The Myth of Information Literacy

The comments and responses about my bit on information literacy have been intriguing, and obviously lots of us disagree on what information literacy is and what role librarians play in its development. Just for the sake of argument, I want to stoke the fire and make a bold proposition.There’s no such thing as “information literacy.” It’s a baggy phrase that means either too much or too little, and as defined by the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards provides an unrealistic and unattainable goal for students, and causes many academic librarians to believe they are somehow responsible for achieving this chimerical goal.

And if information literacy in the broad sense implied by the ACRL Standards truly exists, then reference librarians are the only people who have any chance of becoming, or desire to become, information literate. Reference librarians are trained to do any sort of research, to be content neutral and process strong, but that’s not how everyone else works. Only if our goal is to train students to be little librarians should we train them to be information literate in the broadest sense. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I say that’s not what students or their professors want.

If we’re not trying to teach information literacy, then what are we doing? Among other learning objectives that have very little to do with librarians, professors and librarians are trying to teach students how to do scholarly research, and that’s certainly where instruction librarians come into play. Scholarly research isn’t vague and content neutral, though, because it always has a subject and a context. Scholarly research also isn’t so broad that recognizing and assessing it is impossible, which is why most assessments of information literacy are narrow and don’t even attempt to assess it according to the broad definitions offered by ACRL. Scholarly research isn’t something that can be taught as such, though; it’s only something that can be done. We can offer suggestions and guidelines and feedback, and professors are supposed to model the behavior of the experience researcher, but it’s only learned by doing. That’s why assignments offer students the motive and opportunity to do their own research with guidance from professors and librarians.

Information literacy is a phrase designed to highlight the role of librarians; unfortunately, librarians are usually the only people on a campus familiar with the phrase. If instead we look at scholarly research, which is what the scholars on campus are actually doing, the focus changes, and the role of librarians is more limited than some librarians feel comfortable with. Librarians focus on the library portion of research, but the library portion of any research, even in the humanities, is limited. One of the best books I know on library research is Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models. The entire book is about how to use libraries for research. Compare that to Jacques Barzun’s Modern Researcher. The 6th edition has fourteen chapters. Guess how many are about finding information and using the library? One. This seems about right to me. I’ve been trying to teach students how to write academic research essays off and on for nineteen years, and I know that no matter how essential the library research part isn’t the most important, or even the most difficult, part of any research project. There’s a reason the library-centered book is by a librarian while the research focused book is by an historian.

Scholarly research ability is developed slowly, project by project, over a period of years, and almost always in one discipline. There is no epiphany in an information literacy class or in any other sort of class. The development takes time and energy, and most students will never devote that time and energy to learning to be great researchers, no matter how much we prod them. For those that do develop into great researchers, the role of librarians is important, but still limited, especially because scholars (at least in the humanities) typically learn how to do their research from other scholars, not from librarians. This surprises and even irritates some librarians, but since that’s the way scholars have been mentoring each other since the very beginning of research universities, it doesn’t bother me at all. That’s because instead of focusing on what I could provide for students, which is considerably more than I’m ever asked to provide as a librarian, I look at my own development as a scholar and that of just about every scholar I’ve ever known. Information literacy is something librarians like because it puts them in the center of the scholarly research process, but professors are trying to teach students how to be scholars in their fields. The cumulation of all our teaching might create information literate students, but most people would settle for educated students, whatever that might mean.  

I’m happy doing my part to support the scholarly development of students through collection building, research guides, instruction, consultation, and anything else that seems appropriate, but when I’m doing all this I don’t believe I’m teaching anything called “information literacy.” I’m providing tools and techniques and guidance to support and develop scholarly research that will mostly be done outside the library and the domain of the librarian. Ultimately, this means that I’m not concerned with information literacy in the broadest sense, with whether students or anyone else have all the skills necessary to find, evaluate, and incorporate information about any topic whatsoever. Almost nobody but excellent reference librarians will ever meet that goal anyway. Instead, I focus on the research, helping project by project, hoping that students develop into independent researchers, and knowing that if they do, there will still be areas of incompetence. Scholars are always focused on a project and nurtured in a discipline, and even outstanding scholars have areas of research incompetence, and they always will. That’s when even they call upon reference librarians, the most information literate people around.

16 thoughts on “The Myth of Information Literacy

  1. Thought-provoking post. I wonder if there is something to say for the role of the subject specialist in all of this?

  2. I think the role of the subject specialist is reasonably clear, both for collection development and liaison/instruction work. Building collections and creating guides to their use is something that’s much easier to do well if the librarian knows something about the subject. Helping students with research projects also requires some knowledge of a subject, though I think that differs by area and the level of student. For more advanced students, it’s at the subject level where research skills require more specialized librarians. Most instruction librarians could teach a freshman comp class in any field, but they would have a harder time offering guidance on senior theses in every field.

  3. Wow, I find this idea to be really freeing. In IL sessions I feel a lot of pressure to teach theory. But if students don’t need to understand the theory that underlies research, that frees me to spend more time on practical instruction. Also backs up an idea I had about my lib guides, which is less explaining in text and more interactive features (search boxes, RSS, video, direct links etc.) I don’t think students are going to read large blocks of text about different types of resources. So I use the space to display resources, and I still link back to our guide on the research process.

  4. While scholarly research is largely content-specific, using the library and library resources is part of scholarly research, and this is not content-specific. And while scholars are experts in their areas of scholarly research, that’s not to say that certain aspects of their research abilities couldn’t be improved. For example, a colleague of mine did an interesting study recently in which it was determined that many scholars would have changed their research projects if they had known about information resources they learned of only subsequent to completing their projects. [Aaron Lercher, “Efficiency of scientific communication: a survey of world science,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology,” (Oct. 2010).] Just in my own experience, I’ve found that many professors at my institution don’t know how to use the library catalog effectively (since they were not aware that we had certain books). I think that there are general (i.e. non-content specific) principles of use of library resources, scholarly communication, and information evaluation, that are important for college students to be aware of and could contribute to their ability to do scholarly research.

  5. Paul, I agree, there are general principles, focused specifically on using libraries for research. These are relatively easy to learn, even if there are professors who don’t learn them. (I encountered a professor who had never searched our OPAC, but that’s what research assistants are for.) My problem with the notion of information literacy is that it encompasses much more than library research, and because of who came up with the standards and who actually uses the phrase information literacy, it implies that librarians are somehow responsible for teaching something other than how to use libraries. It also implies that librarians are the experts on evaluating information in a scholarly discipline rather than the professors teaching in that discipline.
    Instead of information literacy, we have the perfectly good and centuries-old word research. It’s what scholars do, and it’s occasionally what they ask students to do. And librarians are properly concerned only with the library portion of research, which will always only be a percentage of the relevant work. Thus I still contend that I don’t teach “information literacy”; I teach research skills, especially those focused on library resources.

  6. Wayne, I think we’re in agreement, then. I’m not comfortable either with the phrase “information liteacy” or the overly wide reach of the ACRL standards. I’m all for limiting what librarians teach to library research. I wonder if Lane Wilkinson at Sense and Reference has any substantial disagreement with this.

  7. I don’t know about Lane. It doesn’t seem like he would disagree that much. I suspect as with a number of our discussions, Lane and I would disagree on terminology as much as anything. In this case, I think the term “information literacy” leads us astray, but he might disagree with that.

  8. At the risk of being somewhat challenging, I think that information literacy is exactly what we need to be promoting. Being the author of a textbook on the topic (Research Strategies), I believe we need to defend a sensible approach to student instruction. Where the confusion lies, I believe, is in equating library instruction and information literacy. Library instruction is a small but important subset of information literacy. My textbook doesn’t start with the library, but with a survey of the massive changes that have come to our world of information. It goes on to deal with a model for research that can be adapted to most disciplines, and then instruction in the development of analytical research questions and theses. My personal field is religion, the same as this blog’s author.
    Here is where I think we come to a meeting of minds and a disagreement. All professors have, indeed, learned scholarly research method by being involved in thousands of hours of study and more thousands of hours of doing scholarly research. They, no doubt, wrote better papers than their peers even in undergraduate days, and they have clawed their way to the top in research skills, with deficits to be sure. Their research has been defined by their particular discipline.
    The typical undergraduate (even many graduate students) lack the knowledge base and understanding of the discipline to really do a wise job of taking on a research problem and addressing it. Their deficit lies in two areas – lack of knowledge of the discipline and lack of understanding of the nature of the discipline’s information sources (including how to find and evaluate what they need). I teach the latter, and that is true information literacy. I have been highly successful with thousands of students in greatly elevating their ability to understand the nature of information in their disciplines and to acquire and evaluate that information well. To argue that this can’t be taught is to fly in the face of the evidence.
    Professors could teach information literacy as well, if they would focus more on the research process and less on imparting content and leaving students to struggle with research projects on their own. Becoming a good researcher does indeed take time. But it’s time we did more to give starting researchers a leg up.

  9. I began my career as an Instruction Librarian and at that time it was pretty much a “show and tell” operation – usually at some point where the student didn’t need it. I began look at what it meant to become knowledgable and how research was only one portion of that. Getting the bits and bytes of data, transforming that into information, and from there developing knowledge, both old and new. From that new knowledge new little bits and bytes of data emerged and the circle continued.
    I began to see my job as an instruction librarian change as a result. I think the concept of information literacy initially derived from librarians that were dissatisfied with the same problems I was seeing. I think information literacy standards were part of this outgrowth – but let’s face it – the public school librarians beat us to that punch by a couple of years. That should be where these students should be learning basic research skills. Unfortunately we know they aren’t so many of them need the make-up in college – much as many of them need remedial reading and writing.
    What we should be able to do is introduce them to the more narrowly focused resources which you need in college and assist them in using those, and introduce them to the entire process of knowledge and how knowledge begets more knowledge and their contribution to the process.
    I also hate the “information” part of the term. I think our whole notion of information has degraded the notion of the entire process of gathering knowledge. What I want them to become is research experts in their field – over and above the basic so-called information literacy skills. That’s why whatever instruction we do has to be embedded within those courses and we have to let go of the parts that are better taught by the faculty – besides how many of us can truly cover every point in the standards by ourselves – it must be shared with the content experts. Let the students know you are there to help them further when and if they need it.
    Sorry, guess I got a bit carried away here, but I can understand your point entirely and agree to a great extent. In in the middle of a search for a new instruction librarian and we’re embarking on a project with the history faculty to look at this very thing, so it’s a timely discussion.

  10. There’s nothing like a couple of provocative posts and some thoughtful comments to help me clarify my own thoughts some. I agree with William that there are things we can teach students and that we should do what we can to give them help learning how to do research. That’s something I already do with students at various levels. IF what by information literacy we mean the variety of research tips and guidelines and general knowledge of scholarship that help students become better researchers in some academic field, then I have no problem with the term. It just seems to me that as used by some librarians, information literacy has expanded beyond this to include the sort of skills and knowledge that, say, a great reference librarian would have. It’s this broader meaning that I want to resist, because I think it does a disservice to us all. When everything associated with research becomes “information literacy,” and librarians believe they are responsible for that information literacy, the only option is failure.
    This could be why the assessments of information literacy that I’ve seen are inevitably narrow, ranging from some basic knowledge of peer review or the difference between primary and secondary sources to an in-depth assessment of writing portfolios, but still from one course or one program. One problem with information literacy as broadly conceived by the ACRL standards is that it’s not really assessable. Only piecemeal parts can be assessed. Does knowing the difference between primary and secondary sources mean a student is information literate? Or is it being able to find scholarly articles on a given topic, read them, and incorporate them into a specific essay? Or is it to find, evaluate, and incorporate into their worldview information on any topic whatsoever? The latter is what the ACRL standards imply.
    And finally, there’s the problem of nomenclature. Since almost no one but librarians use the phrase “information literacy,” it’s possible we’re hindering efforts to establish concern with the research process rather than just the results on campuses. Just like good academic writers can’t necessarily teach writing well, good scholars can’t necessarily articulate their practices in ways understandable to novices. That’s where trained writing instructors and librarians come in, and it’s probably why the introductions to academic research and writing often come in the same course.
    So anyway, thanks for the responses so far. They’ve been thought provoking.

  11. Hi, Bill:
    I hope I’m not carrying this discussion farther than it should go; I still think a lot needs to be hashed out. I’m still not sure where, or even if, you disagree with Wayne. You say this:
    “The typical undergraduate (even many graduate students) lack the knowledge base and understanding of the discipline to really do a wise job of taking on a research problem and addressing it. Their deficit lies in two areas – lack of knowledge of the discipline and lack of understanding of the nature of the discipline’s information sources (including how to find and evaluate what they need). I teach the latter, and that is true information literacy.”
    You sound here as though information literacy is just teaching how to find and evaluate information sources in a particular discipline. How does this differ from library instruction? Teaching how to find resources in a discipline (or even any discipline) is just library research, isn’t it? And the evaluation component, well, about the best we can do as librarians is discuss the basics, like currency and authority, which is fairly straightforward and easy stuff. So where does the information literacy part come in? Where is the jump made from library instruction to information literacy? (I apologize for not having a copy of your book at hand. I’ve browsed it before, but it’s been a while.)

  12. Paul and Wayne,
    I believe information literacy needs to be a concept that encompasses the entire research process, and that is how I have always taught it in numerous graduate and undergraduate courses over the past 25 years. I see information literacy as the other half of the average university course that is not being taught. It begins with identifying a research problem (which often requires input from a professor and demands creating a research question or thesis that is preliminary but states the problem concisely), then determining the kinds of information needed to address the problem. In this second step, both librarians and professors have often provided simplistic solutions (e.g. “Make sure you only use peer reviewed journals” without enlightening their students on the nature of publishing today [let alone yesterday]. So step two involves and introduction to the nature of the literature in the particular discipline, what is deemed important and what should be avoided. The next step of acquiring the best information to deal with the problem, is often seen as the “library instruction” component, though we know that students use more than libraries. Clearly, the better the skills of students in using databases of various kinds, the better information they will acquire. Step 4 is evaluation, and here is a conundrum. A seasoned professor can look at the journal article and instantly provide 5 reasons why it’s twaddle. The average undergraduate has no such background or ability. That is why I teach evaluation methods that can be used by neophytes (peer review, qualification of the author, measures of recognition by other scholars, and so on). The final step is using the information effectively to address the research problem.
    To be sure, students will muddle and certainly will not act like either seasoned professors or seasoned librarians. But without serious attention to this aspect of university instruction, students will perpetually learn only ABOUT the discipline and will never take the necessary steps to begin to DO the discipline.

  13. “Information literacy” is indeed a problematic phrase. I deal with it because it is universally understood by librarians, but the phrase, “engineering literature research,” is a more accurate label for what I teach my students. The literature research skills I teach my students makes them better designers and empowers them to more easily and willingly engage in life-long learning. Whether or not we want to say that my students become more “information literate” seems like a superfluous matter. What I do believe about my teaching is that it is important enough to be fully integrated into the undergraduate curriculum. Engineering professors are typically not strong library users. They did indeed do what needed to be done to earn their doctorates, but their ability and their desire to help students develop strong subject literature research skills is not strong. Passion is a key issue here. Many engineering professors lack the motivation to teach literature research so there is little reason to believe their students will develop strong research skills. The role of the engineering librarian as a teacher, therefore, is crucial in developing superb engineers.

  14. Based on what I’m reading and understanding of your entry and other people’s comments, perhaps a better word would be “research-literate”? Or “research literacy” for that matter. In fact, research-literate could very well fall under the latest term known as transliteracy. (One of the few trends of late) After all, when a student visits a library, they often do not know where or how to start, but if (or when) we teach them the basics of the research process, then the students should be able to apply the same process, regardless of the topic they need to find information in.
    I do like Jim Clarke’s term, “engineering literature research” however, it’s a bit wordy for my taste.
    (And yes, I recall reading ACRL Standards, and thinking, “are these skills really possible to teach, let alone measure?”)

  15. Interesting take on IL, Wayne and interesting discussion, guys.
    Based on my experience, observation and reflection on the subject, I’ve come to my own conclusions.
    I find myself picking up old copies of John Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook—the older the better—in the second-hand book shops and handing them to those dedicated but frustrated students who come to me and really want to “get it”, that is, to understand how to make sense of the library and write a good research paper using the library’s resources.
    More and more, I’ve come to see that teaching is not something in which the reference librarian ordinarily engages. Oh, he teaches. But so do mothers and fathers. Teaching is incidental to our profession. The unique aspect of our “teaching” is that it is not done in a classroom—the professor’s domain—rather it is done on the floor of the library by the reference desk and in the reference collection.
    Our teaching is accomplished most effectually one-on-one, when the solitary soul comes face-to-face with the reference librarian—voluntarily. Formal instruction or classroom teaching, while natural to the professor, is foreign to the reference librarian’s psyche. It interferes with his innate and uncanny ability to conjure meaning out of thin air right before the eyes of his momentary pupil. Diminishing this gift one iota or worse, exchanging it for that of the professor flies in the face of the custodial reflex that is both his nature and his office.
    One by one and one-on-one, the reference librarian demonstrates how to use a reference book, an online catalog, electronic index or microfiche reader. He is an inveterate explainer of the what and where not the how and why. After years of study, academic faculty are called to profess what they know. The reference librarian delights in explaining the knowledge that is reflected in the library’s bib records—titles, authors, subjects, organization and arrangement. He never tires of explaining the tools of access—the catalog, indexes and reference books—that provide the citations and the context without which the patron would be at a loss. These are the points of entry that will lead to the subject specialists, those living and departed.
    The librarian’s knowledge, then, differs decidedly from that of the professor. His is a surface knowledge, not knowledge with a capital K. He is more bookman than scholar. If this be the case, there is, then, practically nothing, no body of knowledge per se, for the librarian to teach. Why? Because the library in which he works is not a discipline; it’s a place, a place where published research and would-be research congregate in a sort of fellowship that is meant to feed off each other. The library is a place that presents the research of others in order to inspire research in others.

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