Critical thinking: the librarian’s meme

The role of the librarian in fostering critical thinking in every field of learning has grown in importance. Terence Huwe recommends three strategies for librarians who want to nurture effective research and critical analysis.

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Critical thinking and critical analysis - more important than ever

The Progressive Librarians Guild Blog recently published a post by Edgardo Civallero titled “Why Critical Librarianship is Important for LIS?” (August 7, 2017). I appreciated Mr Civallero's central argument: that library professionals must be ready to exercise their voice and their research skills in creative dissent, always questioning authority, and making sure that those who lack a voice of their own are not forgotten. Librarianship is critical, he claims, because so much is at stake in civil society.

Not only did I agree with Mr Civallero’s thesis; I was inspired to build upon it. His post is aimed at the library community worldwide, enjoining us to assume the role of intellectual and political activist—always a worthy objective. My interest is to take that same spirit of activism and apply it not only to our profession, but to the academic world at large, for two reasons.

First, the atomisation of scholarly disciplines is well underway, and librarians are among the few scholars who traverse every intellectual boundary in pursuit of the best answers. As a result, we have a unique perspective on research methodologies that many of our colleagues don’t have time to grasp or even value. Second, critical librarianship is best understood as a subset of critical thinking at large. And the promotion of critical thinking skills has always been a key goal for the profession.

Critical thinking forms a robust foundation for healthy debate, the scientific method, and evidence-based research in all fields. It is also the antidote to ideological claims that have no basis in fact. Indeed, the librarian’s role in fostering critical thinking in every field of learning has, if anything, grown in importance.

We do not need to look far to find examples where critical thinking is not only needed, but is at serious risk. Politicians and pundits utilise news-feeds in a cavalier manner, tossing out conflicting and even contradictory information to advance ideologies and influence public policy. This is not a new strategy—Americans simply need to recall “Whitewater” or “the Iran-Contra Affair”—but the sheer volume of half-baked news makes it much harder for everyone to formulate sound opinions.

Moreover, the explosive growth of data has made effective critical analysis much more difficult to achieve. Once again, the political arena provides the best examples. U.S. policy is currently lurching in one direction and then another, and the executive and congressional branches of government struggle to find common ground. This is a daily challenge, and its roots lie in the shock effect of President Trump’s unexpected election. The recent parliamentary election in the U.K. was intended to strengthen Prime Minister Theresa May’s hand, but instead left her pro-Brexit policies in a more vulnerable state. The ocean of available data was not enough to influence these outcomes; critical insight always provides the crucial edge.

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