Stanley Wilder Makes All The Wrong Assumptions About Information Literacy

In 2005 a librarian named Stanley Wilder wrote an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that got him a whole lot of attention. The article was titled “Information Literacy Makes All The Wrong Assumptions” and asserts that information literacy instruction, which Wilder defines as “a rigorous program of instruction in research skills, provided wholly or in part by librarians,” is harmful.

I just looked up what “harmful” means and post a photo of that search result below in case for a moment you questioned, as I did, whether or not you in fact understood what the word harmful means:


Now that we’re all on the same page here – as it turns out, harmful does, in fact, mean that something like … bad – I guess I can’t help but wondering why somebody  who is now the director of an academic library would say something like this in somewhere as important as The Chronicle of Higher Education – and why he’d keep saying these things in the brand spankin’ new issue of Communications in Information Literacy. Because lets face it, for a librarian to say in this day and age that information literacy instruction is wrongheaded – as opposed to, say, one of the most important services academic libraries offer – is a statement so bold the arguments you’d have in favor of making that claim ought to have come down to you on a set of gold plates delivered by an angel.

Unfortunately, you’re going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting to figure out what he’s trying to say; for Wilder’s piece is so low quality in terms of clarity of expression and the rigor of its argumentation that it can be maddening at times to try to discern what the actual argument is supposed to be.  There are claims put forward but no obvious arguments in defense of them. What claims are made do not seem to bear much relationship to each other. When I used to grade undergraduate essays, this was a pretty systemic problem with their papers; I’d often have to talk to students about the “flow” of their sentences: that it was important that sentences bear some logical relationship to one another. Wilder’s entire piece violates this basic premise,  so I’m going to ignore most of the ridiculous, unsubstantiated, and un-argued-for claims and present what I take to be his central argument, which I’ve reconstructed for you here. (If you happen to be curious about whether I’ve been charitable to Mr. Wilder, please see the original piece (publication date: 1/7/2005, Vol. 51, Issue 18)).

Most of what Wilder says about information literacy follows from the following claim he makes at the beginning of the essay:

The premise of information literacy is that the supply of information has become overwhelming, and that students need a rigorous program of instruction in research or library-use skills, provided whole or in part by librarians.

Thus the first and second premises in his overall argument against information literacy:

1. Students do not understand how to navigate information on the web (claim attributed by Wilder to “the idea behind information literacy”).

2. Information literacy instruction is designed to help students understand how to navigate information on the web (claim attributed by Wilder to “the idea behind information literacy”).

The problem, however, is this:

the idea behind informationliteracy is that our typical freshman is drowning in information, when in fact Google provides her with material she finds good enough, and does so instantaneously. Information literacy assumes that she accepts unquestioningly theinformation she finds on the Internet, when we know from research that she is a skeptic who filters her results to the best of her ability. Information literacy tells us that she cannot recognize when she needs information, nor can she find, analyze, or use it, when she demonstrably does all of those things perfectly well, albeit at a relatively unsophisticated level. Simply put, information literacy perceives a problem that does not exist.

So the argument, I guess, is this:

3. But, premise 1 is actually false: students do, reliably and systematically, pick out the accurate information they need online (Wilder argument against 1).

From which it follows that:

4. Therefore, information literacy is irrelevant (it makes all the wrong assumptions in the sense that it attempts to solve a problem that does not, in fact, exist). (Conclusion following from 1-3).

The argument is valid: if the premises were true, the conclusion would follow. But is it sound?: Are all the premises true? That’s what Wilder would have to establish for us to be logically required to believe the conclusion of his article.

Let’s, for the moment anyway, grant premises 1 and 2. The main premise doing the work in the argument is premise 3: that students reliably are able to pick out the information they need.

Let me tell you this: if Wilder had evidence for this claim, I, and every other librarian and faculty member in our higher education system would love to see it. But he doesn’t present any such evidence at all, and the reason, as far as I can tell, is largely this: it simply doesn’t exist. And, not only does it not exist, but almost all of my experience as a faculty member and as an academic librarian contradicts it: students have a really hard time locating and evaluating information that is reliable.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. In trying to reconstruct the argument as valid, I’ve actually misinterpreted the third premise. Notice that Wilder says:

Information literacy assumes that she accepts unquestioningly the information she finds on the Internet, when we know from research that she is a skeptic who filters her results to the best of her ability.

So what Wilder is really is saying is something like

3* students think they can pick out accurate information online.

Notice that this is not, in fact, an argument for premise 3. Even if it were true , it merely would establish the fact that students think they’re good at analyzing information quality. And this is precisely the claim at issue. What librarians – and, of course, faculty – are denying is that the best a typical freshman has to offer in terms of thinking critically about information does not meet the standards of rigor expected of a typical college student: they’re simply not all that great at using, locating, or evaluating the kind of information we’d want them to use in research (or, for that matter, to form reliable true beliefs about the world).

Here is an email I’ve never received from a faculty member: I know that you teach information literacy instruction, but I wanted to tell you that your job is utterly irrelevant. Have you seen the papers my students handed in last semester? The sources were impeccable! There was not one claim put forward that was not defended with the utmost rigor, precision, and evidence that would make even the most skeptical of academic’s knees weak! Get out of our institution!!

Anecdotal evidence aside, empirical research is overwhelmingly against Wilder’s hypothesis. A new study by Project Information Literacy called “How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College” reports the following findings: 

PIL Major Findings

which findings, I submit, give us awfully strong evidence to deny Wilder’s claims that students are doing just fine evaluating information on their own. And they don’t even think they are, either: they know they need help, and actively seek it out.

Which leads us to another point, Wilder’s caution that “librarians should not assume that college students welcome their help in doing research online.” You’re totally right, Mr. Wilder: librarians should no longer just assume it; they now have empirical evidence that they are considered by students to be the most important people (along with English faculty) for navigating the information landscape!

That is all to say that any way you interpret it – 3 or 3* – Wilder’s main argument against information literacy is demonstrably false.

But alas. Wilder’s at it again. In his recently published  CIL piece, he says,

As I reflect on the Chronicle article, I see it as an argument for an emphatically discipline-based orientation for library instruction. If it has a single takeaway idea, it is that all knowledge is situated in a (disciplinary) context and is meaningless outside it.  Thus, the library research knowledge we impart should spring from the unique discourse of each discipline and be fully integrated down to the class assignment level. As regards the content of our teaching, there is no room for a one-size -fits-all instruction program.

Wilder is, to be sure, a pretty darn charitable reader of his own work: I’m hard pressed to see the central argument of his article as anything other than what I presented for you here. But, he’s right: he does, offhandedly toward the end of his article, say that we shouldn’t have information literacy instruction  that’s not embedded in subject-specific teaching of research skills.

Good thing literally all library instruction – except for the pretty rare semester long information literacy class – is done exactly this way. (Wilder, incidentally, doesn’t offer any evidence against for-credit semester long information literacy instruction; although quality research demonstrating its value does exist).  So this, after all these years and public talks on information literacy, is what Wilder’s claim boils down to: something most information literacy librarians already knew, and were already doing, anyway.

Nevertheless,  as of 2013, Wilder still endorses the whole shebang:

I stand behind the whole of the Chronicle piece.

And unfortunately for information literacy, he just won’t shut up about it.



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

3 responses to “Stanley Wilder Makes All The Wrong Assumptions About Information Literacy

  1. FYI, I sent this blogpost to the InfoLit listserv.

  2. Pingback: A Response to Stanley Wilder’s, “A Reconsideration of Information Literacy” | Designer Librarian

  3. Pingback: Information Literacy Is What Matters to Academic Library Directors | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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