ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Lenker, Teaching & Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Do you have an arch-frenemy book or
article from the literature of library science?
Mine has to be Edward K. Owusu-Ansah’s 2005 “Debating Definitions of
Information Literacy: Enough is
Enough!” Owusu-Ansah argues persuasively
that we have already defined information literacy clearly enough to know that
it involves making a positive difference in our students’ experiences with
learning. Rather than dither about with
the fine distinctions that a perfect definition of information literacy would
require, Owusu-Ansah implores us to get on with the good work of teaching information literacy.
But I can’t help myself. Definitions of information literacy fascinate
me because they open new possibilities for thinking about (and occasionally
actually doing) my work. The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards
made it clear to me that information literacy was about more than just showing
students how to use databases (which was a lesson I really needed to
learn). The ACRL
Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education
stimulated my thinking about information as an ecosystem that we inhabit and
influence. Even Owusu-Ansah’s 2003
characterization of information literacy as “conversance with the universe of
information” taught me that conversance
with information is a more reasonable and pressing instructional goal than expertise in information.
All of these conceptions describe
information literacy as an attribute of learners: competencies they exhibit, concepts they have
mastered, a level of know-how they have attained. The focus on such characteristics makes
sense; literacy itself is a quality
possessed by people. But what if we took
a step back from our focus on skills and competencies and instead thought about
information literacy as a matter of learning something about the world? What if we framed information literacy in
terms of a big question, one that
accurately conveys the depths of the unknowns that information literacy touches
upon? Getting the defining question
right would help others understand the weight of the subject matter that we
teach and research. It would also
improve our own understanding of the deep-rooted mysteries that pervade our
It bears emphasis that information is an aspect of the world that is teeming with mystery. The range of questions includes current challenges, like how to learn about politics in the midst of our fractured public discourse, or how search algorithms can skew our searching and distort our learning. But the span also includes questions as old as information itself. How can I tell which information I should trust? What’s the best way to obtain information that I can rely on? Or, deepest of all, how do text, images, and sound, all physical signals, get taken up as meaning that influences future thought or action? It’s easy to forget that learning with information is an everyday miracle, and that libraries are in the miracle business.
When we acknowledge the vastness and the subtlety of information literacy as a subject matter, it makes a difference in the way we approach our teaching. I underestimate the subject matter and my students when I view teaching as a matter of giving the students what they need to know about research.
Better to think of the teacher as a
guide leading the students to a vantage point over a yawning chasm of
information possibilities so that they can explore it together. The canyon is sublime when considered in its
wholeness–it is so much bigger than the teacher or the students–but it is
also composed of billions of details worth considering on their own. The wind gnawing at the rock particle by
particle. The intrepid trees somehow
growing on the face of the blasted cliffs.
The exquisitely adapted animals that find a way to thrive in this
impossible place, where nature slowly gouges away at itself. Each instance of information that we
encounter, considered in its context, is a similar occasion for wonder, if we
take the time to think about it.
To continue with the analogy, the
teacher cannot give the students everything they need to know about the
canyon. The canyon is too vast, and the
backgrounds and questions of the students are too varied. The teacher can point out some interesting
features and ask questions to bring the canyon into focus in a way that many
students have not considered before. But
no one will leave having mastered the
canyon, and that is the way it should be.
It is enough that the students have taken in one of the big, rich
features of their world and come away more curious, inspired, or humble than
they were before.
The canyon metaphor has important
limitations. It is too visual, as though
information is something that we look at from afar rather than participate in
up close. In fact, none of us can ever
really leave the information canyon. We
are composed of information in much the same way that we are made up of water,
carbon, and iron. Further, our choices,
both big and small, influence the character of the information ecosystem that
sustains us. We must be mindful to do no
Instead of mastery, I would rather see
my students come away from our time together more alert to the likelihood that there
is more to information than initially meets the eye, more aware of the ways
that information shapes their lives, and more mindful of the ways that their
choices influence the future, both for information and for themselves. To awaken and encourage that sort of
deliberate and probing curiosity, information literacy needs a really good
we meaningfully discern the human purpose (and, frequently, the human
negligence) lying behind the information artifacts that occupy so much of our
lives? How do our information choices
make us more (or less) fully human?
That’s my version of information
literacy’s big question. What’s yours?
K. Owusu-Ansah, “Debating definitions of information literacy: enough is
enough!.” Library Review 54, no.
6 (2005): 366-374.
K. Owusu-Ansah, “Information literacy and the academic library: a critical
look at a concept and the controversies surrounding it,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 29,
no. 4 (2003): 219-230.
am not the first to use the image of a landscape to describe information
literacy. For an influential example,
“Information literacy landscapes: an emerging picture,” Journal of documentation 62, no. 5
(2006): 570-583. The Sconul 7 Pillars of Information Literacy also makes extensive use of the landscape metaphor.