The Great (?) Debate: Is Information Literacy A Fad And A Waste Of Time

A highly anticipated program at the ALA conference was the ACRL President’s Program that featured “The Great Debate”. This year’s debate resolution was “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Be It Resolved That Information Literacy is a Fad and Waste of Librarians’ Time and Talent”. Arguing in support of that resolution were Jeffrey Rutenbeck Associate Professor and Director, Digital Media Studies at the University of Denver and Stanley Wilder, Associate Dean, Library, University of Rochester. Speaking against the resolution were Gary P. Radford, Prof. of Communication Studies, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Julie B. Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College and ACRL President-Elect. Jim Neal, Vice President for Information Services & University Librarian, Columbia University was the debate Moderator. As expected the cavernous room was filled to capacity. The debaters had 10 minutes each to make their initial statements in favor of or opposing the resolution. In between there were some humorous interludes and responses from the audience. Then the debaters had opportunities for shorter rebuttals.


The debate participants are, left to right, Todaro, Neal, Rutenbeck, Radford, Wilder, and they are joined by Camila Alire, ACRL President for 2005-2006.

Was it a great debate? I spoke with a number of folks afterwards, and while most of them thought it was an excellent topic for a debate it seems they expected a bit more fireworks given the premise of turning a room full of information literacy advocates into a tinderbox with this explosive resolution. Neal got things off to a good start by making this exact point. Just what, he asked, were we even doing having a debate about the need for information literacy programs or questioning our commitment to it when it is certainly one of academic librarianship’s most valued and ingrained programmatic accomplishments. Neal said that we should stand back and question these values so that we may affirm them or determine how they need to change. After Neal’s excellent prelude to the debate, but before the first match was dropped near the powderkeg, it was time for some fun. That came in the form of “The Information Literacy Top Five List”:

How Can You Tell That Your Information Literacy Class Is Going Down The Tubes?
5. The students cry out in unison “Dewey or Don’t We”.
4. The students complain that they thought BI stood for “bartending instruction”.
3. The students all simultaneously download and sing along with Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical.”
2. Campus librarians march outside the classroom carrying signs with “Faculty Status…Who Needs It?”
1. The students ask if the book “On Bullshit” will be required reading for the class?

The first vote was then taken. By a show of hands Neal judged that 50 attendees agreed with the resolution and that 350 attendees disagreed with the resolution. No real surprise there. Would the debaters change some minds?

Stanley Wilder led things off with a spirited and passionate denouncement of information literacy reminiscent of his Chronicle (“Information Literacy Makes All The Wrong Assumptions” 1/7/05) article. Wilder challenged the audience by introducing a concept he called “fad free teaching function” and defined what he thought that would be like (it was described quite quickly and I couldn’t get it all down). Of course he took a shot at the complexity of library resources, and said there was no point in teaching students how to use them. Rather, he stated, we should remove the complexity and focus on helping students get their learning done. Just one question. If your accreditation agency requires your institution to develop an information literacy program and you comply with their standards, can you really be accused of jumping on a bandwagon?

Next came Julie Todaro to reject the resolution. She made some good points in attacking the claims that information literacy was a fad (even though it’s been around since 1974) and a waste of time. If taking one’s teaching responsibilities seriously is a waste of time, than what’s a good use of our time. Todaro finished with a clever analogy to the health sciences where the goal is more than just curing the patient (e.g., get/give answers). Rather, health professionals become involved in the patient’s life in an effort to create lifestyle enhancements that will lead to better health. Todaro pointed out the parallel between that and what academic librarians can do to integrate information literacy into the student’s life in order to enhance their research capabilities. Just like health professionals, Todaro said we needed to create awareness and help prevent ignorance. She said that Wilder thinks that information literacy is about starting with the cure, but she said that we build up to the cure, and then finish with preventative care for the future. Pretty good stuff, but given that she had access to Wilder’s Chronicle article I would have thought that a few of his premises would be attacked more directly

At the next interlude we were entertained by the ACRL PomPom squad (sorry, no photo – but maybe that’s not a bad thing). Here’s the chorus of their now famous cheer:

Do you know what you don’t know
Info lit can tell you so
Literate’s the way to be

Try leading your faculty through the cheer the next time you’re asked to explain what information literacy is.

Next we heard from the two faculty representatives, Rutenbeck and Radford. Rutenback’s primary attack on information literacy was based on a decade of critiques of literacy. He said that scholars are saying that literacy is not a skill you can learn, and that you can lose literacy over time. He told us that we were hitching our wagon to a horse that’s dying. Information literacy, he said, cannot sustain in an increasingly digital non-linear world. This is the world the students are coming from and working in. There were definitely some points of interest, but I don’t think we heard anything in Rutenbeck’s remarks that would convince anyone that information literacy was a waste of time. Radford was the most academic of the four in his remarks. He made a number of references to characters in the book 1984. Although his approach was a bit abstract he made it clear that he was in favor of information literacy as a faculty member, and that it should emphasize critical thinking. He said we needed, through information literacy, to create a student who goes beyond what’s in the text book – some one who does think critically. He said a truly information literate person doesn’t find answers but only more questions, and that he or she would able to locate the answers to those questions on their own. He said information literacy was not a goal, but on ongoing conversation between faculty and students.

The next interlude featured “headline stories” from the Information Literacy News network. Stories included Microsoft’s plan to include the TILT tutorial in all future versions of Windows. We then were treated to a spoof video called “Is Information Literacy Working” but what didn’t work so well was the video. Not only was the image too dark and the sound hard to hear, but it just seemed sort of silly. For example, a patron being asked if he needed serials and then responding that he’d already had cereal for breakfast (what does that have to do with information literacy I wondered).

The rebuttals were a bit of a let down. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Todaro and Radford to whip the partisan crowd into a frenzy with an attack on Wilder’s original statements about information literacy, but that never happened. In fact, both sides were fairly restrained. Todaro used her time to emphasize that we all have to step out of our comfort zones and get outside the library to integrate information literacy into the curriculum. She advised us to educate our institutions that we to do more than organize information, and that what makes us unique is the added value we bring to the content through information literacy. Wilder said he’s not opposed to user education or the library’s role in educating users. He said that since words and ideas matter it was fair game to hold information literacy accountable for what it says it is and for what it claims to do. He asked if we thought that information literacy would be the last word in user education. He said it would not be and that we must remain open minded about our education function, and think about what works (I tend to think that well planned and implemented information literacy initiatives work pretty well).

There’s no question that many good points were made on both sides, and that all who attended, no matter what side of the debate they were on likely learned something useful that they can take back to their institution and share with their colleagues, both librarians and faculty. While the faculty members made some good points as well, I wondered if their presence really helped make the debate, as Camila Alire wanted, a program we all would be talking about far into the future. Although I’m just doing some Monday morning quarterbacking here, perhaps the debate would have been improved with two librarians on each team, supplemented by videotaped segments in which faculty were interviewed about their position on information literacy. Overall, I don’t think this debate lived up to the standard set by the Great Debate on the Library Building held at the Toronto conference in 2003. At that debate the two sides really gave it to each other and the audience responded with cheers and catcalls. Perhaps the problem was, with the topic being information literacy, that the crowd always assumed a foregone conclusion and never felt the need to get vocal about their stand on the resolution.

Then Carnak was in the room to bring the debate to its conclusion:

Carnak’s answer: Pull out their fingernails.
The question: What would students rather do than sit through another information literacy session?

Carnak’s answer: Diddly squat
The question: What do students recall from their information literacy instruction?

Carnak’s answer: Hasta la vista baby.
The question: What did Arnold Schwarzenegger say when he realized he had to take information literacy at boby building school?

Carnak’s answer: Intelligent design.
The question: How do we explain the way our library catalogs organize information?

Carnak’s answer: Laura Bush.
The question: Overcoming tremendous competition who was selected the White House Information Literacy Librarian of the Century?

Then came the final vote. As you might expect it was pretty much like the beginning vote with perhaps a few more joining the majority in rejecting the resolution. That’s the thing about these debates. What transpires is not likely to change anyone’s mind, but they can be fun and informative. We left the program with a strong endorsement from ACRL that information literacy is one of our important and enduring values.

NOTE: ACRLog has created a special features page to provide the prepared remarks of the four debate presenters. All were invited to provide their remarks.

7 thoughts on “The Great (?) Debate: Is Information Literacy A Fad And A Waste Of Time”

  1. I managed to videotape the \”interludes\” with my digital camera and uploaded them a few days ago to YouTube. I was in the back of the room, the camera is brand new to me, and there\’s a load of jiggle going on, but they\’re all linked from Oh, and don\’t mind my little rant on Carnak/Karnak on that page.

  2. It’s really easy to tear infolit down. We who are its practitioners operate under incredible restraints. We still most often get only one 50- or 75-minute shot during which we’re expected to expose students to various resources (which now can include anything and everything in cyberspace besides titles/databases that the library purchases or subscribes to), provide them with practical examples of how to use the resources along with indications of the benefits and limitations of each, and –last but not least–help students reflect on which resources they would use and why, given some future information need that they can barely imagine, much less care about. What other college instructor would agree to teach his/her subject of expertise under these circumstances?

    Not mention the fact that talking about “information literacy” in general is about as meaningful as talking about a “college education” in general. My son will be starting college in the fall, and we looked at quite a few colleges, carefully considering the distinctive educational approaches of each, before making a choice.

    Instruction on how to find and evaluate information must be 1) placed within the context of the discipline the students are studying, and 2) be allotted the appropriate amount of time – either several sessions or as part of several course meetings, with students completing activities or assignments germane to the course content itself, including group projects and opportunities to reflect on and share their experiences just like any other subject.

    Only librarians are willing to take the blame for circumstances often beyond their control and flagellate themselves after trying in vain to convince the course instructor that it is useless to demonstrate 25 different resources in 50 minutes –allowing the students to try out maybe two or three of them -– and all this 6 weeks or more before the students are even likely to begin working on their assignment. Then we administer assessments of our instruction and wonder why the students learned “diddly squat.” And I won’t even go near those course instructors who ask for an infolit session with no related assignment, simply because “these are important resources that it would be useful for the students to know in the course of majoring in X.”

    Information gathering and evaluating skills need to be team taught by the course instructor and the librarian and woven seamlessly into course assignments that are jointly graded. And assessment needs to be administered in the form of problems or inquiries inextricably related to the subject matter.

    Sure the databases and other resources need to become more intuitive. But aren’t there already engagingly written books and intuitively designed online resources in disciplines such as English literature, mathematics, and political science? Why do we bother taking tuition money and holding course sessions when the students could just read or consult those resources for themselves? Because the guidance and feedback of the practitioner of the discipline are crucial factors if the students are to assimilate the concepts, that’s why.

    The same goes for information gathering and evaluating skills.

  3. I think the reason the nay-saying librarians say it doesn\’t work is because they believe the things we promote are being done by faculty in the disciplines, and we\’re merely trying to interfere with that process and are doing so ineffectively (because we aren\’t really part of it at all, just offering a smattering of boring library lessons scattered here and there. Another answer is to give up collaboration and offer courses ourselves, with the belief that such courses are teaching a distinct discipline; there is a small but articulate minority of librarians on the ILI-L list who defend this approach.

    The trouble is, there\’s a growing disconnect between the processes faculty are willing and able to teach and the current library, which faculty often have trouble keeping up with. And the knowledge that gives you entry into disciplines may not necessarily be what you need to be an active and involved citizen of an interdisciplinary world. We should be doing more faculty development than we do, but that\’s another issue.

    What I think these jeremiads, from Tom Edie on, give us is a chance to think hard about our assumptions. That\’s never a bad thing.

  4. By the way, we’re scratching our heads as to why the link in Megan’s comment doesn’t take you to Megan’s blog and the YouTube clips. So meanwhile — you’ll have to use old fashioned cut and paste. But it’s worth it. (Apologies, too, for putting in back slashes when trying to make your link work… the edit function has decided we all need more back slashes in our lives. The deeper meaning of this escapes me.)

    BTW, I agree, Megan, using really old pop culture references is offputting for those who weren’t there… which is a lot of people. I wish I were among them.

  5. As always, Steven, you managed to capture a great deal of information! I enjoyed your comments and thought I would speak to one issue.

    My first approach to the debate was to use Wilder’s article as my primary reference, however, during the speakers conference call it was made clear to us that what we were debating was not a specific article such as Wilder’s but instead the specific issue or the title of the program – which was a much broader target. So I tossed out my point by point and focused on the “trend” and “fad” comment and then moved to a rationale for “why you should” stance in the context of higher education.

    Thanks again for covering the event.

  6. Julie – thanks for sharing this insight. That helps to explain your approach to the debate. I’m sure it was tempting to want to take on the Wilder article in promoting the value of information literacy. There was much more of the debate to capture but it went by pretty quickly. I hope I was able to give folks the essence of what transpired. Maybe this should give the ACRL board something to think about – offering a streaming video of the President’s program for viewing after the conference.

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