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.