Making Information Literacy Critical

There’s a fascinating article from Cultural Studies, posted at the author’s web site. Siva Viadhyanathan touches on many of the issues we discuss when puzzling over the disconnect between what we teach in our library instruction programs and the broader meaning of “information literacy” – a phrase which received an excellent critique by Christine Pawley in “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling.” (Library Quarterly 73.4 [2003]: 422-452.) She argues

our information literacy courses should highlight, in addition to the tools and skills metaphor, the importance of learning about context and content in understanding how information “works.” Second, we need to be both explicit about the moral and political commitment to flattening rather than reinforcing current information and literacy hierarchies. Third, we need to recognize that information “access” is not just about information consumerism, but also about individuals and groups of people actively shaping the world as knowledge producers in a way that renders the consumer-producer dichotomy irrelevant.

Viadhyanathan makes a similar point, but is speaking about broadening what we are willing to consider when we think about “information”:

Critical Information Studies (CIS) considers the ways in which culture and information are regulated by their relationship to commerce, creativity, and other human affairs. CIS captures the variety of approaches and bodies of knowledge needed to make sense of important phenomena such as copyright policy, electronic voting, encryption, the state of libraries, the preservation of ancient cultural traditions, and markets for cultural production. . . Instead of being concerned merely with one’s right to speak (or sing or publish), CIS asks questions about access, costs, and chilling effects on, within, and among audiences, citizens, emerging cultural creators, indigenous cultural groups, teachers, and students. Central to these issues is the idea of ‘semiotic democracy’, or the ability of citizens to employ the signs and symbols ubiquitous in their environments in manners that they determine. (from the abstract)

It’s interesting that we librarians are quick to embrace and adapt social technologies as a liberating way to involve users with libraries; but how often do our instruction programs treat information as a socially-mediated phenomenon? More often we act as if it’s inert stuff that you find and use to create “products” without actually interacting with it or considering where it came from and why – other than whether its scholarly or not.

Transforming information literacy into critical information literacy will take more than tacking on a few extra minutes to talk about evaluating sources. It will mean rethinking why we teach it in the first place. And it may well involve our own reconceptualization of information as more than stuff you locate by using databases in the proper manner. (Or that you could find, review, and tag if we were more Web 2.0.)

Scott tied together Web 2.0 and learning in an earlier post, but the focus was on users interacting with libraries and their tools. How about connecting our students with information and its production, helping them see “how information works” rather than just “how libraries work”?

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

5 thoughts on “Making Information Literacy Critical”

  1. I agree that this is a fertile plot for librarians to plow as they look to raise their profile on campus as information experts. We have a number of people in Information Studies (not a formal department) here at KU, as well as people who have been leaders in the Association of Internet Researchers ( Listening to them has helped me to think out some connections that could be explored not only through coutse-integrated instruction, but also through credit courses.

    You can see my first attempt – a one-credit first-year seminar – at (

    Someday when I have time, I’d love to try fleshing it out for a 3-credit Honors Seminar.

  2. Interesting course, Scott. I’m attempting something similar with an upper-division course – trying to include not just how to find and use information, but where it comes from and what sorts of issues need to be understood in order to use these texts in research. And how these issues present somewhat differently in different disciplines.

    Another important article on this topic, hot off the press – James Elmborg’s “Critical Information Literacy” JAL 32.2 (March 2006): 192-199. From the abstract: This article uses critical literacy theory to define information literacy. It argues that to be educators, librarians must focus less on information transfer and more on developing critical consciousness in students. Using concepts from literacy theory, the author suggests ways library practice would change if librarians redefined themselves as literacy educators.” I couldn’t agree more!

  3. And this is also where you see the connection to the idea of “media literacy.” Coming from a teacher education background, it’s interesting to see how “information literacy,” “technology literacy,” and “media literacy” overlap without truly effective connections being made consistently across the board. The difficulty this causes for school librarians is, I imagine, not unlike the difficulty that we face in clearly articulating the distinctions (and opportunities for complementary instruction) in information literacy, information technology literacy, and critical thinking at the college level.

    For people working with teacher education programs:

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