The current dominant paradigm of information literacy emphasizes the importance of connecting with textual information. This produces a deficit model of information literacy which does not take into account the importance of information learning or other sources of information which are accessed through communication or action.
–Annemaree Lloyd, Information Literacy: Different Contexts, Different Concepts, Different Truths?
as cited by Eamon Tewell in The Problem with Grit
It all started with this quote. I was sitting in Eamon Tewell’s presentation at LOEX earlier this month, learning about the problematic nature of grit narratives in education and libraries, when these two sentences showed up in his slide deck. Eamon was convincingly linking the popularity of grit to current deficit models of information literacy education. By defining information literacy in academic libraries in a particular way, we categorize students as academically deficient. They may be able to solve complex information problems on their own, in their own way, but because, as Annemaree Lloyd states, we emphasize text as information in academia, their experiences and abilities are invalidated. Our academic librarian version of information literacy is rooted in the written word, and not just any written word, but words of a certain kind: academic journal articles, scholarly books, book chapters, reports, grey literature, legal documents, etc. Our emphasis as librarians is on the things we can read that signal some connection to the academy.
We see examples of this in our work all the time. We might say something like,”You are used to using Google, but Google won’t help you in this situation,” (Spoiler: It probably still will). Or, “Let’s start our research with the library databases.” We might try to branch out from scholarly texts by encouraging students to use Wikipedia or news sources as launch pads for research, but these are all still resources rooted in the written word. I can always count on Library Twitter to help me process problematic ideas and issues, so I posed the following questions to my colleagues:
I wonder why this is the case. Is it academia seeking to replicate itself? Is it librarians wanting to center the library and boost resource use? I recognize it is an example of deficit thinking, but what is the underlying power structure at the root? ? #LOEX2018
— V. Arellano Douglas (@arellanover) May 5, 2018
Responses were so thoughtful and thought-provoking. Desmond Wong, Outreach Librarian at the University of Toronto, shared the problematic nature of current information literacy education in relation to searching for and accessing indigenous peoples’ knowledge. This idea is seconded by research done by Alex Watkins of University of Colorado Boulder, who sees this emphasis on academic textual sources as “academics policing the boundaries of authority as well as elevating a particular way of knowing.” (Side note: Both Desmond and Alex have done some excellent work researching indigenous knowledge practices and information literacy). And Karen Nicholson pointed me to the great chapter by Alison Hicks on this very topic in her recent book co-edited with Maura Seale, The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship.
In Making the Case for a Sociocultural Perspective on Information Literacy, Alison Hicks moves beyond the ACRL Framework vs. Standards debate to advocate for a sociocultural approach to information literacy. This focuses on the ways in which information literacy “shows itself” in different communities, and the ways in which it is shaped by different contexts. A sociocultural approach to information literacy shows us that the way we’ve defined information literacy as librarians is just one version of information literacy. It is a “social practice that emerges from a community’s information interactions” (p. 73). But by adopting a “single understanding of information literacy” as the information literacy, we impose one group’s knowledge practices on another (p. 75). What we are teaching in academic libraries is specific to an academic context, but we are teaching it as though it is universal.
I can already hear the dissent brewing, because so entrenched is my relationship to a particular type of information literacy that I had a similar, initial, knee-jerk reaction. “But we need to teach students how to use and understand these textual, scholarly resources precisely because they are new and they have never used them before!” I had to counter my own reaction with a blog post I read a few years ago by the ever-prolific Barbara Fister. Referencing the PIL study that looks at info-seeking behavior of recent college graduates, she laments the difficulty these young adults have setting up their own personal learning networks. We’ve focused so strongly on information as a textual source in information literacy education, that we don’t address the information literacy practices of different communities, including the workplace. Think about the last time you started a new job and how you gathered new information about your place of work. Did you immediately start digging into scholarly articles about best practices? Or did you set up formal and informal information appointments with your new colleagues? I think we all know the power of information in the workplace and our lives, and we’d be lying if we said we got all of this information from reading text, much less academic texts.
I’ve been deep in this idea lately as I start a new job and seek resources for my son who has various learning differences. As much as I want to say that scholarly, empirical research articles have been my go-to information sources, they absolutely haven’t. For me, as a new employee, my information literacy practices have centered around talking to people and learning from their experiences and institutional knowledge. For me, as a parent of a child with learning differences, my information literacy practices have centered around meeting and speaking with other parents and special needs education advocates. This is the information literacy I practice in my daily life, and I am starting to think more and more about how to incorporate this into the work I do with students, librarians, and faculty as an information literacy educator.