A Bit on Information Literacy

I’ve been wanting to respond to a well argued postat Sense and Reference that was sort of a response to a post I wrote in response to another post there. Unfortunately, between the teaching and working on the book and my day job, time for blogging seems to evaporate. I”m not sure if this is a response exactly. It’s more a post inspired by a response I might have made if I were more focused at the moment. I’d said something about the librarian’s role in information literacy, implying that I thought they had a relatively small direct role, and I was criticized for that. My response here will be brief, but I’m hoping to outline a few thoughts. Do librarians play a role in information literacy? I absolutely think they do. Do they play a large direct role? I’m not so sure.

First, let’s refresh ourselves about what information literacy is. The phrase has developed various meanings over the past couple of decades, but I’ll go with the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, since those are widely used. The document is explicit that information literacy is the responsibility of librarians and faculty. The standards are also both broad and deep. I’ll list the basic standards in case you don’t have them all memorized:

  1. The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
  2. The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.
  3. The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.
  4. The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.
  5. The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.

Standards 1 and 2 are, in my opinion, the ones that librarians would typically have the most direct effect on, though often in relatively limited circumstances. Many of us in academic libraries routinely teach students how to find the kind of information they need for research, and give them suggestions on how to evaluate it which they may or may not apply.

I’m not sure who besides the student could be responsible for Standard 3, and I have no idea how that would be assessed in any broad way. What’s clear from the research I’ve read about is that most people have trouble incorporating new information into their knowledge base and value system, especially if it conflicts with values they already hold. But a rigorous liberal education should help people get past that barrier. Regardless, Standard 3 is really quite expansive, and unless they’re actually teaching an information literacy class (or a writing class, where I’ve worked on this with students), librarians typically aren’t working with students to evaluate information in any depth or look at sources critically. This requires that both the librarian and the student have read the work.  I could be mistaken, though. How many librarians out there discuss any books or articles in depth with students and help them evaluate them critically? Pointing out how to tell primary from secondary sources or scholarly from popular articles is one thing, or doing a quick website evaluation to show that some website is biased or unauthoritative, but those are relatively superficial compared to reading and discussing works with students, and it’s the reading and discussion that teaches students how to evaluate well and signals whether something has been comprehended, much less evaluated. I’ll grant it can happen, and just last week I helped a student working on an essay by discussing the course reading with him and helping him generate ideas, but that’s unusual.

Standard 4 is also goes beyond the level of student involvement that most librarians have. Accomplishing a specific purpose can be interpreted many ways, but the specific purpose of most students I see is writing a research essay of some kind. I help them find sources, discuss the different kinds of sources their are and what they could do for an essay, but I don’t work with them in the way that instructors would, and I’m usually not in a position to know if they’ve accomplished their task well. When I teach writing, I do work with students to help them write research essays, which often involves seeing how students use their sources in their writing and teaching them how to use the sources more appropriately. That’s work I could do as a librarian, but it’s not work I normally do. Librarians who teach courses that have research components have that sort of direct role, but other than that how many do? In addition, the Standard implies that this can be done repeatedly, for any project. Given the relatively limited time most librarians have directly with students, how much would our direct teaching enable students to reach that point without significantly more guidance than we typically give?

Standard 5 is a complete washout, because no one but librarians and publishers seems to care much how information is acquired as long as it’s easily acquired. I’ve written before arguing that the legal and economic barriers to scholarly information are incompatible with scholarly values. For example, if scholars want access to articles their library can’t get for some reason, they’ll go through informal and technically illegal channels to get those articles. Standard 5 says the information literate person uses information ethically and legally, but I think there are cases where scholarly ethics and copyright law conflict. The very willingness of otherwise ethical scholars to defy certain copyright laws supports my point. Though I wouldn’t advocate piracy of copyrighted information to anyone, this standard contains more than just “literacy.” It’s an ethical injunction as much as anything, and for the other standards to be met, sometimes it might be necessary to acquire something illegally. Finding information and incorporating it into your worldview to accomplish a task isn’t the same as using the information legally.

Information literacy as conceived by the ACRL standards is very broad, and covers in its entirety the sort of critical thinking and higher order cognitive skills we would expect to be developed over years of higher education. Standards 3 and 4 especially call for those skills. Let’s say that a student who has completed a traditional college degree has managed to acquire those skills, and is in fact information literate in the broad sense. It’s not just that they know a bit more about research or can complete a specific task, but they’re informationally fully formed. How did they get that way? They got this way by studying, writing, researching, and being guided by professors and librarians numerous times. They took class after class, developed some minimal knowledge of a field of study, and produced work that was judged and commented upon for years.

And what direct effect did librarians teaching information literacy have on that? Over four years of college, how much time does the typical student spend with a librarian? Answering this would, I think, give us some idea. The answer would have to vary by institution, I know, but I’m aiming for a ball park figure. And for the purposes here, I want to exclude those schools that have a formal information literacy class of several weeks taught by librarians. I could still work them into my argument, but that practice is
far from universal. I can answer it easily for myself. I went through college getting very good grades, doing good work, and becoming as information literate as my peers, and I received absolutely no research instruction from a librarian. I never took a class with bibliographic instruction, and never asked a reference librarian for help. Granted, I had spent a lot of time in libraries over the years, but I probably hadn’t had any instruction in how to use one to find information since I was in grade school. Once you know how to use a library catalog, the rest you can develop on your own.  I suspect my experience isn’t that atypical. There are probably lots of students who either never talk to a librarian, or never talk to one after their freshman writing class. However, even assuming that students see their librarians, how much time? Two hours a year? Maybe they have one instruction session and one consultation. Does two hours a year seem too small for an average? Four hours a year?

I’m talking about most students. There will always be a few library travelers, who not only spend a lot of time in the library, but who frequently ask questions of the librarians. I’d be very surprised if even the heavily dependent students spent more than a few hours a year with librarians, though. However, it could just be that my experience is limited, and that your library has students who receive direct information literacy related help on a weekly basis for years at a time. One could make the argument that the more dependent upon librarian help one is, the less information literate one is. This could also differ by discipline, because while humanists are heavy library users, they tend not to seek as much direct help from librarians as students in other fields might. My argument might be blinded by the disciplines I work in.

But for most students, how much time? For the sake of argument, let’s say three hours per year, which I suspect is excessive. That’s twelve hours over the course of a four year degree. How many hours is the average college class? That varies a lot by university as well, depending on quarter systems and other factors. A lot of places have fifteen week semesters, where the students meet for 2.5 hours per week. That’s 37.5 hours. And let’s say over the course of four years, students take 28 classes, four per semester. That gives our average student 1050 hours in the classroom. If these figures are reasonable, our average student has interacted with librarians approximately 1.1% as often as she has interacted with faculty in the classroom. Those figures don’t count the time the student has spent working on their papers and projects, and the students don’t really become educated without that work. One study I read about suggested that college students now study about fourteen hours a week. That might be smaller than in the past, but it’s still 1,680 hours over four years. That puts the time with librarians delivering some sort of information literacy instruction at about 4/10s of 1% of the time students spend learning in college. Even if our number of hours assumed for time with librarians or librarian prepared guides were doubled or trebled, it’s still a very small part, and rarely would librarians have been able to go too far towards directly helping students acquire the higher order critical thinking skills necessary to be information literate.

A given librarian might spend hours every week teaching people how to be more information literate, but that doesn’t mean that any students spend hours a week with librarians learning from them. The time spent with librarians compared to time spent in class and studying is always going to be small, and because of that it seems pretentious to think that librarians direct effect on information literacy teaching is going to be significant, especially if we think of information literacy as a higher order ability in the sense that Standard 3 and 4 imply. It’s not just a question of whether students can meet these standards for a given project, but repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. How could it be otherwise? I would ask even librarians. When you were in school, did a significant amount of your education come directly from librarians?

However, this doesn’t mean that libraries and librarians aren’t essential to a good liberal education and to helping students become information literate. Using the library and directly using librarians isn’t the same thing. I know students who are heavy library users who rarely talk to librarians. I was one of those myself. They’re using the collections the library provides, the interfaces and access tools librarians create, the study spaces the library builds. Information literacy instruction itself can be very indirect, but effective. Students might never read the bits of a research guide about how to find or evaluate information, but just going to one repeatedly they can get a sense of where you might go to find articles on a given topic.

One could also argue that the effect of teaching some information literacy skills is disproportional to the time spent teaching them. Students might spend only four hours with a librarian in four years, but those four hours lay some groundwork for what the students will eventually learn.  Done right and timed well, even minimal amounts of research instruction can give students a good foundation to build upon. That’s what I happen to believe my own effect to be on any given student. What I do matters, is useful and helpful and essential for many students, but I don’t kid myself that my direct role as a teaching librarian has an overwhelming impact on students learning to become information literate. I give them a shove in the right direction, but the learning is mostly done elsewhere. Putting this into perspective, I also don’t think a given professor teaching semester-long courses has a huge effect on the overall education of most students.

If we conceive of information literacy narrowly and focused on one project, which seems to be the way its often assessed, then librarian instruction might have a strong direct effect on information literacy attainment. But if we consider information literacy broadly and deeply, the overall impact of librarians directly teaching information literacy skills is relatively small at most universities. Learning to become information literate in the broadest sense is little different from liberal education without the subject matter (as a commenter mentioned on my last blog post). It’s a cumulative effect of the efforts of many people directly and indirectly influencing the lives of students, and the students themselves working and practicing those skills. Librarians play an important direct role, and an extensive indirect role, and we seem to be the primary professionals discussing or evaluating information literacy, but our role is still limited.

15 thoughts on “A Bit on Information Literacy

  1. “I would ask even librarians. When you were in school, did a significant amount of your education come directly from librarians? ”
    Interesting question, the passage below describes my own experience to a T!
    “I went through college getting very good grades, doing good work, and becoming as information literate as my peers, and I received absolutely no research instruction from a librarian. I never took a class with bibliographic instruction, and never asked a reference librarian for help. Granted, I had spent a lot of time in libraries over the years, but I probably hadn’t had any instruction in how to use one to find information since I was in grade school. Once you know how to use a library catalog, the rest you can develop on your own. I suspect my experience isn’t that atypical.”
    Food for thought as usual Wayne, I think I tend to agree with you, though I suspect asking librarians of their own personal experience could be misleading. As future librarians to be (whether we knew it or not), we were already atypical of students.
    The same question can be asked about faculty, did they learn information Literacy from Librarians as students? Something tells me not so much… Or is this simply a case of the able and motivated not needing help as much?

  2. I agree that librarians cannot claim responsibility for the information literacy of our students in the same way that “a given professor teaching semester-long courses has a huge effect on the overall education of most students.” The same can be said of philosophers and critical thinking. Hopefully, all of us in higher education–faculty, librarians, administrators, student services staff, AND students–realize that education is a systematic process, a 2-way communication. A college degree, whether at the bachelor’s or doctoral level should be viewed as a means (let’s not forget the media’s role in public education) and not the end of one’s intellectual and/or professional development. Information literacy is also not the domain of academic and school librarians–public and special librarians are also a part of this process, and in some cases, particularly with public librarians, they may have had a lot more cumulative face time with our students then we ever will in academic libraries. I also agree that I am probably most effective teaching to standards 1 and 2; I also feel that I “cover” standards 3 and 5, but do not address them in the same depth during a “one-shot” session as I do resource choice, keyword selection, search logic, and dare I say it, search mechanics! I generally consider standard 4 the domain of the course instructor. Therefore, I consider IC both a shared responsibility and a process.

  3. “They got this way by studying, writing, researching, and being guided by professors and librarians numerous times. They took class after class, developed some minimal knowledge of a field of study, and produced work that was judged and commented upon for years.And what direct effect did librarians teaching information literacy have on that?”
    I really agree with you on this one. As a university student, I only spend time in the library to study and read some books for reference but that’s only when I can’t find information in the internet.
    Information can be found anywhere in the internet – there are just too many sources. The librarian may help but she can’t be regarded as an expert on a specific subject – also, I don’t ask. In fact, I hardly ask a librarian for some information. I prefer to look it up on my own, though.

  4. Aaron, I think the able and motivated don’t need as much help, and the unable and unmotivated don’t want it. And Kathy, I agree, it’s a shared responsibility, but because academic librarians talk the most about information literacy, there seems to be an assumption sometimes that we’re the primary people responsible for teaching it.

  5. Enjoyable and insightful post. I started thinking about metaphors for the librarian’s impact on information literacy as I read through. I’m left with a cloud-seeding metaphor; you toss some sand in, you hope it produces a deluge. Sometimes, you need a couple attempts for success. But most of the cloud-building is the cloud’s job, you-the-librarian just offer some starter grains of an appropriate size.
    Thank you for posting about librarian’s impact on information literacy in a realistic and clear-eyed manner. Much appreciated. Cheers!
    Lindsey Nichols, Reference-Instruction-Outreachiness

  6. What you’ve written here is exactly why I feel that we need to work with faculty and help/encourage them to integrate information literacy into their teaching and assessment. A one-shot information literacy class won’t have much impact when the learning is not re-emphasized, applied, etc. throughout their class and throughout their major program. The librarians are only one small piece of the puzzle, but because this is our area of expertise (as opposed to faculty whose expertise is in their specific subjects) we can play an important role when we team up with faculty to ensure that information literacy instruction is woven throughout the curriculum. We can’t do it alone.

  7. I think that’s what I was trying to get at, Meredith. We can play an important role, even if our direct role is relatively small. Any individual librarian is a single actor in a large ensemble drama about information literacy.

  8. Wayne,
    I appreciate your effort to write about the topic of academic librarians and information literacy. Your description and analysis explains the conventional status quo without error. My concern, however, is that you, and the other academic librarians who have already commented on this post, appear to live in acceptance of the current paradigm. For example, you provide an elaborate explanation without complaint about how students spend less than 1% of their time learning from librarians in college. You even argue in support of librarians performing minimal research instruction. I think the acceptance of such a modest role for information literacy instruction is atrocious. Liaison librarians should be taking aggressive measures to seek as many instruction opportunities with undergraduate students as possible. That means building relationships with professors, attending co-curricular events, and becoming a familiar face & name among the students. Most importantly, I think liaison librarians need to seek credit-bearing instruction opportunities. A practical way to start involves co-teaching senior capstones to develop a clear assessment of information literacy levels. This approach also allows liaison librarians to establish pedagogical credibility with the faculty. Once a liaison librarian does both of those things, he or she can then develop a syllabus for a credit-bearing course which can be sold to the faculty as a strong means of supporting accreditation goals. I do agree in part with Merideth’s argument about working with faculty to integrate information literacy into the curriculum. I think such an approach is unlikely to succeed because professors will not necessarily share the same level of dedication to teaching information literacy as librarians. I believe the best solution involves liaison librarians empowering themselves as instructors of credit-bearing courses.

  9. I think “atrocious” might be a bit strong. My acceptance of the modest role of librarians in direct info lit instruction is realistic, whereas I think any argument to the contrary is unrealistic, and serves only to aggrandize librarians. There seems to be assumption that because I don’t think librarians are the be all and end all of information literacy instruction that I don’t do many of the things both you and Lane recommend as necessary. The librarians here are well integrated into the freshman writing program, and for the most part the liaisons are heavily involved with the upper level students, especially at the junior level where all students do their first serious independent research projects. The faculty take us seriously. Nevertheless, the direct instruction is still minimal. How many hours of their undergraduate careers do you realistically expect students to spend in the company of librarians?
    As for credit-bearing information literacy classes, that is definitely not for every campus. It might work fine at your university, but it would never happen here, nor would I want to teach one. Information literacy doesn’t exist outside of a subject specific context, so the best way to teach it is focused on actual research projects. However, even if I’m wrong about that, the librarians who teach such courses still have minimal time with undergraduates, just like professors who teach them only one course. Education is cumulative. This is an empirical question, though, so I’m willing to be proved wrong if satisfactory comprehensive information literacy assessment is undertaken, both after such a course and at the end of an undergraduate career. I don’t believe such assessment is possible, given the incredibly broad parameters of info lit as conceived by the ACRL standards.

  10. My use of the word “atrocious” might be a bit strong, but I’d probably only trade it up for “appalling.” I do agree that your acceptance of the modest role of librarians in direct info lit instruction is realistic, but I also believe it is acquiescent and unambitious. Regardless, I am glad to hear that you are engaged in some of the practices that Lane and I perform at our respective universities.
    You are correct in your assertion that information literacy doesn’t exist outside of a subject specific context, but that reality should only serve to help liaison librarians develop strong instruction programs. In my case, instruction is all focused on preparing students to perform the engineering literature research required for success in their two semester senior capstone experience. The Princeton Engineering curriculum is based on the same accreditation model, and the need for strong engineering literature research skills are also the same. Since Adriana is not participating in our discussion, I not interested in discussing what she may or may not be doing. That being stated, I have a hard time believing Adriana could not successfully pursue a credit-bearing course at Princeton if she made that an instructional objective.
    You asked how many hours of their undergraduate careers do I realistically expect students to spend in the company of librarians. If I take your modest approach, my undergraduate students will experience 250 minutes of information literacy instruction over the course of four years at best. One credit-bearing sprint course, on the other hand, provides me with 800 minutes of direct interaction with students within one semester. Add about 150 minutes on top of that during the rest of their time on campus, and you have a decent idea of what I expect. You could argue that my expectations amount to the same level of interaction that professors have with students if they only teach students during one semester. At the same time, education is cumulative, and student interaction with me is not limited to a single class session.
    I agree that the ACRL standards are broad, but liaison librarians can connect them directly with accreditation learning outcomes to develop purposeful and relevant information literacy instruction. Credit-bearing instruction guarantees quality interaction time with students and places liaison librarians on the same playing field with their professor colleagues. I believe this instructional approach increases the impact of liaison librarians without aggrandizing their value. Other librarians are welcome to disagree with me, but I fear the impact of their instruction will be minimized as a consequence.

  11. From atrocious to appalling–I’m moving up in the world!
    I’m not sure we’re disagree on that much, except whether for-credit courses are universally appropriate. I would never doubt Adriana’s ability, but as a general model for-credit information literacy classes would probably not work here, and I definitely disagree that the model should be universal to all universities and colleges.
    We also disagree on terminology, because I think “information literacy” is a problematic phrase for various reasons. Linked to the ACRL standards, it is much too broad to be recognized or assessed. What you’re doing with engineering students is appropriate; it’s focused, specific, contextualized, and assessable. Does knowing how to search the engineering literature make students “information literate”? That’s the question. I would argue no, if by information literacy we mean what the ACRL standards mean. Instead, it makes them into capable engineering researchers, which is exactly what it should do.

  12. You are fine. LOL I just wish an academic librarian of your caliber would have a more ambitious attitude about instruction. We work in one of the most self-effacing fields of scholarship. Academic librarians will never rise to their proper station without folks like you raising the bar with me.
    “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.
    We will have to live in disagreement about my assertion that credit-bearing courses are universally appropriate. I believe they are something every college or university library division should aspire to provide for their undergraduate students. In my mind, the challenges involve practical deployment. One such challenge involves the quantity of librarians available to instruct the courses. Since most of us operate with the ludicrous tradition that provides a single liaison librarian to serve an entire school, just providing the manpower to teach literature research instruction is a serious problem. I regard such a problem, however, as something to be overcome rather as an insurmountable obstacle. In my case, I can only teach about 40% of a single class (freshmen, sophomores, juniors, ect.) My expectation is that my students will be dispersed among the design teams as seniors and raise the level of literature research performed by all of the teams.
    I would be curious to know why you believe credit-bearing instruction is inappropriate for Princeton and perhaps other institutions.

  13. Good post! I’ve been studying and teaching IL for 10 years now. One thing that the literature will bear out is that it is very hard to establish a causal link to librarians influencing student IL skills. This is because there are too many variables to control. Did the students learn IL from their professor? A friend? High School? Etc.

    Another thing that the literature bears out is that historically, longitudinal studies are few and far between. It’s great if we integrate IL into one class. However, IL is a use it or lose it proposition IMO (usually). For it to stick it needs to be integrated across the four years which is a rare thing.

    Incidentally, I and others tracked IL skills from freshmen to sophomores and did see significant differences.

    See Course-Integrated Information Literacy.

    I’ve found that the key to make IL efforts worthwhile is strong partnerships with faculty.


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