I was recently asked by a student at my university if they could interview me for a journalism project they were working on about literacy in our community. After I gave my responses, I was thinking that it might be worth posting here (with their permission), because I thought maybe some of the questions and answers could serve as a jumping off point for discussion. These are just my take on these issues, and it would be really interesting for me to hear what others’ thoughts are. I’ve broken the interview into two parts; I’ll post Part I today, and Part II later in the week. So here’s a (believe it or not) condensed version of the interview, with most of the personal stuff, aside from a short bit on how I got into the library game from academic philosophy, removed:
What exactly is information literacy?
People define this in lots of different ways. One way I think about it is that it’s the ability to think critically about the information that’s out there, so that you can use information for the purposes that matter to you. In that sense, information literacy might just involve figuring out how to find out when Drake is coming to Sacramento. That one’s easy: You just type in “Drake Sacramento” to Google. But most of the time it’s a lot harder.
In college it might be that your professor wants you to find a bunch of “scholarly” sources for your paper, which might be kind of challenging, because we’re used to using Google all the time. So in that sense, to be information literate is to know how to use information for a specific purpose: how to find quality sources to teach you about a topic that you can then cite as evidence for the claims you make in your paper. Doing that can be a lot trickier than it sounds. It also involves understanding more deeply why your professor wants you to use those sources, instead of just random articles from the internet. What is it, exactly, about the articles that are written by scholars that make them so different from the kinds of information we’re ordinarily exposed to in our everyday lives? This scholarly stuff is supposed to be more “reliable,” but why?
In other contexts, information literacy might involve knowing how to find good medical research, if, say, you or one of your family members has been given some kind of health diagnosis that you want to learn more about. You want to be able to distinguish between what’s reliable and what’s not, because this question really matters to you. You need to be able to think critically about what counts as good evidence or not, and you need to know how to find that evidence. Importantly, you may also need to distinguish between different types of good evidence: has this particular treatment been verified to produce good results in one study, or is there a meta-analysis showing that it’s proved to be effective in lots of different studies? That’s a very sophisticated kind of information literacy that can really matter: what are the hierarchies of good evidence, and how can you know when something meets those criteria? Too many people, even amongst the highly educated, have never been formally taught these things.
Lots of less-high stakes stuff requires pretty complex thinking about information, too. If I want to know which record store in San Francisco is the best, I’ll need to define my information need (figure out the purposes that I want to go there for) and then figure out what kind of information might satisfy that need. So like if I want to find the first Kanye West record on vinyl, one way I could figure that out is by calling Amoeba Records on the Haight to see if they’ve got it in-stock. Some recent research done by information scientists for a group called Project Information Literacy shows that a lot of employers are frustrated with new college graduates because they’ve forgotten how to pick up a phone in order to find a piece of information they need; not everything is on Google. In this case, the best record store in San Francisco is the one that has a copy of The College Dropout in-stock, and that’s something I’m probably going to have to make a phone call to figure out.
A friend of mine and I have gotten really into collecting vinyl records, and we were trying to figure out the other day whether or not all these really expensive analog re-issues were worth spending like twice as much money on over the regular, seemingly perfectly good versions of the records. We were trying to read reviews about whether they were worth it, and were getting a lot of conflicting information from people whose expertise was not clear. The online reviews were probably actually pretty useless, and if we wanted to settle the question for real, I think we’d have to look at some actual research. So how would we do that? Being information literate in that sense might simply mean that I need to know that there’s a music librarian at my university, and that I can ask them for help, because this is their expertise. I don’t have to to all that legwork myself. But how would we do that if both of us weren’t academics with access to a university library and its resources?
And even figuring out whether or not some Yelp or Amazon.com reviews contain anything helpful to you really depends on being able to think critically about a lot of different things. Was that negative review of the new Brazilian joint in town written by someone whose favorite restaurant is Olive Garden? That kind of stuff can affect the credibility of the information in front of you. I think this would be a really great thing for someone to make an instructional video on.
So, more generally, I think that information literacy involves knowing, out of all the information that you’re constantly exposed to every day – from television, the internet, your friends, your parents, your professors – what stuff you’re supposed to believe, and what stuff isn’t really worth believing. For any specific issue that comes up in life – whether it’s a review of a restaurant, something you heard on CNN or Fox News, or something someone said on Twitter, how do I know what information I should to use to inform my beliefs about the world, and what information I should probably ignore? And what criteria can I apply to help me think well about this? This is really a philosophical question, and I think it would be good if more librarians thought of it that way.
Are we teaching all this stuff in our information literacy sessions? Of course not. But I think it should be our goal, and I think we could make a lot of progress if we focused our collective efforts in this way.
I read online that you have degrees in degrees in philosophy and library science, what made you decide to use those degrees to teach others about informational literacy?
I studied philosophy because it was fascinating to me. The first thing I was exposed to was a dialogue by Plato, called the Meno, where Socrates is trying to figure out from this aristocratic Greek guy what are the rules you’re supposed to live by? As a young person I’d felt, quite a bit in my life, that the rules a lot of people lived by made no sense to me, so I really identified with this. I couldn’t even believe it was happening in school. In that sense studying philosophy was never, deep down, this thing that I did to get ahead in life, or to have a career; it was really a way to try to figure things out that didn’t make much sense to me.
By the time I got a master’s in philosophy, and had taught for a few years, I realized that what really interested me way more than writing a dissertation in philosophy was working with students on their college research skills, and helping them do stuff that interested them personally. It took me a long time to admit this, because philosophy had been such a transformative thing in my life. But I didn’t like teaching specific content that much; it was kind of boring to me. And for reasons I just gave, my philosophical interests were actually really very narrow: I didn’t like having to talk about Cartesian Dualism or whatever, for two weeks; I really didn’t care – and I ended up thinking that personality psychologists had more interesting answers to the philosophical questions I happened to care about than moral philosophers did, anyway. I liked showing students how to think well about stuff they were interested in, and I liked teaching them to be creative thinkers in their research. Being a librarian allows me to just focus more on that, on the pedagogical aspects of what I was doing.
But in order to turn that into a career I had to get a master’s degree in information science, even though I already had one in philosophy. So once I realized that that’s what I wanted to do, I applied for that degree. It was probably the first conscious career decision I ever made in my life, at about the age of 28. I went to UNC-Chapel Hill, and loved it there, and going there helped me get the job I currently have.
I think that philosophy is one of the best degrees you could have to teach students information literacy. I think I always thought critically, in the sense of questioning the stuff people said. What studying philosophy helped me do was develop the tools to think in a more systematic, logical way. I was never very good at formal logic but it did teach me the structure of thought: how arguments are put together, what counts as good evidence, and so forth. One of the major branches of philosophy is epistemology, which is the study of knowledge. In essence, it asks the question: how do I know what I should believe? In this sense, information literacy is just a kind of applied epistemology. In fact, it was actually two librarians, in an article written back in 1952, that coined the phrase that’s now very popular in several different disciplines, “social epistemology.”
I think that information literacy is a kind of social epistemology that helps people form their beliefs about what information they should believe in the world. Because of that, the transition from philosophy to information literacy librarianship seems like a completely natural extension of my background & training.
How do you go about teaching others how to become more information literate?
At Chico State, it’s through research. We focus on process. That was something that was really impressed on me when I worked at UNC’s Undergraduate Library. What we try to do is work with specific professors, or programs, to help students with the research skills they need to be successful in their courses and in college more generally. I have learning exercises and a curriculum, but try to tailor each session to each particular classes’ needs. Our instruction is almost always at the assignment level. In this sense, we’re incorporating information literacy into the university curriculum.
In the mission statement for our program, I wrote 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.
Our mission at the Meriam Library is to incorporate information literacy into the university curriculum by focusing our efforts on teaching students these skills during the process of research. Being able to develop a quality research question, and to locate, evaluate, and successfully synthesize that information into a quality research product are critical components of college success. We believe that teaching information literacy skills within the context of course-related research will not only improve student research, but also allow students to apply and transfer these skills to other domains, both in their college careers, and beyond. This approach furthers the library’s aim of fostering lifelong-learning and curiosity in our students.
I mean that. I’m very interested in helping students with their course-related research, but I also hope that it goes beyond that. The challenge, for me, is to figure out a way to teach students to think about using information in their courses that also transfers to helping them think well about information in their daily lives. That is what I think actual information literacy is. Because of that, I’m very interested in research in educational psychology and the cognitive science of learning that discusses empirically driven pedagogical approaches that help students transfer their learning from one context, to another. I try to think of ways to incorporate these strategies into our information literacy instruction as much as possible.
You can read part II of this interview here.