Information Literacy

One of my first library school classes was entitled “Information Literacy and Instructional Design.” We spent a grand total of less than one class session* discussing what information literacy is, based on the ALA’s information literacy competency standards for higher education (more on this later). We spent no time on how to be information literate; in retrospect I came to assume that the assumption was that we all were already because we were in library school, but I for one would have preferred more instruction in this area. When an assignment required submitting an annotated bibliography, I needed to do research to find out just what an annotated bibliography was supposed to include. The vast majority of the course was dedicated to the “instructional design” component of the course title. Don’t get me wrong. Some of this was VERY useful. The amount of time spent in class on designing basic graphics and web pages? Not so much.

I digress. My point here is to talk about what information literacy is, or rather, what skills a person needs to have and what assumptions a person needs to question in order to be considered information literate.

The current ACRL information literacy standards focus on “a set of abilities”: determine what information is needed, efficiently access information, critically evaluate information, and so forth. For the most part, I don’t have serious complaints about them. I do feel a little as if a whole bunch of librarians got together in a room and tossed phrases up on a whiteboard, and then edited them together to get to a manageable list. And while I think that ethical use of information is important, I don’t think it’s necessarily a component of information literacy.

But the ACRL has been working on a new framework and it is that which I’d like to devote some LIS-student attention to. First, the 6 “threshold concepts” in the framework:

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. Information has Value

There are great reflections on the framework from the practitioner perspective. Lane Wilkinson (Sense and Reference) wrote a series of posts beginning with a critique of the notion of “threshold concepts.” Jacob Berg (BeerBrarian) shared initial thoughts and later a critique of “information has value” in particular. Barbie Keiser wrote at Information Today about “Reimagining Information Literacy Competencies.” Go read those, but bear in mind that there are undoubtedly many other good commentaries out there. My point isn’t to assign a reading list that will last you from now until the fall semester starts.

Why did the ACRL believe it was necessary to reformulate the information literacy standards? Barbie Keiser wrote (in the post linked to in the previous paragraph) that since 2000 there have been changes in

the nature of higher education and the responsibility of academic institutions; approaches to learning, pedagogy, and scholarly communication; advances in IT and its ubiquitous use, as well as the globalized information environment; and recognition of the student as a knowledge creator (in addition to a user) and the diversity of formats in which these students create new knowledge (e.g., print and multimedia).

I was in law school in 2000, and law school education is its own beast, but I was in college only one year earlier, so I have a fairly good seat to compare higher education as a student now and 15 years ago. The primary difference that I see is the availability of information. It is easier to find information today, it is easier to cite sources, and it’s possible to conduct research without setting foot in the library. The other things that Keiser mentions? I’m not sure.

(For a digression on the differences between now and then, go to my personal blog.)

Let’s assume she’s right about the differences between 2000 and today. Do these differences create a new set of skills needed to be considered information literate? Do they create new assumptions that the student needs to question?

To the extent that higher education builds upon the “everyone gets a trophy” nature of child-raising, it makes sense that the new framework includes a recognition of student-as-information-creator. It makes sense that the threshold concepts are a little build-your-own-adventure construct-your-own-meaning. But is construct-your-own-meaning compatible with critical evaluation of sources? With ensuring a variety of viewpoints? With identifying a meaningful question and using appropriate sources to answer it? I say no. In fact, I think the old information literacy competencies are MORE needed in today’s educational environment than they were when they were first formulated. (Ah, the good old days when we were all much more serious students and walked uphill to school barefoot in the snow.)

Today’s student does need to question the assumptions she’s been raised with. She needs to question the value of information that she creates. She needs to question whether her questions are meaningful. She needs to question the diversity of the information she encounters. Do the threshold concepts sufficiently encourage this questioning? It seems to me that they give a nod towards it, but that the old statement of competencies provides guidance as to how to question these assumptions.

From these questions, I conclude that the new framework muddies the waters. But in the spirit of the first concept, let’s make this a conversation. What are your thoughts on the new framework? How is the new framework an improvement on the old standards? Do today’s undergraduates have different information needs than the undergraduates of 15 years ago? Share your thoughts in the comments.

*Based on a review of the syllabus to refresh my memory; I would have been more generous in my assessment had I not looked back at it.

4 replies

  1. One thing about your “IL and Instruction Design” class (or perhaps other classes you’ve taken) – they’ve got you thinking! This is good. I was in library school back in the good old days you describe (in snowy Michigan, and remember, we walked barefoot in the snow uphill both to and from school 🙂

    I think one thing the Standards revision is doing for us as a profession is getting us to think about the Standards. Thinking about them critically, critical in the sense of critical theories. Theories like feminist theory, critical race theory, post-colonial theory, Marxism, etc. I’d argue that these theories are evidenced in the new framework to a small extent. This small opening allows us to consider not just the “Standards” as received wisdom, but as things constructed in a certain time and space. We can ask of them why are they created? Why are they in the form they are? Who was part of their creation? Who wasn’t?

    I think this might be roughly equivalent to the phrase “construct-your-own-meaning”? But if we don’t construct our own meaning, who will? Why should we allow them to? This is not to say that just because I say, “this is what IL means to me” that it is somehow more valid than anyone else’s meaning. I need to make an argument and case and to show how I make this meaning, so that we have a basis for discussion. Is there a true, objective Meaning of IL out there somewhere that our definitions all need to be measured against? Or are our meanings where we begin a conversation? I feel the new Framework has room for us to acknowledge differences in a more constructive manner.

    I’d refer you to a recent series of articles on the new Framework at Communications in Information Literacy (full disclosure, I’m one of the editors of CIL.) Lots of good ideas on how to change the Standards, and even discussion of if we should.
    Another recent article that I think does a good job of totally refocusing our instructional goals away from the Standards is by Emily Drabinski, entitled “Toward a Kairos of Library Instruction.” It’s in the latest issue of the Journal of Academic Librarianship.


    • Bob, thank you so much for this response; it definitely has me thinking even more! I’m making a note to myself to read the articles at CIL. And hopefully I’ll be able to come back and reflect even more on your response after doing so.


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