2024 Research Agenda Conversation

Veronica Arellano Douglas

Winner of the 2020 Miriam Dudley Instruction Librarian Award, Veronica Arellano Douglas is the Head of Teaching & Learning at the University of Houston Libraries. She has written and presented extensively on a range of topics, including critical information literacy, instructional design, gendered labor in libraries, library assessment, and librarianship in general. Her research draws from different theoretical frameworks, such as the relational-cultural theory, a feminist model of human development. It lends a critical lens to the various practices in the profession and “suggests alternative theories and values in which to ground” these practices (2020). Furthermore, it challenges librarians to question and subvert the structures of power at work. More information about Veronica and her research is available at libraries + inquiries.

  1. Your research often involves critiquing and reframing librarianship through the lens of critical theories—such as Maria Accardi’s care-based assessment framework, Kimberly Crenshaw’s intersectionality, and the relational-cultural theory. What is your inspiration? How have these theories influenced your work, both as a teaching librarian and as a leader at your library or institution?

I’ve really found my way to critical theories through conversations with colleagues both in and out of libraries. Something I think we all do is try to make sense of our work, our relationships, and the world around us. It’s a very common human impulse to try to create meaning from the events we live through and experience. Everything I’ve ever written or presented started as a way to better understand my work as a librarian, teacher, or supervisor. I shared my own professional experiences and ideas with others–through writing on my blog, posts on ACRLog, and personal conversation–and often learned how not alone I was in my thinking, hopes, and concerns.

I also think that reading Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks was a pivotal moment for me. In it she writes, “one may practice theorizing without ever knowing/possessing the term” (p. 62). That statement, and really the entire book, was an invitation to critical theory. hooks’ prose is easy-to-read, accessible, and deeply intellectual. Reading her writing was inspiring. It taught me that academic writing didn’t need to be complicated to introduce and analyze complex topics. I will likely spend the entirety of my career trying to get close to replicating this approach!

In terms of theory informing my work, Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) has had the most impact on my professional practice. RCT’s emphasis on relationship and connection is something I try to bring to my teaching, research consultations with students, and my work as a supervisor of a team of excellent librarians. As much as our society pushes a narrative of independence and self-reliance, RCT highlights the truth that we all need, learn, and grow through meaningful connections with others. I feel like RCT has given me the words to describe the need I’ve always felt to “matter” to others in a professional setting, and my own desire to help colleagues and learners feel seen and heard. This idea that we are stronger through community is one I try to keep in mind in my work at all times.

    2. In your 2019 keynote “Innovating against a Brick Wall,” you called upon librarians to re-imagine the structures that “keep us…from doing the kind of work we want to be doing, the kind of work that empowers learners and ourselves.” Where have your own re-imaginings led you? What tactics would you recommend that librarians use to challenge and subvert these structures?

    I didn’t know it at the time, but about a year after that keynote the department I was in, Liaison Services, began a massive restructure. As part of that restructure, I developed a proposal for a Teaching & Learning department that would focus on both curricular and co-curricular information literacy instruction. I wanted to take the ideas from my keynote of teaching outside of the traditional classroom, selectively engaging in teaching experiences, and creating meaningful partnerships with faculty and staff colleagues and turn them into reality.

    Our new department, Teaching and Learning, was formed in October 2021, and our mission focuses on information literacy and research instruction throughout the university experience. Our team includes 4 Teaching & Learning Librarians, Edward Gloor, Jennifer Holland, Natalia Kapacinskas, and Erica Lopez, who have taken a proactive, selective approach to their teaching, choosing to focus on research or information literacy intensive courses within major areas of study. Their curriculum mapping work has created a roadmap for our department to follow, giving us the space and justification for saying “No” to problematic teaching requests and honoring our work as teaching librarians.  I have an amazing colleague, Mea Warren, Assistant Head of Teaching & Learning who supervises 2 Student Success Librarians, Carolina Hernandez and Imani Spence, who are so dedicated to connecting with students and enhancing their learning experiences through co-curricular programming with student groups and campus partners. We’re currently looking at different peer-learning models at libraries across the country including University of Nevada Las Vegas and University of Michigan, and are beginning to plan for a peer learning program at our own institution.

    Every academic library has its own institutional context, so it’s really tough to suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to subverting or challenging structures of power. That said, I think one thing we can all do is look at the work we are doing and ask ourselves, why? Why are we doing this work? Does it serve us or our students well? What can we say no to? What could we be doing instead? I think what I’m trying to recommend is critical reflection on the work we do in our libraries.

    3. What do you think are some of the interesting recent developments in library information literacy instruction research?

    I’m on the editorial board for the Journal of Information Literacy, which published a wonderful special issue earlier this year on critical information literacy, which really delves into the current state of critical IL in our work as teaching librarians. I think it answers important questions about how critical IL can and cannot help us in this time of censorship, misinformation, and oppression. Alison Hicks is the editor of JIL, and together with Maura Seale and Karen Nicholson, published Towards a Critical Turn in Library UX in College and Research Libraries, which I’ve been waiting to read since they first presented their initial research on IL, learning, and UX in libraries at the 2018 Critical Librarianship & Pedagogy Symposium. It calls out a lack of criticality in the application of UX in libraries and highlights the way that “design thinking” impacts the work we do as teaching librarians, the way we interact with learners, and the tension inherent in the corporatization of higher education and libraries.

    4. What advice would you give to librarians interested in formulating or refreshing their own research agendas?

    Honestly, a combination of individual reflection–about your work, things you’ve noticed in the classroom, concerns you might have about librarianship–and conversation with trusted colleagues is a great way to begin to refresh your approach to your research. I have never left a conversation with colleagues in or outside my library without a new perspective on an issue, event, or concept. I think it’s really easy to feel like you have nothing new to say (I often feel that way), but as soon as you start to discuss a research idea with a colleague it grows into something new and exciting. My early research conversations with Joanna Gadsby, Instruction Coordinator at University of Maryland Baltimore County, turned into work of which I am extremely proud. Together we learned from each other but also expanded on each other’s experiences as teaching librarians and scholars.

    I’ve also found great inspiration in reading outside of the LIS literature, especially when I have the opportunity to discuss what I’ve read with colleagues. My colleague Jennifer Holland and I are currently reading How Humans Learn by Joshua Eyler and it’s been a fascinating look into the different dimensions of learning.  

    5. What are you currently working on? What excites you about these projects?

    I’m currently working on an article with my colleague, Natalia Kapacinskas, on the importance of interdependence in research and how we can incorporate that idea into our work as teaching librarians. It’s based on a presentation we gave at the Critical Librarianship & Pedagogy Symposium in 2022 and brings together work Natalia has done in Critical Disability Studies as well as my research into RCT. It’s the first time Natalia and I have written together and I always really enjoy learning from others’ approach to writing and research.

    I’m also beginning to write and present more about supervisory work in libraries, which is a new avenue for me. I’m currently working on a case study with Mea Warren, Assistant Head of Teaching & Learning at UH Libraries, related to our work creating foundational documentation and decision making processes for our department, as well as methods for encouraging a collaborative work culture. A piece of this research made its way into a presentation at the CORE Forum earlier this year on cultivating a culture of helping & help-seeking for library workers. This research is a bit more practical, but is still rooted in feminist theory and RCT.

    6. Is there anything else that you would like to address or share?

    I presented at the 2023 CORE Forum on a panel that included Kathryn Sullivan, Head of Reference at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who made a comment I can’t stop thinking about. She talked about how the longer she’s worked in libraries and especially in management, the harder it becomes to put yourself in the mindset of a new professional. She recommended making that an intentional part of your supervisory practice, and it’s something I am trying to do as a manager, researcher, and peer-reviewer. It’s tough for librarians to develop a robust research agenda in graduate school, given that our terminal degree is a professional master’s. Once we start working we’re often learning on the job, trying to polish our skills as teachers and librarians, which can make the idea of scholarship seem even more intimidating. Yet in conversations with new and early career librarians at my library I am struck by the fresh approach they take to their teaching, their enthusiasm for their work, and how so much of what they casually notice and discuss would be an insightful read! So I guess I would end this series of interview questions with encouraging new and early-career librarians to see the work that you do and the ideas that you have as worth pursuing and worth sharing with the profession.