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Language and power in the academic library classroom

By Sajni Lacey

Language is an enactment of power. What I say and how I say it, affects those in the classrooms I teach in. This is an issue I have been considering in different ways for the past few years as I have been developing my practice as an instructional librarian. Specifically, I have focused on the first frame of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ new(ish) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, which outlines that authority is constructed and contextual (ACRL, 2016).

Like most people new to librarianship and teaching, I modeled the behaviours I had seen and experienced. For me, that was a lecturer standing at the front of the room talking at people for a designated period of time and everyone in the room diligently taking notes. Rarely was my role as a student acknowledged, or that I may have other priorities such as other classes, jobs, volunteering, or even a social life. Modelling these behaviours also involved putting myself in the role of an instructor who did not acknowledge these aspects of my students lives. I began my instructional practice by constructing an identity based on these teaching behaviours. My behaviour and attitudes shifted when I started doing one-on-one research consultations with students. These interaction ended up with us spending more time talking about balancing competing priorities, navigating different instructors, and maintaining a healthy non-school life, rather than search strategies or citations. This led me to consider my role as an instructional librarian differently.

Benches in an auditorium

Upon reflection of these interactions, I wanted to acknowledge as a preface to my instruction, that the students reality of being in the room was different than mine as an instructor. To put this reflection into action, I decided to begin my instruction by stating something like the following: “I understand that you are busy with other courses, jobs, family, volunteering, and the variety of things that students today have to balance and navigate, and it is okay if your head space is not with me in this moment, but everything I am talking about and getting you to engage with will be available in different ways when you need it.” The first few times I did this I felt very uncomfortable, like I was breaking the rules of the instructor/student relationship. However, within a few sessions I began to have students come up to me after expressing appreciation to me for making this comment in class.

I understand you are busy … but everything I am talking about and getting you to engage with will be available in different ways when you need it.

It was this experience that led to me to a deeper consideration of how important it is to be mindful of what is said in the classroom. I began to reconsider my role in the classroom as an authority on not just of library skills (especially in the traditional sense of library information literacy instruction), but also in terms of who and what I acknowledged about those that are in the room and not. It took such minimal effort to acknowledge that traditional academic systems and structures allow for certain voices to be heard, and exist within our academic spaces and collections and the students role in making choices about who and what they include in their own work.

From this reflection,  I have thought a lot about what language means as an enactment of power in the library classroom. As I have considered my language in the classroom, I have changed my practice around including gender identity, the examples of searches and approaches I use, how I consider jargon as a discriminatory practice in itself. This can run the full range of library and academic jargon such as monograph and serials, to what a research paper actually is.  

Critical literacy, seeks to examine how language is used and how that does and does not privilege, and provide power for different people.

From all of this, I have been framing my thinking and beginning work in this area through the theory of critical literacy. Critical literacy, seeks to examine among other things, how language is used and how that does and does not privilege, and provide power for different people. In this case, critical implies that there is a social justice perspective taken toward this entire conversation. In their chapter within Language policy and political issues in education, Janks, Rogers, and O’Daniels (2017) highlight that the practice of critical literacy “depends on understanding that language is not a neutral tool for communication but is everywhere implicated in the ways in which we read and write the world, the ways in which knowledge is produced and legitimated, and the ways in which human subject is constructed as a complex set of identities based on, amongst other things, race, class, gender, ability, age, nationality, and sexual orientation.” (186).

Blackboard with lightbulb

So, how has all of this actually translated into my practice? The answer is simple. It is a work in progress. I have been significantly influenced by the works of Accardi (2013), Accardi, Drabinski & Kumbier (2010), and Pagowsky and McElroy (2016) in making tangible applications of critical literacy into my practice. Their work has made me reconsider the realities and the potential potency of the traditional one-shot instructional library session. Some examples of how this gets implemented into my teaching include the following:

  • Using specific examples to highlight where information is lacking or completely absent such as representation for marginalized communities in medical studies.
  • Looking at who holds authority in informing the narrative on a topic or issue through examples such as Black Lives Matter and Idle No More and comparing information available through twitter, blogs, websites, news stories, and academic sources.
  • Brainstorming keywords on particular topics, such as Indigenous peoples, and seeing how that is and is not represented in subject headings and controlled vocabularies.
  • Looking at academic jargon to define it in plain language to reduce the hierarchical nature of academic research.
  • Conversations about Google as a research tool and a  for-profit entity, and how it represents information, people, and concepts.

Despite all of this, I am still developing as an instructor. I need to do more reading, reflection, and engaging with my colleagues who are also working through these things. Nothing that I have outlined here is new, but critical practice takes work. It is not part of how I was trained as a librarian, and as a result I have come to all of this slowly and through trial and error. I plan to continue my self-education and find ways to make small but real changes to what I do in the classroom.


Accardi, M. T. (2013). Feminist pedagogy for library instruction. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.

Accardi, M.T., Drabinski, E., & Kumbier, A. (2010). Critical library instruction: theories and methods. Duluth, Minn: Library Juice Press.

Association of College and Research Libraries. (2016). Framework for information literacy for higher education. Retrieved from

Janks, H., Rogers, R., & O’Daniels, K. (2017). Language and power in the classroom. In T.L. McCarty & S. May (Eds.), Language policy and political issues in education (pp. 185-197). Retrieved from

Pagowski, N., & McElroy, L. (2016). Critical library pedagogy: Essays and workbook activities, Volume 1. Chicago, IL: Association of College and Research Libraries.


Photo credit feature: Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash
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Sajni Lacey is the Learning and Curriculum Support Librarian at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Her work focuses on coordinating the library instructional program for the campus, including coordinating and developing the curriculum for library instruction, providing strategic direction and support for the instructional role of the library on campus, and creating online learning materials and tools to support blended and flexible library instruction.

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