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What is Information Literacy Anyway?

Tomorrow I’m supposed to stand up in front of a group of faculty, all of whom are considering teaching one of the college’s new curriculum-wide freshman seminars next year, all of which must include some explicit practice developing information literacy. My task: explain information literacy to them in 10 easy minutes so that they can start thinking of ways to build it into their syllabi.

I wish I knew what information literacy is.

My co-workers have heard me say that I’m particularly confused by two things about information literacy: “information” and “literacy.” “Information” can refer to everything from color and smell to poetry to data to formal research articles. And while all of these things could be included in the definition of “information literacy,” for the most part we mean something more specific than that, something more like “facts or approaches or primary sources or secondary sources.” I know, I know, there are exceptions to that. But really, we don’t mean “the amount of the data after data compression” (Shu-Kun), or many of the other meanings proposed by Wikipedians. And “literacy” feels like a remedial skill to me, whereas I tend to think of sophistication in this area as a combination of concrete skills and an omnipresent habit of mind, both of which are useful in and out of the classroom and research contexts.

But this doesn’t really help me with my presentation, so I looked back at a couple of the position documents my department has produced in the last couple of years: Information Literacy in the Liberal Arts and the List of 6 and more. Then my co-workers and I plagiarized the second one, tweaked it a little, and came up with a list of questions that would be useful for first year students. This we developed into a handout for the presentation: Finding, Evaluating, and Ethically Using Information.

For my purposes tomorrow, these questions sketch out the habit of mind that information literate people exhibit. They don’t cover “knowing you need information,” and they don’t cover concrete search skills or strategies, but they are a start.

[edit: I should have linked to Steve’s post and didn’t, so here are his thoughts on the topic.]

Shu-Kun Lin (2008). ‘Gibbs Paradox and the Concepts of Information, Symmetry, Similarity and Their Relationship’, Entropy, 10 (1), 1-5. Available online at Entropy journal website.

Published inFirst Year StudentsLibraries and LibrariansTeaching and Learning


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