Thursday, May 4, 2017

School libraries, political information and information literacy provision: findings from a Scottish study.

Next discussion: Thursday 11th May at 8pm UK time (3pm EST).
Article: School libraries, political information and information literacy provision: findings from a Scottish study. Smith, L.N. Journal of Information Literacy, 2016, 10(2), pp.3-25.

Thank you to Lauren for her article and for writing this kick-off post for our discussion.

Bio: Lauren Smith is a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde. Her research interests include the role of information in supporting the development of agency, including political participation.

About the paper: This paper presents the findings of research which explored Scottish school libraries’ information provision and information literacy (IL) support in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum (SIR) and the 2015 General UK Parliamentary Election (GE). I was keen to identify what kinds of activities might have been taking place in and through school libraries, what kinds of information were being provided, and where this wasn’t happening, what the issues might be. School libraries in the UK are not statutory, so there is a limited amount of standard setting as well as resource provision and funding. Additionally, there is very limited research into how libraries contribute to students’ lives, in terms of academic performance as well as the development of skills for life as an engaged and knowledgeable citizen, and limited work around how school libraries connect to the wider school environment. I think it is important to conduct research into what’s happening in school libraries, what impact they have in supporting young people’s development in various ways, and what practical and political/philosophical/ethical issues need to be explored in order to do the best work possible. In my doctoral research I found that students have a wide range of political information needs and identified ways in which school libraries could support this - in this study I wanted to identify where things may already be happening and what problems or barriers librarians might be encountering.

In conducting this research I aimed to explore the role of school libraries in supporting political knowledge and participation. To do this, I set up an online survey, asking what political information seeking secondary school students engaged in through school libraries, what information provision and IL support was available to students relating to political issues and events, and what barriers school libraries faced in providing these aspects of political education. I also wanted to find out (within the limited study) what kinds of questions students were asking librarians about political participation.

To encourage participation I sent emails directly to school librarians and posted the link to the survey on various mailing lists and on social media, and sought help from library managers, the Scottish Library and Information Council and CILIPS, who kindly promoted the survey and encouraged school librarians to complete it. I think all of these things contributed to the high response rate.

The respondents to the survey gave a wide range of examples of the work going on in Scottish school libraries, and I think this work should be celebrated. I also think we need to work out how to share what’s going on more, because this could empower school librarians who want to do things but don’t know how or if they could or should to learn from people already doing it. Some of the barriers identified by the respondents are quite significant, but I don’t think all of them are insurmountable.

In terms of further research, I was keen to find out more about librarians’ perceptions about political information provision in schools, and their opinions about whether libraries have a role to play in this. A colleague and I conducted and analysed follow-up interviews, drawing out some of the key themes that had emerged from the survey data. One of the main problems librarians identified when it came to engaging with political information provision was the ‘neutrality’ of libraries, and I am in the process of writing a paper discussing this theme in more depth. The perception of libraries as neutral spaces seems to be used as a reason not to provide political information, and there are lots of issues around this that I think are worth exploring in more depth, in order to be able to develop guidelines for school libraries, better understand the role of the librarian within schools and wider society, and for librarians themselves to take control of their work.

For our blog conversation, the following questions might be relevant starting points:
  •  Do you think school libraries have any role in providing political information and support with applying information literacy in political contexts?
  • Do the barriers to engagement ring true in your experience? If so, how have you tackled these?
  • Do you have any examples of best practice that you would like to share?
  • How could you use these examples to demonstrate the impact of school libraries?
  • Do the recommendations from the paper sound realistic? If not, what are the issues or barriers?
  • What could be the next steps for school librarians who want to support students’ political learning and participation?