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.

12 thoughts on “Get Ready For Another Great Debate”

  1. Like Steven, I find it odd that ACRL would choose to pose this question at a time when its commitment to the instructional role of librarians seems clear, i.e., (1) when it has endorsed a clearly-defined research agenda in information literacy; (2) when it supports a significant professional development program focused on information literacy in the Immersion program; and (3) when thousands of its members choose to use one of their section memberships on the Instruction Section. When counterposed with the strong support for a commitment to information literacy across the curriculum that we saw this week in Barefoot’s Chronicle piece, this seems like an especially unfortunate choice for the President’s Program.

    Will future ACRL President’s Programs seek to debunk and to undermine other innovative approaches to envisioning the librarian’s professional role on campus, perhaps by suggesting that we have no legitimate role in information technology planning or in efforts to reform and address pressing issues in scholarly communications?

    I don’t disagree that debate can be valuable, but I think that the way this debate is being posed is very unfortunate, and I also wonder at what point – after two decades of research and practice pointing toward the important role that librarians can play on campus as teachers and how information literacy can complement recognized programs in media literacy, technology literacy, and critical thinking instruction – we simply can accept that this IS part of our role. Or, to put it as simply as does the title of this program, that the Emperor not only has clothes, but has an entire wardrobe ready to wear when he’s ready to put it on.

    For those who feel the same, let me plug the Instruction Section’s program planned for this same conference, “Leaderhip for Learning: Building a Culture of Teaching in the Academic Library.” The fact that we’re on the same program should make for an amusingly schizophrenic ACRL annual report!

  2. When a concept has become dogma is exactly when it’s ripe for backlash. I’m all for asking, routinely, why are doing what we’re doing? Is it working? Does that emperor have on a diaphanous, sheer, and stunningly fine robe or – oi, somebody get that ruler a fig leaf. This sounds like an occasion to ask probing questions without assuming information literacy is a given.

    I only hope, though, that the format is more like a Lehrer-style mediated conversation among people who hold different approaches and not one of the Fox / CNN mudwrestling-style debates. Too many of our students think the goal of a debate is to win, and that it’s about having the quickest wit, the sharpest tongue, and the most obnoxiously domineering stance. Evidence, reason, and logic are not part of it. And being fairminded or measured is a weakness. Though Wilder’s piece in the chronicle made some interesting points, his characterization of information literacy seemed flawed and cartoonish. Which is, of course, part of the mudwrestling style – it’s not about making valid points, it’s about making your opponent look bad. I certainly thought he got some of the same treatment as people responded to his essay.

    I’m looking forward to your reports on this. I wouldn’t mind taking a close look at the emperor’s wardrobe, right down to his knickers.

  3. I think this debate is definitely needed. The assumption that information literacy programs are successul needs scrutiny. By what measures are programs successful? And what constitutes success for participants?

    I and all of my co-authors on the recently published OCLC report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources have been musing on what appears to be a significant drop in awareness of library services and resources once people leave an academic environment–at least among our survey respondents. Does this mean instruction is site-specific? That it lacks “stickiness” and relevance in a generalized library environment? We’re not sure, but it’s intriguing and something I hope readers of the report–particularly those in the academic library community–pay attention to and help us figure out what the numbers suggest.

  4. Thanks for posting, Alane. I think the “stickiness” question is a huge one for us. What do we really mean by life-long learning? Being inclined to search specialized databases for scholarly information when you no longer have papers assigned? What prompts will drive you to the library for information? And even if you turn to a public library to find information, you aren’t likely to find the same tools you learned about in college. So how will graduates transfer what they learned from us?

    We’ve spent a lot of energy helping students be good students, and I do believe (though without any data to support it) that the habits of inquiry and critical thinking a student acquires while doing research have a long-lasting effect. But do the ACRL IL standards describe the way people outside the academy seek information? (Or even how they should seek information?)

    One interesting finding in the Perceptions report – not only do students use their academic libraries heavily, 40% have used a public library in the past month. I would love to know more about how they use those public libraries (as places to study? for information? for recreational reading? to use the computers?) and whether they will be inclined to continue using public libraries after graduation.

  5. I think Alane raises an interesting perspective relative to the OCLC survey but it seems there is quite a bit of difference between asking whether current approaches are effective (definitely worth quite a bit of scrutiny and debate – which is why I suspect instruction librarians flock to discussions about effective teaching methods, strategies, and assessment … and it is also an interesting question as to whether one of the goals of academic info lit instruction should be understanding of the availability and roles of public libraries – I’ve got a paper started on this topic but not having gotten it accepted to a conference yet it’s not at the top of my list to finish) and asking whether the intent of information literacy is worthwhile endeavor at all …

  6. I just hope that all parties involved in the debate understand what information literacy really is – and how it differs from library instruction. I am not convinced that most instruction librarians understand the difference and most library directors seem mightily confused as well. So debate away – just don’t mix up information literacy with library instruction for library skills.

  7. Lisa’s point about the goal of instruction vis a vis future/current use of public libraries is exactly the sort of issue I’d like to see more discussion on.

    Is it the goal of current programs to educate students about use of a particular library and its resources? Or is it to educate people in the use of libraries and their resources? I’d contend (my personal opinion) that one reason we see little carry-over in awareness of libraries’ services and resources post-academe is because programs focus on the former.

    Is it the job of librarians at a single institution to educate students about libraries and their services and resources in general? I think so but it certainly isn’t what I did in bibliographic instruction (there, that dates me, doesn’t it?) sessions on using PsycInfo. But, I had the advantage of teaching such skills in a pre-Google era.

    If we want to ensure people continue to use libraries after graduation–because do we not want all libraries to thrive?–I suspect this issue of teaching awareness and appreciation for all libraries’ resources is going to have to be addressed.

  8. Getting the student population to be aware of their information options once they graduate is typically a goal of the academic information literacy initiative. But in a tiered, course-integrated approach to information literacy you really do need to start with a focus on the institution and its resources. The students have assignments and they need to know how to successfully research them. So we start the freshmen with the basics. As they progress through the curriculum and move to their capstone courses, we can then begin to introduce ideas about lifelong learning, and what happens after they graduate and find themselves needing to do research in the workplace. At that time we can have them exploring options such as public libraries, alumni services, research resources an employer might offer, etc. Others may differ in how they approach this, and may choose to get to the lifelong learning part right at the beginning, but I’ve found that freshmen tend to be so overwhelmed that the more basic you can keep information instruction, the better the chances of achieving learning outcomes.

  9. To be honest, I think most programs don’t have the consciously tiered system you describe, Steven, because they’re either occupied with reaching all the first year students or they’re dependent on building capital with individual faculty rather than with their programs – because of the “rugged individualism” so characteristic of higher ed. Add to that the fact many programs are, themselves, not sequenced in such a way that you can target courses at various levels and be certain you’re building on skills all the students have. It works in the sciences, but not very well elsewhere.

    I’m totally with Patti – that we haven’t generally made a clear distinction between information literacy and library skills and haven’t done the collaborative work that the standards imply. And second her motion to clearly focus on the former when debating the merits of IL.

    I’m looking forward to your paper, Lisa, when it gets to the top of your pile. If Gloria Leckie and Lisa Given’s extensive lit review (“Understanding Information-Seeking: The Public Library Context” Advances in Librarianship 29, 2005: 1-72) is any indication, it’s a question that’s still wide open.

  10. So many interesting questions that are likely to go unanswered given the way in which the ACRL program has been defined, and given the fact that the vision of ILI that Wilder articulated in his CHE essay is so clearly a straw man not relevant to many of these questions.

    As an education and instruction librarian who has spent the last 10 years going back and forth around the nexus of ILI for K-12 teachers and students, I can definitely say that we need to think more about the relationship between the academic and public library spheres (this is the all-important missing piece in the ACRL/AASL Joint Task Force on IL, which should, of course, be an ACRL/AASL/PLA Joint Task Force, if anything).

    The notion of information literacy as a clearly defined set of lifelong information skills that are relevant to everyone who is a citizen of the Information Age, and one that, like other core learning areas, is integrated into a variety of disciplinary approaches to learning, is a very big picture issue that is tied closely to the future of the role of the librarian in the school and society.

    And, an issue that I doubt will be effectively engaged by the “resolution” at the heart of this “debate.” But, that’s simply my opinion and I am known to kvetch on occasion, and I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

  11. “I just hope that all parties involved in the debate understand what information literacy really is – and how it differs from library instruction. I am not convinced that most instruction librarians understand the difference and most library directors seem mightily confused as well. So debate away – just don’t mix up information literacy with library instruction for library skills.”

    With all due respect to Ms. Iannuzzi, I am not convinced that there is a difference and never have been – and yes, I’ve read plenty of articles on IL.

    “Is information literacy critical thinking in disguise or is there a real body of knowledge to be communicated?”

    I believe it’s critical thinking in disguise, and I believe that any library instruction session worth its salt should address critical thinking, no matter what it’s called. Making up new jargon that no one else understands is not necessary.

    And I’ve even been to Immersion. Imagine that.

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