2021 Research Agenda Conversations

This year the ACRL Instruction Section Research & Scholarship Committee invited contributors to the edited volume, Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory (MIT Press, April 2021) to engage in a panel discussion.

Sofia Leung is a Chinese American librarian, facilitator, and consultant. Sofia is an editor at up//root: a we here publication, and a facilitator for the Association of College & Research Libraries Information Literacy Immersion Program. Her recent publications  include Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory edited by Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. López-McKnight, “Dreaming Revolutionary Futures: Critical Race’s Centrality to Ending White Supremacy” co-authored by Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. López-McKnight and published in Communications in Information Literacy, and “We Here: Speaking Our Truth” co-authored by Jennifer Brown, Jennifer A. Ferretti, Sofia Leung, and Marisa Méndez-Brady and published in Library Trends. Website: https://www.sofiayleung.com/

Jorge López-McKnight is a community college library worker at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas. Along with Joyce Gabiola and Sofia Leung, he currently is an editor at up//root: a we here publication. His recent publications  include  Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory edited by Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. López-McKnight, “Dreaming Revolutionary Futures: Critical Race’s Centrality to Ending White Supremacy” co-authored by Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. López-McKnight and published in Communications in Information Literacy, and In Our Own Voices, Redux: The Faces of Librarianship Today, edited by Teresa Y. Neely and Jorge R. López-McKnight and published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Torie Quiñonez is the Arts and Humanities Librarian at the California State University, San Marcos. Her research focuses on supporting first-generation college students in their navigation of the liminal space of higher education. She is a first-generation college graduate and a Southern California Chicana.

Her recent publications  include “Validation Theory and Culturally Relevant Curriculum in the Information Literacy Classroom” co-authored by Torie L. Quiñonez and Antonia P. Olivas and published in Urban Library Journal,  “The Student Scholar Identity: Using Students’ Reflective Work to Develop Student-scholars, Address Liminality, and Design Curriculum” co-authored by Yvonne Nalani Meulemans, Allison Carr, and Torie Quiñonez and included in Threshold Concepts on the Edge published by Brill Sense, and “The Praxis of Relation: Articulating LIS Collegiality Through a CRT Lens” co-authored by Torie L. Quiñonez, Lalitha Nataraj and Antonia P. Olivas and included in the forthcoming Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Science through Critical Race Theory.

  1. Why is knowledge justice an essential concept for the profession to grapple with now? How might a critical examination of knowledge justice impact information literacy initiatives and work?

Sofia Leung and Jorge López-McKnight: First, much gratitude for this opportunity to discuss the collection and we’re thankful for the committee reaching out to us.

Knowledge Justice is about justice for Black Indigenous and People Of Color (BIPOC), their/our communities, and ways of being, doing, and knowing. The edited collection draws inspiration from the legal scholars who originated Critical Race Theory (CRT) by centering and valuing BIPOC knowledge and experiences, particularly as LIS as a field does not do so. BIPOC knowledge–in all its beauty, power, strength, and brilliance—directs the profession away from its current configuration, realities, and conditions of toxicity, violence, and hostility that are rooted in white racial domination and supremacy. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas write in their introduction to Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, “Scholarship–the formal production, identification, and organization of what will be called ‘knowledge’–is inevitably political.” It is one thing to understand that our profession, our field, our work are not neutral; it is another to understand that by its falsely stated neutrality, LIS is and has been working towards a political end, one instituted by white supremacy.

We think the profession needs to have been grappling with knowledge justice before now. We believe there have been small moments when it has or at least considered to, though not in any deeply rooted and fundamental way that challenges the current racial order of the profession. Knowledge Justice follows from a beautiful lineage of critical BIPOC thought, practice, imaginaries, and knowledge-making, which has shaped, formed, and pushed it to arrive in the brutal now of COVID, the gorgeous uprisings, and the chilling economic disaster. Knowledge justice hopes radically and lovingly for just futures. It always has; it always will.

With regards to information literacy initiatives and work, knowledge justice (re)presents an opportunity to engage, learn from, and listen to critical BIPOC knowledge in order to reshape pedagogical approaches and understandings of information literacy that humanize, center, empower, and sustain students, ourselves, and communities, while also critiquing structures and systems of domination.

Torie Quiñonez: Librarians should be at the forefront of providing a greater degree of transparency about the bias built into our collections, policies, and processes. I think it’s important that librarians do the job of communicating that information is not neutral, that it has all been made by people whose perspectives are colored by their experience of the world. Students need to know that the same relatively small and homogenous group of people have been in charge of who decides what knowledge is valuable enough to pass on to university students for a very long time, and that arrangement sets up an unequal valuation of social and cultural currency. We can’t pretend that our texts, our peer-reviewed journals, our databases, and the technological systems we rely on have been created for the benefit of all.

  1. What do you see as the most important steps for the LIS profession to move towards racial justice?

Torie Quiñonez: Know who your students are and the communities they come from. If they’re first-generation college students, don’t assume they come to higher education with no valuable skills, experience, or knowledge to contribute to the information literacy classroom. Consider that higher education is not the apex of human experience that neoliberalism tells us it is. Many of our students will not go on to be scholars or enter traditional professions, so we reify and entrench class and caste inequities when we only focus on getting them through undergrad with an understanding of scholarship as if they will all be reproducing it someday. We should also be teaching students to understand scholarship (and all information) as a way of asserting agency over decisions that impact their lives in material ways and to respond in their own voices to discourse that has historically left them out. As a first-generation college graduate and a first-generation professional, stepping into a milieu where many of our classmates and colleagues seem to perfectly understand the culture, values, and language of the world we now have to navigate, sometimes we can’t help but feeling like we are sorely lacking something fundamental to our success. The expectation (the hidden curriculum) is that we adhere to ways of writing, speaking, communicating, conceptualizing that feel foreign and inauthentic, and we’re supposed to want to conform to that in order to succeed, even if it alienates us from our communities and identities. The very fact that the baseline for success is supposed to be a college degree shuts out the wisdom, ingenuity, creativity, and brilliance that come from the people we grew up with who were never on that track. Being in this in-between space is a defining experience for many first-gen students, and I think librarians, who do the interpretive work of navigating students through the scholarship of their disciplines, are ideal, non-judgmental guides along the way.

Jorge López-McKnight: BIG co-sign on what Torie said. And I’ll just add a couple of other thoughts to consider. I think an important step for the LIS profession is a deep, ongoing reckoning with its relationship to white supremacy, settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, capitalism, patriarchy, and ableism. Also, to keep it all the way real, this question assumes that the LIS profession is interested in and has made a commitment to actual, active transformative racial justice. And I don’t believe that the profession has, so that might be the step before the step–name and express exactly what we mean, and understand the terms and conditions of what is named and meant.

  1. What actions might you encourage for those seeking to build and defend anti-racist library environments?

Sofia Leung: This is a complicated question. First, is it possible to build an anti-racist library environment within a capitalist society? And second, do any truly anti-racist library environments currently exist in this nation-state currently known as the United States? I don’t know of any, but that could also just be a gap in my own knowledge. I’d suggest returning to what Jorge says in the previous question, as well as ask and educate yourself—what does it mean to be anti-racist? What are the qualities and characteristics that make up a racist library environment? How are those intertwined with white supremacy and capitalism? Figuring out the answers to those questions will get us closer to determining the actions needed to build and defend anti-racist library environments. Those are the answers I’m always seeking, also knowing that there is no single answer to any of these questions.

Jorge López-McKnight: Sofia offers some really great points and important questions to consider. What comes to mind for this question is a question Ella Baker would ask–“who are your people?” So knowing who you are with, who you’re in community and in solidarity with is vital, and this can be in the library, across the institution and profession, and, importantly, outside of it.

  1. What advice would you give to librarians who are trying to formulate their own research agenda in relation to social justice and critical race theory?

Jorge López-McKnight: I don’t know who the librarian is in this question and where they are and where they’ve been, so I can just offer some general thoughts. Less about agenda but I believe it’s important to be in conversation and community with others; listen, study, read deeply, closely, slowly, and struggle. Give careful attention to the active avoidances, erasures, and absences in your questions, topics, and ideas, and in the scholarly discourse. With Critical Race Theory, it can be overwhelming because there’s various expressions of it in many fields and disciplines, like law, education, and LIS. Depending on your particular area of interests within LIS, it might make sense to first engage the foundational literature in law, or maybe just jump in with LIS, as CRT has been around since Anthony Dunbar dropped it in archives fourteen years ago, or get down with it in education as it’s still growing, vibrant and dynamically in flight. Wherever you enter in the conversation is where you enter in. And be okay with that. In, through, and beyond all of what was just said–attend to yourself and your relationships in ways that are nourishing, generative, and loving.

Sofia Leung: As Jorge mentions, it’s hard to know who the librarian(s) in question might be. But one question that always sticks with me, which was given to me by Vani Natarajan, a Knowledge Justice contributor, is why should you be the one to publish/present on this research? When I hear research agenda, I think about the long legacy of white folx writing about and “researching” BIPOC and other marginalized communities and knowledges and claiming credit for that work. To give an example, my research interests stem from my own experiences and trying to understand how my experience as a woman of color is part of larger systems of oppression. Finding CRT was a lifeline that gave me the language and tools to both comprehend what was happening to me and sustain my mental health. My research relationship to social justice and CRT was and is a deeply personal one. I don’t know if that has to be true for everyone, but it certainly helps. I’d agree with Jorge that paying attention to yourself and your avoidances will go a long way towards understanding how social justice and CRT should play a role in your research. Because here’s the thing, it’s not about the research for me and it shouldn’t be for you, either. The research is a means to an end and if you care about social and racial justice, then the research should reflect those values. You shouldn’t want to bring social justice and CRT into research just because it’s suddenly trendy to do so. You need to first ask yourself why social justice and CRT are important to you. If you don’t have an answer that makes sense to you, then don’t bother.

  1. What kinds of theories and methods from outside traditional library science should information literacy researchers be paying particular attention to as we try to work toward social justice and/orknowledge justice?

Jorge López-McKnight: I’ve been deeply moved and inspired by some of the BIPOC liberatory pedagogies happening over in critical education spaces. In particular, culturally sustaining, relevant, responsive (which is and has been happening in LIS–Torie and her co-authors have and are doing some dope work as is Kellee Warren), community responsive, and abolitionist teaching. Also, I see, feel, and hear theories and methods in conversations with family, friends, and loved ones across space and time and in art, movies, and music.

Sofia Leung: Well, of course, critical race theory is where it’s at for me. In particular, because CRT seeks to center BIPOC experiential knowledges as vital to any social justice movement. As Jorge suggests, the CRT in education spaces are particularly relevant to information literacy. I think looking at the work happening in disability justice, the abolitionist movements, Black feminisms, and critical race and digital studies. Some folx doing work in those different areas are Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Alice Wong, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Jennifer C. Nash, Ruha Benjamin, and Tonia Sutherland (also a Knowledge Justice contributor). These theories and methods are important to pay attention to because they are rooted in the realities of those living the theory.

The ACRL Instruction Section Research & Scholarship Committee would like to express deep gratitude to the panelists for participating in this discussion and for their valuable contributions towards scholarship examining LIS through the lens of critical race theory.  

Source selection and author interviews were conducted by the ACRL IS Research & Scholarship Committee’s Research Agenda Conversations subcommittee. 2020/2021 members included : Holly Herndon, Stefanie Bluemle, Arielle Petrovich, Alyssa Denneler, Caroline Sinkinson, Juliet Rumble, and Leslie Ross.