The Information Literacy Facade

I’m a staunch defender of and advocate for information literacy. In addition to working hard with my library colleagues to establish a campus-wide, course-integrated information literacy initiative at my institution, I take every opportunity to counter those who belittle the value of information literacy by describing it as (choose one or more of the following):

  • an effort to turn students into mini-librarians
  • the wrong solution to an important problem
  • completely unnecessary because students can learn to research effectively through reading and writing
  • a solution created by librarians that would be completely unnecessary if libraries (as if we have all the power here) just made all their systems as easy as a search engine or online retail space
  • a way we keep our jobs by fooling the administrators into believing that someone on campus needs to get students “to eat their library peas”
  • My experience is that the naysayers often have no experience as library teachers or in establishing an information literacy initiative on their campuses – but they think they’ve got a better solution to the challenge of educating users. Their solution typically translates to “just get out of the way and let them figure it out on their own and good enough will be all right”. According to what we often hear from faculty about the quality of student research – the kids are not all right. Of course, conveniently, none of the naysayers ever mentions the requirements placed on IHEs and their academic libraries by the accreditation agencies to develop information literacy programming at their institutions. I’m proud to say that in our recent Middle States re-accreditation our library (thanks to the hard work of the librarians) received a commendation for the information literacy initiative – and I know that many others have shining examples as well. When we set out to do something, we can do it extremely well.

    So why I am about to do a bit of information literacy naysaying myself? Because I think it’s time that we all, even the staunchest advocates, get a bit more realistic about the ways in which information literacy is portrayed at our institutions. It seems that we increasingly are developing an information literacy Janus at our institutions. One face is what I call the information literacy facade. It’s the face we present to the accrediting agencies and to the campus community on our websites, plans, brochures, at faculty meetings and other formal places and functions. It’s the face that is probably remote and confusing to our constituencies. I am reacting, in part, to something I heard Stephen Abram say recently, which at first I found offputting. He described walking into a library that proudly promoted it’s information literacy program. Abram said something along the lines of “isn’t this a great way to reach out to our users, by telling them they’re illiterate and they need us to help them learn how to find information – something they probably already feel quite good at.” That’s not an exact quote but my best recollection, and I think it adequately expresses Abram’s dislike for the term information literacy. My immediate reaction – once again another person who isn’t involved in information literacy shows they don’t know anything about it.

    After having some time to process what Abram said I think I understand it a bit better, and it may be something to which we should pay closer attention. We really do need to get better at communicating about information literacy and what it is. What may have put the icing on the cake for me is a post I read on a faculty blog not long after hearing what Abram had to say. I found the title of this post intriguing: “The Challenge of Information Literacy: The Faculty?”. I think, here’s a faculty member who is going to talk about the need for faculty to collaborate with librarians because he or she realizes that information literacy won’t happen unless it’s integrated into what students are doing in the classroom, and that faculty need to be learning about library resources as well as their students. Guess what? Not a single serious word about libraries or librarians in the whole post. Even more depressing, in this faculty member’s list of important information literacy skills we see: “Find useful information on the web”. I’m not blaming the faculty member for not being more well versed on what information literacy is and how it really happens. I’m pissed at our profession because we must be doing an incredibly inept job of communicating this to our communities – and I think it has to do with the term itself and the way we position it on our campuses. Surely they must be doing something with information literacy at this faculty member’s institution, so why the vast disconnect?

    The other face of information literacy is the one that works well for us, and perhaps is the one that we need to show to our faculty and students. It’s the face that could really get them to connect with what we really mean about information literacy, understand why it’s critically important for our students, acknowledge that faculty need to be a part of the endeavor, and perhaps even develop a bit of passion for the information literacy initiative. For lack of a better way to describe it I’ll just say it’s what happens where the rubber meets the road – in the classrooms and the consultations with faculty and students. When there is no facade, real user library education is what happens. There are no standards, no requirements, no matrixes – just students learning how to understand their information needs, the resource options at their disposal, and how to appropriately match them. Not students learning how to be librarians, but learning from librarians about how to be better students who take responsibility for their own learning by having the ability to find, evaluate, and synthesize information to create new knowledge. To convert the naysayers and clueless (again – our fault – not theirs), we need to demonstrate what real user education is all about. You could argue that it really doesn’t matter if the uninformed don’t know or care about information literacy as long as it’s happening. But I think the two are more connected than we suspect. And convert may be too strong a word. Creating better awareness and understanding would be a worthwhile start. This is the face of information literacy we need to talk about and promote as the real face. I’m not sure how to do that but here are some thoughts:

  • When dealing with administrators and governance bodies make the discussion about information literacy, but when working with students and frontline faculty develop another term or phrase that fits better; I tend to go with “user education”.
  • Show the real face of information literacy with video snippets of what’s happening in classrooms; focus on how academics librarians help students get better at recognizing information needs and matching them to resource options.
  • Have students and faculty, in their own words, explain what information literacy (or whatever you call it) means to them, and the role librarians play in helping them develop better research skills; capture these stories as audio or video recordings.
  • Create a larger network of user education stories that chronicle successful student researchers and unique faculty development programming for user education; perhaps that’s an initiative for ACRL or local chapters.
  • Of course, it is perhaps an undeniable reality that any institutional initiative requires the formal trappings that give them credibility and organizational support. I also advocate the importance of information literacy plans and strategies that must be constructed to give shape and direction to a campus-wide, course-integrated information literacy initiative. I will be thinking more about how to better manage the two faces so that what rises to the surface is the real face of information literacy, not the facade. What do you think?

    7 thoughts on “The Information Literacy Facade”

    1. Pingback: digital digs
    2. I think one of the problems with information literacy as libraries define it is that, while we think faculty should get on board already, sheesh, what’s taking them so long, we don’t recognize that the things we include in our definition of information literacy (that students will know how to identify what they don’t know, find out about it, be critical of the sources they encounter, and do something with the information) are all things teachers have tried to do with their students for generations. It’s a little off-putting to have a librarian rush up breathlessly and say “hey, you know what? You should think about getting your students to find and use sources critically! I can show you how to do it.”

      Though the Standards make it pretty clear that this is not a job for Superlibrarian, but a shared responsibility, one that takes lots and lots of time, our IL plans and programs don’t always do a good job of honoring what faculty already are doing or try to do. And that’s insulting. We also tend to characterize information as a commodity that people find and build things with, without including developing an understanding of where information comes from – it’s not sui generis, it’s generated within a complex social environment. And hey, I can make some too!

      Christine Pawley’s critique of information literacy is well worth a read – “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling.” Library Quarterly 73.4 (2003): 422-452. It doesn’t address Alex Reid’s issue in his earlier postthat faculty don’t know enough about technological and rhetorical production using emerging methods – but it does address the issue he raises laterthat we too narrowly focus on finding existing information and not enough on the production and circulation of knowledge.

      While there’s a lot of attention lately to technologically-facilitated networked knowledge, I’d argue that understanding knowledge as an ever-changing network has always been part of a sophisticated understanding of how information works. Even before the Web made it easier.

    3. Wow, thanks for the excellent post! You’ve expressed the essence of my frustrations in thinking of ways to construct successful I.L. programming with faculty and administration support.

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