Versus / and / or: The relationship between information literacy and digital literacy

For years now, I’ve been working to both simplify and deepen how I think and talk about information literacy. These goals may perhaps seem at odds, but they feel rather complementary to me. Essentially, I’m trying to hone my ideas, language, and examples so that information literacy is both accessible and meaningful to my audience. I want them to recognize information literacy as something in which they are also (already) invested, as something that they also value and seek.

When I look back at that first sentence and see “for years now,” it gives me pause. Really?! It’s taken me years? Well, it’s not so surprising really. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but in part it’s that my own understanding of and work on information literacy is always growing and evolving. As is my understanding of my audience, too.

Recently, I’ve been trying to think more about digital literacy and its relationship to information literacy. Across higher education, momentum for digital learning continues to increase. My institution is no exception.

In a recently “expanded” definition, ACRL describes information literacy as: “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” While the tone of ACRL’s earlier definition (the “set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information’”) tended to be more procedural and mechanistic, both definitions highlight the critical thinking integral to the consumption and production of information.

So what is digital literacy then? In his book, published almost 20 years ago, Paul Gilster describes it as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.” For Gilster, the “most essential of the [core competencies of digital literacy] is the ability to make informed judgments about what you find on-line.” As part of “this art of critical thinking,” Gilster also includes among these core competencies reading skills, “assembling knowledge” from “diverse sources,” and search skills. For Gilster, digital literacy is essentially “literacy for the internet age.”

More recent definitions continue in the same expansive vein. ALA’s Digital Literacy Task Force describes digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information, an ability that requires both cognitive and technical skills.” Cornell University explains it as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.” UK non-profit JISC defines digital literacy as “those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. Digital literacy looks beyond functional IT skills to describe a richer set of digital behaviours, practices and identities. What it means to be digitally literate changes over time and across contexts, so digital literacies are essentially a set of academic and professional situated practices supported by diverse and changing technologies.”

Digital literacy is sometimes coupled with media literacy, as in Renee Hobbs’ Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan for Action: “the term ‘digital and media literacy’ is used to encompass the full range of cognitive, emotional and social competencies that includes the use of texts, tools and technologies; the skills of critical thinking and analysis; the practice of message composition and creativity; the ability to engage in reflection and ethical thinking; as well as active participation through teamwork and collaboration.” The Journal of Digital and Media Literacy states that “broadly defined, digital and media literacy refer to the ability to access, share, analyze, create, reflect upon, and act with media and digital information.”

I could keep going. Variations abound, but their essence stays constant. Digital literacy is not a checklist of skills. It’s far more than knowing how to operate a computer or a particular application. Instead it’s about critical thinking and reflection, social and cultural contexts, and identity. Rather familiar territory, no? So is digital literacy just information literacy in a digital only environment? Most definitions seem to at least acknowledge their connection. In library-centric spheres, information literacy tends to be presented as the larger category of which digital literacy is a part. But the reverse seems to be the case in other realms.

Why does this matter? I’ve written before that librarians are translators and that our “unique position affords us opportunities to reach across divides of perspectives, stakeholders, and disciplines.” I’ve also written before about honing how we both communicate and listen in order to connect, find common ground, and seize opportunities. So when I wonder if digital literacy is just information literacy in a digital only environment, I do not mean to diminish or disparage. Instead, I seek to highlight points of intersection, alignment, and overlap. If we’re not talking about precisely the same thing, we’re certainly on the same page. I think it will serve us all well to recognize the difference in our language, but the similarity in and continuity of our teaching and learning goals.

What’s your take? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

10 thoughts on “Versus / and / or: The relationship between information literacy and digital literacy”

  1. Jennifer, You’ve hit the nail on the head. Information literacy is the larger circle, of which digital literacy is a subset, burgeoning though it may be. It’s fairly simple–academic librarianship is perceived as female-dominated, whereas folks in the exclusively digital realm are typically viewed as male. Wish it were otherwise, but the world often favors the male POV. Perhaps it’s ego. The boys in the boys’ club are disinclined to admit to something greater than themselves.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Karl. A good point. I think you’re right that some might call metaliteracy the “parent” category. Mackey and Jacobson do use words like “overarching” and “comprehensive” in talking about metaliteracy, for example, but it has often seemed to me so focused on social media that I think of it as another component of the larger picture. How do you define/interpret metaliteracy?

  3. Thanks for your comment, Darrow. Interesting to consider this through the lens of gender…

  4. I agree completely, and this is something that frustrates me. I think splitting the concept into these smaller categories does a disservice to our students. The responsibility for teaching this broad scope of skills falls to all of us, and sometimes I feel like we’re all quibbling about who (writing center? faculty? librarians?) should be teaching what instead of working together. It would be a good starting point to accept the premise that metaliteracy (as the all-encompassing term) is the goal, and then work with other departments to reach that goal.

  5. It is not an either/or, but how your perspective changes from where you start. Librarians see information literacy as the bigger category, whereas others may view digital literacy as the larger category. There are other literacies that also come into play with digital literacy (e.g. with the JISC definition and model referenced).

    The difficult is the myriad of definitions and models around various literacies. When I talk to some people of digital literacy, they merely think of technological literacy (i.e. using computers or other devices). With no common definition nor model conversations can be challenging, as two people may be discussing two different things while seemingly talking about the same thing.

    And this does not even include the “literacy” vs. “fluency” discussion for both.

  6. “Metaliteracy” just further complicates matters. There is also “transliteracy,” “multiliteracies,” and “multimodel literacy.” We do not need more terms, to complicate matters even more. After doing some PD with metaliteracy, I personally was less convinced, not more, about its importance. I see a number of issues with Mackey and Jacobson’s model, although acknowledging the importance of the questions they raise. I am not an expert in the field, however, I will admit.

  7. Jennifer
    It’s now 6 years later and this is still exceedingly relevant! Thank you for this. I think words do matter and in academic environments we all need common languages with which to bridge these topics. I am in the camp that information literacy is the main tier from which these other branches fall (digital, media..) but your recognition that it depends upon your lens is critical. So how do we come to common ground. For today what ever you name information literacy, it is a critical skill. I’m currently working with the K-12 audience and using inquiry based learning (from Kuhlthau’s ISP ) as the platform to learn these important skills of location, evaluation and USE of information. I’d love to talk with you!

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