What is Information Literacy?

On my first day of work as an “Information Literacy Coordinator” I actually found myself Googling “information literacy” in order to try to figure out exactly what information literacy is. Lest you think this does not bode well for my prospects of success – and, let’s face it, it may very well not –  let me assure you, it’s not that I didn’t have a lot of experience with information literacy instruction, or a thousand and one opinions about how best to incorporate it into a university curriculum. It’s just that, deep down, I sort of had a sneaking suspicion that I didn’t have an answer to the question “What is Information Literacy?” that didn’t start out with “Well, you know …” and end four hours later with my voice hoarse  and a pool of sweat the size of the Great Salt Lake adorning the front of my shirt.

This bothered me.  I had the critical voice of my Socratic superego telling me, Meno style, “How can you expect to deliver successful information literacy instruction in practice, if you don’t have a clear sense of what information literacy is?”

I’ve always had the inchoate conception that IL has something to do with research. After all, isn’t that sort of what we do in academic libraries: teach certain research skills involving the library that students will need to successfully do their coursework? If you wanted to know what we actually do with students, it’s hard for me to think of a better, or more succinct explanation than that. But here’s the dilemma: although that’s what we actually do with students, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this isn’t actually our job. That is, our job isn’t to teach students how to do research as such. Rather, it’s to teach students information literacy skills  so they can think critically about information, whether it’s for school research, solving an on-the-job information problem, or trying to figure out if the ridiculous thing Bill O’Reilly just said is true.

And on most plausible definitions , information literacy is a whole lot broader than “Librarians assisting students with library research skills for their college coursework.” It’s actually something like the definition I ended up – after a lot of surprisingly grueling thinking about it, and reading ways that other practitioners define it – adopting for our IL program, that information literacy  is the ability to think critically about finding and using information for a specific purpose, whether for educational research, on the job decision making, or personal need. 

Now before you say “Of course, that’s what we all do!” – let me just say, one more time, that I’m not especially confident that teaching that kind of critical thinking about information is what a lot of us do. We talk about the difference between scholarly and popular sources without providing a broader context for why we’re doing it; we systemically acquiesce to faculty requests that have nothing to do with information literacy, like giving students a tour of the library, starting with the coffee machine in the cataloguing department, and ending with a forty-two minute hands-on demonstration by the Systems Librarian about the life-altering advantages of hooking 32 monitors together to create the ultimate workstation; and haven’t given an awful lot of thought to important questions like how is what I’m doing in this particular class session supposed to develop student’s critical thinking skills across the board?

How this approach is equipping students with the IL skills they need for life remains elusive. Consider a recent Project Information Literacy report about How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Leave the Workplace, which gives us reason to think that the IL skills we’re teaching students in the university just aren’t transferring to helping graduates solve on-the-job information problems. More anecdotally, I was recently talking to an overzealous Bank of America manager about my reasons for moving to California and – after having no choice but to tell him a little bit about my life and what I do (with all the enthusiasm of someone with the weight of a mid-size Sport Utility Vehicle resting on his left foot) – he literally said to me, “That’s one of the biggest things my employees don’t know how to do – figure out how to find information or know how to research a question on their own.” In more than one instance in just the last month, non-“academic” strangers supervising other employees have been amazingly perceptive about information literacy, and the need of their workers to think critically about these matters.

This has all made me start to take real seriously the idea that, although we teach information literacy through talking to students about the specific skills they need for their college research,  we can’t lose sight of our overarching goal. Because our real aim just isn’t to teach students “research.”  It’s to teach students critical thinking and information literacy skills.  It’s to equip students for life.

It’s for this reason that I think some of the issues we’ve touched on in this blog –  like the importance of tailoring our instruction and pedagogical skills to facilitate transfer and expertise development – are now more important than ever.  Yeah, the context for our instruction is the academic research process. But it’s important to remember that our goal is, in fact, broader than that – it’s to teach information literacy.  Our aim as educators is to teach students IL skills in one context (research) so that they can transfer those skills to other contexts (other academic work, their future careers, personal information needs).

And yet again we’re left with the following questions: (1) How can I teach this material to students within the research context so that it best facilitates their retention of the information I’m presenting (2) and best facilitates their ability to transfer these skills across domains?

The most successful information literacy educators of the future  – the ones that understand, in a broader context, what information literacy is – will be the ones that provide creative answers to these questions.
Our students will be better off for it.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

One response to “What is Information Literacy?

  1. Pingback: The Librarian as Q: Defining Our Role in the Classroom | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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