neutral service impossible. This acknowledgement is the precondition for equitably serving the students who are in our classrooms and libraries. While some might argue that understanding and recognizing one’s identity and positionality might actually help a librarian be more neutral, by “checking” prejudices and preconceptions, more often than not neutrality is assumed or demanded beforethat understanding and acknowledgement has even taken place. Because the hard work of self-exploration and understanding doesn’t take place, we then witness the familiar phenomenon of white fragility and defensiveness that often results from the attempt to open up conversations about positionality and identity. This work of understanding our identities and roles in structural oppression must precede our work in the information literacy classroom, but it’s also important for librarians to be ready to learn from students, who can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Rafia Mirza– I agree with Shaundra and Ian. I would add that it is important to acknowledge the ways in which librarianship as a field has conceived of itself in gendered and raced ways, and how this is reflected in whose labor is valued or undervalued. Diversity without a historical and situated understanding of power and inequality will tend to merely reinscribe previous power dynamics. Diversity in the workplace can focus on individuals, but it is also important to look at the composition of internal hierarchies in order to avoid tokenism, and a disportionate burden being placed on BiPoc (Black and Indigenous People of Color) library staff.

How do you see Whiteness impacting discussions of information literacy? Do you see understandings changing?

Ian Beilin – Because whiteness is a structural feature of the world we inhabit, and because information literacy is a product of that world, I think it’s fair to say that whiteness is a structural feature of information literacy. I think that awareness of this fact and all of its ramifications is only just beginning to be understood among white librarians, who still, of course, make up the vast majority of academic librarianship (especially in its administrative upper echelons). Topographies of Whitenessrepresents a major step, I hope, in picking up on and continuing the work that librarians and archivists of color have been doing for decades in trying to call to attention to the ways that systemic oppressions around race, gender identity, sexuality, indigeneity, and much more have shaped and affected all library practices, including information literacy. My sense is that in the U.S. and Canada, at least, especially since 2016 and the spread and legitimation of more explicit and openly white supremacist ideas and policies, there are more white librarians willing to confront and dismantle white supremacy in our profession, and to examine more honestly the dimensions of whiteness of academic and academic librarianship. But it remains to be seen whether that willingness will last, and whether it will result in real changes in who we are and what we do.

Shaundra Walker– I am hopeful that the recent interest in this topic will persist.  I believe that we are just now beginning to scratch the surface in terms of interrogating the influence of Whiteness in the LIS profession as a whole, much less information literacy work. I am hopeful that there will be a trickle-down effect. Going back to critical race theory, if we embrace the idea of Whiteness as property, and further, if we believe that the library as an institution has the potential to transform lives, then our profession must grapple with some serious questions. For example, legal scholar Cheryl Harris notes in her seminal work, “Whiteness as Property,” (Harris, C. “Whiteness as property.” Harvard Law Review 106 (1992): 1707.) that “the liberal view of property is that it includes the exclusive rights of possession, use and disposition. Its attributes are the right to transfer or alienability, the right to use and enjoyment, and the right to exclude others.” In an era in which people of color, such as Catholic University student Juán-Pabló Gonźalez, are still facing challenges when attempting to use the library, we know that there is much room for improvement (Gonzalez, J.P. 2018. “LIS student Speaks Out about Humiliating Library Experience.” BCALA News, 45 no. 4: 28-30.).  Another way to look at this is to consider the “right to use and enjoyment” and the “right to exclude others” attributes.  Who has the right to use and enjoy libraries?  Who has the power and ability to exclude others?  Again, there is much work to be done.

I would add, however, that I have been encouraged by what I am seeing in the literature and on the conference circuit.  More people are writing and presenting on this topic and hopefully these important discussions will continue.

Rafia Mirza-As previously mentioned, Whiteness is embedded in our information ecosystems. As Richard Dyer (White) says, whiteness functions as the “human norm [and] there is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity.” Given that, how much do we as a profession integrate racial literacy and literacy about systems of power and oppression into our information literacy frameworks? As Maura Seale (my co-author in Topographies of Whiteness) points out elsewhere, in the Information Literacy Framework we see this tension. The “Framework is ambivalent about its own authoritative position and the importance of power relations,” as half of the frames engage with these issues, and half do not.  Moreover, we are writing this roundtable in the aftermath of #nohateala (for an overview see http://critlib.org/responding-to-ala-chat/) and incidents of (racialized and gendered) harassment at ALA midwinter 2019. April Hathcock discusses her experience (Hathcock, April. 2019. “ALAMW: What Happened, and What Should Happen Next”. At the Intersection: Blog About the Intersection of Libraries, Law, Feminism, and Diversity. 31 January 2019.). As Robin DiAngelo, the speaker at the ALA President’s Program (Midwinter 2019) points out, “Racism is a system. Not an event.” It is a system that requires “people of color who are in predominantly white spaces spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to keep white people racially comfortable” (Dar, Mahnaz. 2019. “Robin DiAngelo on Confronting White Fragility”. Library Journal, 1 February 2019.). While I am hopeful that we are as a field becoming more willing to name and acknowledge how whiteness shapes our professional standards and ethics/values, how that influence excludes, and how we can choose to be more inclusive (to interrogate the system), there is also a lot of pushback against those who raise these issues (and a desire to focus on events as isolated). As Sara Ahmed discusses in “Complaint as Diversity Work,” “Another way of saying this: to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem. Diversity work: becoming the location of a problem. …the efforts to stop a complaint include attempts to discredit the complainer. Indeed many of those I have spoken to have spoken of how they became the complained about; a complaint can be redirected to the complainer; as if she says something is wrong because something is wrong with her” (Ahmed, Sara. 2017. “Complaint as Diversity Work”.FeministKillJoys. 10 November 2017.).

What for you are the most interesting current developments in library information literacy instruction research?

Shaundra Walker –I find research that explores the connections between information literacy and student success to be very interesting. Much like higher education in general, we’ve traditionally thought of academic libraries as being for the good of the university, but the student success research really introduces a very neoliberal approach to our work. We are having to connect the work that we do more clearly to institutional values and outcomes, ones that can be quantified and qualified in ways that those outside the library can understand. Depending on when you came into the profession, doing that can be extremely challenging. It really requires lots of reframing and adjusting. I participated in the inaugural Value of Academic Libraries Project at a time when I was also wrapping up a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership. So I was able to get a very close view on how work in this area was taking place at different institutions around the country. It was very eye-opening and I’ve tried to follow this movement ever since then. I’m also very interested in anything that has to do with critical information literacy. In this day and age, that particular approach seems to have a lot of value and relevance. Of course, the ACRL Framework is very interesting, too. I cut my professional teeth on the ACRL Information Literacy Standards (2000), so the Framework was a bit challenging for me to wrap my head around initially. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work with some really good professors on my campus to apply it. I think it has some specific advantages over the old standards.  However, I am aware of the critiques of the Framework, and I believe those critiques raise some very interesting questions which deserve further exploration.

Ian Beilin– I’ve followed the debates and conversations around the ACRL Framework with great interest. In particular, I’ve been impressed to see how librarians with a grounding in critical information literacy have adapted the Framework for an information literacy that encourages students to question the many aspects of library research that reflect and reinforce systemic inequalities and oppressions. While there has and continues to be robust criticism of the Framework as a symptom of certain neoliberal trends in higher education (and I was one such critic), I’ve been impressed by the ways that librarians whose work is informed by social justice issues, including especially critiques of white supremacy and critical race theory, have embraced the Framework to push information literacy beyond the restrictive limitations that previous approaches, including ones informed by the Framework, have encouraged. A few examples of such useful adaptations are: Gregory, Lua and Shana Higgins. 2017. “Reorienting an Information Literacy Program toward Social Justice: Mapping the Core Values of Librarianship to the ACRL Framework,”Communications in Information Literacy11, no. 1: 42-54; and Dawes, Lorna. 2019. “Through Faculty’s Eyes: Teaching Threshold Concepts and the Framework,”  portal: Libraries and the Academy19, no. 1: 127-153.

What advice would you give to librarians who are trying to formulate their own research agenda?

Ian Beilin – I think the most important factor for anyone formulating their own research agenda is community, that is, finding a community of people within and/or beyond the profession (however understood), who share your interests, concerns, commitments, and goals. For me, one of the positive features of library-world research and scholarship is the existence of communities of shared interests and commitments. As someone who first became a researcher in academic history, I was very weary and wary of the isolating and alienating effects of the competitive, individualist, and reductive features of traditional, mainstream academic scholarship. Coming to the library world liberated me to explore my own interests, along with an international community of similarly committed practitioners and scholars. Of course, there were other, structural aspects to my specific situation that enabled this to happen. For one, I was in a tenure-track, faculty, unionized position. This meant that, on the one hand, I was required to formulate a research agenda and to publish and present my work, and on the other, that I was assured a certain degree of academic freedom (and paid research time) to be able to pursue that agenda. Context matters, and formulating a research agenda and being able to pursue it freely and to the best of one’s ability, are two different things. But given a sufficiently supportive work environment, my advice is: find your people. Once that happens, it’s much easier to figure out what your own personal research agenda might become.

Shaundra Walker– My advice is to do what you love. Do work that is meaningful to you and that addresses questions that are important and that resonate with your values. You are hopefully going to spend a lot of time developing your research, and if you are not passionate about it, it will feel like a burden. One of my colleagues, who came out of the classroom to become an administrator and who still maintains an active research agenda, refers to her scholarship as her “bliss work.” Also, I agree wholeheartedly with Ian’s suggestion above about finding a community of support. I have been fortunate to connect with a community, both in person and online, that affirms the value of the research that I am interested in conducting. Additionally, for an academic librarian, especially one who is in a faculty and/or tenure track position, it is critical to find the right institution to grow within, one that provides you with the resources and support you will need to be successful.

Rafia Mirza– A lot of my research and publications have come out of collaborations.  My writing partners and I either wanted to share a process that we found helpful, or we wanted to ask why something is the way it is. Find others who are motivated by the same things you are, or who are asking the same questions, and work with them.


  • Ahmed, Sara. 2017. “Complaint as Diversity Work.” feministkilljoys (blog), November 10, 2017. https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/11/10/complaint-as-diversity-work/.
  • Dar, Mahnaz. 2019. “Robin DiAngelo on Confronting White Fragility.” Library Journal. February 1, 2019. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=robin-diangelo-on-confronting-white-fragility-ala-midwinter.
  • Dawes, Lorna. 2019. “Through Faculty’s Eyes: Teaching Threshold Concepts and the Framework.” portal: Libraries and the Academy19 (1): 127-153.
  • Dyer, Richard. 1997. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London: Routledge.
  • Gregory, Lua and Shana Higgins. 2017. “Reorienting an Information Literacy Program toward Social Justice: Mapping the Core Values of Librarianship to the ACRL Framework.” Communications in Information Literacy11 (1): 42-54
  • Hathcock, April. 2019. “ALAMW: What Happened, and What Should Happen Next.” At the Intersection(blog), January 31, 2019. https://aprilhathcock.wordpress.com/2019/01/30/alamw-what-happened-and-what-should-happen-next/.
  • Harris, Cheryl. 1993. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review106 (8): 1707-1791.
  • González, Juán-Pabló. 2018. “LIS Student Speaks Out About Humiliating Library Experience.” BCALA News45 (4): 28-30.
  • Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 2004. “Just What is Critical Race Theory and What’s it Doing in a Nice Field Like Education?”  In The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Multicultural Education: Critical Perspectives on Race, Racism and Education, edited by David Gillborn and Gloria Ladson-Billings, 49-67. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Seale, Maura. 2016. “Enlightenment, Neoliberalism, and Information Literacy.” Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship 1 (1): 84.
  • Schlesselman-Tarango, Gina, ed. 2017. Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science. Sacramento: Library Juice Press.

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