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On information privilege and information equity
I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about the high school/college transition these days and the differences we see among members of the freshman class.
Such thinking leads naturally to a consideration of more profound issues of social justice and equity, issues supported by our Common Beliefs and standards.
Access to an effective school library program is one example of information privilege. The absence of access is one symptom of information poverty.
A study conducted by Keith Curry Lance and Deb Kachel reported that between the 1999/2000 and 2015/16 school years, we saw a 19% loss in full-time school librarian positions nationwide. (See School Librarian, Where Art Thou?)
Beyond access to a robust and effective library program, some students come to school with knapsacks fully packed. Each morning they arrive at school ready to go, relying on the presence of a set of conditions that support their academic success. For other students, that pack may be empty.
In an SLJ post from way back in 2009, I faced an experience that painfully amplified that chasm on a local level. Visiting honors students, seniors from a Philadelphia school less than a mile away, were faced with a stark realization when they compared their nearly non-existent access to high-quality, paywall-protected information and communication tools to the access afforded, and largely taken for granted, by many of my own students. (Read A Visit to Remember.) In this particular case, for their four years in high school, those students did not have access to resources made freely available to them by our state. No librarian pointed to them.
For librarians, the recognition of information privilege–that one student has clear advantage over another–is a call to action, pointing to our responsibilities to reflect on the disparities in information access present in our own communities, to raise awareness, and to work to close gaps.
Recently, I came across a tweet from a Duke University librarian that framed this social justice issue in powerfully visual way.
Inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. and Char Booth’s important work on Information Privilege, Duke librarian Hannah Rozear created the Information Privilege Knapsack as part of this powerful lesson on Information Privilege in Duke’s Library 101 Toolkit. (Adaptable resources for the Information Privilege lesson are available in this folder.)
The suggested Information Privilege Walk, connected to the knapsack, is an activity that might be thoughtfully shared with older students or for a professional development workshop.
Participants are instructed to either take steps forward or backward in response to the following adaptable questions. (Warning, this might be too sensitive an activity for young people in some environments.)
- If your local public library was within walking distance of your home, take one step forward.
- If you had internet at home growing up, take one step forward.
- If there were more than 50 books in your home, take one step forward.
- If you had access to your own tablet/computer/laptop at home, one step forward.
- If you have a smartphone with data plan now, take one step forward.
- If you had a smartphone with data plan in high school, take one step forward.
- If your high school had a library, take one step forward.
- If your high school had a librarian/library media specialist, take one step forward.
- If your high school had a library, but it didn’t have a lot of useful/new stuff in it. Take a step backward.
- If you had access to databases (JSTOR, EBSCO etc.) and online journals in high school, take one step forward.
- If you learned about using databases (JSTOR, EBSCO, etc.) in high school, take one step forward.
- If you learned about finding and evaluating sources in high school, take one step forward.
- If your professors encouraged academic freedom, take one step forward.
- If you have hesitated, or decided not to purchase a textbook based on the cost, take one step back.
If I were to remix this set of conditions, I would add a few questions:
- If your parents read to you on a regular basis take a step forward.
- If your high school encouraged inquiry-based projects take a step forward.
- If your high school encouraged you to build an argument based on evidence take a step forward.
- If your high school prepared to to thoughtfully analyze data, news and media resources, take a step forward.
- If your high school prepared you to use digital tools to create media-rich communication and knowledge projects, take a step forward.
- If your high school library had a website that curated resources to support your learning and workflow, take a step forward.
- If your high school librarian partnered with your classroom teachers in teaching your courses, take a step forward.
- If your high school had a librarian/library media specialist, who did not take an active role in instruction, take a step backward.
- If, in high school, you learned how to identify an academic or peer-reviewed journal, take a step forward.
- If, in high school, you learned how to identify formats of digital source types and publishing formats–magazine and journal articles, chapters, newspapers, blog posts, etc.-take a step forward.
- If, in high school, you learned the difference between primary and secondary sources, take a step forward.
- If, in high school, you learned how to critically read a citation, take a step forward.
- If, in high school, you learned how to thoughtfully generate and revise search terms, take a step forward.
- If, in middle school and high school, you knew you could freely access databases made available to you by your school, district, state, public library, or other agency, take a step forward.
- If you know how to leverage grammar check, outlining/organization tools, and citation generator applications for your academic work, take a step forward.
- If you learned how to use social media critically to find and share information, take a step forward.
- If, in high school, you learned about how to respect and ethically use the intellectual property of others, take a step forward.
- If, in high school, you learned about Creative Commons, CC0, Public Domain and Fair Use and the open access movement, take a step forward.
This Information Privilege slideshow would also aid in increasing awareness in high school students.
Hannah invites others to take the image and the lessons and remix them. She shares:
We hope this information privilege graphic will spark conversations among students, teachers and librarians, about how to recognize existing educational and information disparities and work together to improve them.
You may also want to read Char Booth’s powerful post on information privilege. When Booth discussed and diagrammed the paywall system and shared the library’s multi-million dollar budget with her university students, she got the following responses from students who were surprised to see themselves as a privileged few:
Why in the world does it cost so much?”
“It doesn’t make sense!”
“You mean all libraries have to pay like this?”
“Why can’t we use this stuff after we graduate?”
If you seek to address structural information inequities, it is essential to develop a professional value system that perceives and opposes injustices not only within our institutions, but beyond them. In this sense information privilege is not just about asking our students to examine themselves and their position behind the paywall, it is about informing the way we collaborate, design, manage, lead, and advocate.
For most of us, this will mean examining our own privilege and how we have been teaching and working in information contexts thus far. We can begin by asking ourselves simple questions – how do I approach access and authority in my practice? Do I broach subjects like inequity or justice? What can I do to develop a more open sense of access?
It’s important to note that the information access problem reaches beyond age and economic circumstance.
Those no longer affiliated with school or university libraries, may have an even clearer sense of what they cannot access, finding themselves locked on the wrong side of information paywalls. Jake Orlowitz, Head of The Wikipedia Library at the Wikimedia Foundation, offers a patchwork of partially suitable options, or hacks, in his very useful Medium post, You’re a Researcher Without a Library: What Do You Do?
What questions would you add to the Information Privilege Walk?
About Joyce Valenza
Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza
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