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Information Literacy 2.0

I’ve been reading an absolutely fantastic article (Elmborg’s “Information Literacy and Writing Across the Curriculum”) and a slightly less fantastic article (Shapiro’s “Information Literacy as a Liberal Art”). And it’s gotten me thinking back to my first months as a librarian here, when my supervisor brought James Elmborg here to talk to us for an afternoon about being new librarians. We were full of questions about how to talk to faculty when we couldn’t be subject specialists in every subject we served, how we could advance the library’s goal of integrating information literacy more fully into the curriculum, and how to talk to faculty about information literacy in a way that would communicate that we were talking about more than boolean operators and controlled vocabulary.

In the course of that afternoon, Elmborg gave us lots of tips and solid advice, but he also challenged us to think more broadly. I’ll never forget when he urged us forward, saying, “You need to articulate your epistemology.” As a group, he said, librarians have a hard time coming to grips with precisely how we fit into students’ educational development. We have a hard time selling ourselves to faculty when we can’t describe what it is that we do. And just two months out of library school, I was flabbergasted to learn that I didn’t actually know what it was that I did or where I fit into students’ development.

Just this last week week I revisited Elmborg’s article in a new context. It was included in a packet of articles that served as the background for a meeting, and the Shapiro article was also in that packet. The contrast between the two was startling.

While the Shapiro article talks a lot about “information literacy,” it foregrounds information technology in almost every example. It also says that the facet of the proposed information literacy curriculum termed “Resource Literacy” is “practically identical with librarians’ conceptions of information literacy, and includes concepts of the classification and organization of such resources” (see the section entitled “An Information Literacy Curriculum”). This facet, by the way, falls second after “Tool Literacy” which is “the ability to understand and use the practical and conceptual tools of current information technology, including software, hardware and multimedia.”

While these concepts are certainly not outside the realm of information literacy, I don’t think that they are the primary goals, either. Instead, they are tools working in aid of true information literacy, just as punctuation and grammar are tools in aid of good writing. Nobody would argue that anyone with a perfect command of the grammatical rules of writing is automatically a good writer. Nor would they argue that the teachers of writing should hold grammatical rules as their primary instructional goals.

After reading the Shapiro article it was such a relief to read Elmborg saying exactly that. “There is a ‘grammar’ of information….” he says, “Like sentence-level grammar, these are isolated skills that separate research from the making of meaning” (72-73). And when skills are isolated from the process of making meaning it “breeds cynicism and a view of writing [and research] as busy-work” in students (Elmborg 72).

Making meaning, then, is a fundamental part of information literacy. Without this as the ultimate goal, information literacy becomes a task, a chore more akin to Hercules’ Labors than to anything else. Helping students construct meaning should be our primary goal. Along the way we may have to help them develop specific skills, including the “grammar” of searching, recognizing what constitutes evidence in their disciplines, and evaluating the information they find against the measure of their information need.

With this as the primary goal, competency standards (such as those drafted by ACRL) and “resource literacy” are just the important intermediary steps on the path toward the ability to grapple with a subject, interrogate it, recognize the voices that contribute to its discussion, and contribute one’s own voice to that discussion. Information Literacy is not a skill to be tacked on to a syllabus. It is one in a collage of abilities that enhance students’ capacity to access course content and participate in the discourses of their chosen disciplines. This is my epistemology and the foundation of my theory of pedagogy.

References:

  • ACRL “Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.” 2000.
  • Elmborg, James K. “Information Literacy and Writing Across the Curriculum: Sharing the Vision.” Reference Services Review 31.1 (2003): 68-80
  • Shapiro, Jeremy J. and Shelley K. Hughes. “Information Literacy [or Technology] as a Liberal Art.” Educom Review 31.2 (1996): 31-34 — I noted the possible change in title because I can’t determine definitively which is correct. The “Literacy” version appears on the Educom web site, but the “Technology” version is indexed in Academic Search Premier, and is cited by other articles I’ve read.

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