Daily Archives: January 19, 2006

Get Ready For Another Great Debate

If you attended the ALA conference in Toronto in 2003, and many librarians chose not to, perhaps you had the good fortune to attend “The Great Debate.” This program featured a group of librarians engaging in a formal debate about the future of the library building. One team argued that academic institutions no longer needed physical library facilities while the other team made its case for the necessity of the library as physical place. I don’t think either team converted anyone in the audience, but it was a fun and thought provoking event.

Well it appears the success of that session was not lost on the committee responsible for planning the ACRL President’s Program for ALA’s 2006 conference in New Orleans. They’ve chosen the debate format for the program. The actual title of the program will be: The Emperor Has No Clothes: Be It Resolved That Information Literacy is a Fad and Waste of Librarian Time and Talent.

The debate will be moderated by James Neal, Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian, Columbia University. One debating team is composed of Stanley Wilder, Associate Dean in the Library, University of Rochester, and Jeff Rutenbeck, Associate Professor and Director Digital Media Studies, University of Denver. The other team is composed of Julie B. Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College, and Gary P. Radford, Professor of Communication Studies, Fairleigh Dickinson University. Think you can guess which team will be arguing that information literacy is a waste of time?

Here’s the advance description of the program:

Two teams will debate the relevance of information literacy as we know it. Is information literacy a concept created by academic librarians to make themselves more relevant to the curriculum or is it one of our most important roles? Is information literacy critical thinking in disguise or is there a real body of knowledge to be communicated? Does civil society’s dependence on life-long learners require the acquisition of information literacy skills? Can libraries justify the expenditures they’ve made on teaching information literacy or do the data suggest otherwise? This debate will test our assumptions and beliefs about a core element of the academic librarians’ role in the educational process.

I suppose ACRL members could debate among themselves the value of this program. For one thing, it seems an odd choice of topic for an organization for which information literacy is an established priority. Perhaps it is beneficial for an organization to have its core values questioned from time to time in order to confirm whether or not those values still make sense for the organization and its constituency. I think we all know in advance that if the “it’s a waste of time” team wins the debate it’s highly unlikely to affect ACRL’s commitment to information literacy. But perhaps a bit of controversy will make some good food for thought.

It also seems this issue, when Wilder’s Chronicle Review piece (“Information Literacy Makes All The Wrong Assumptions”) first appeared, received a reasonable vetting from folks such as Esther Grassian , various bloggers, on discussion lists, and at regional academic library conferences. Does the issue need to be rehashed? Actually the debate format as proposed may add to our understanding of and own thinking of the value of information literacy by polarizing the issues and forcing us to take one side or the other. Imagine there is no middle ground. Where do you stand? Adding faculty members to the debate teams should also give us better insight into their perspectives on information literacy. It may help us to communicate with faculty on our own campuses, both those who support and oppose (or are indifferent to) information literacy.

The bottom line is that this debate, not unlike the one held in Toronto, is unlikely to change the position of any librarian that attends. But I think it has symbolic value as a forum in which we can reaffirm that information literacy is an important component of education at every level. Whichever side you may take in this debate it will certainly present a fun opportunity to come out and cheer for your team or howl in derision at their opponents. I plan to be there.