Information Literacy: What’s the Question?

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Lenker, Teaching & Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Do you have an arch-frenemy book or article from the literature of library science?  Mine has to be Edward K. Owusu-Ansah’s 2005 “Debating Definitions of Information Literacy:  Enough is Enough!”  Owusu-Ansah argues persuasively that we have already defined information literacy clearly enough to know that it involves making a positive difference in our students’ experiences with learning.  Rather than dither about with the fine distinctions that a perfect definition of information literacy would require, Owusu-Ansah implores us to get on with the good work of teaching information literacy.[1]

But I can’t help myself.  Definitions of information literacy fascinate me because they open new possibilities for thinking about (and occasionally actually doing) my work.  The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards made it clear to me that information literacy was about more than just showing students how to use databases (which was a lesson I really needed to learn).  The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education stimulated my thinking about information as an ecosystem that we inhabit and influence.  Even Owusu-Ansah’s 2003 characterization of information literacy as “conversance with the universe of information” taught me that conversance with information is a more reasonable and pressing instructional goal than expertise in information.[2]          

All of these conceptions describe information literacy as an attribute of learners:  competencies they exhibit, concepts they have mastered, a level of know-how they have attained.  The focus on such characteristics makes sense; literacy itself is a quality possessed by people.  But what if we took a step back from our focus on skills and competencies and instead thought about information literacy as a matter of learning something about the world?  What if we framed information literacy in terms of a big question, one that accurately conveys the depths of the unknowns that information literacy touches upon?  Getting the defining question right would help others understand the weight of the subject matter that we teach and research.  It would also improve our own understanding of the deep-rooted mysteries that pervade our work.

It bears emphasis that information is an aspect of the world that is teeming with mystery.  The range of questions includes current challenges, like how to learn about politics in the midst of our fractured public discourse, or how search algorithms can skew our searching and distort our learning.  But the span also includes questions as old as information itself.  How can I tell which information I should trust?  What’s the best way to obtain information that I can rely on?  Or, deepest of all, how do text, images, and sound, all physical signals, get taken up as meaning that influences future thought or action?  It’s easy to forget that learning with information is an everyday miracle, and that libraries are in the miracle business.

When we acknowledge the vastness and the subtlety of information literacy as a subject matter, it makes a difference in the way we approach our teaching.  I underestimate the subject matter and my students when I view teaching as a matter of giving the students what they need to know about research. 

Better to think of the teacher as a guide leading the students to a vantage point over a yawning chasm of information possibilities so that they can explore it together.[3]  The canyon is sublime when considered in its wholeness–it is so much bigger than the teacher or the students–but it is also composed of billions of details worth considering on their own.   The wind gnawing at the rock particle by particle.  The intrepid trees somehow growing on the face of the blasted cliffs.  The exquisitely adapted animals that find a way to thrive in this impossible place, where nature slowly gouges away at itself.  Each instance of information that we encounter, considered in its context, is a similar occasion for wonder, if we take the time to think about it.

To continue with the analogy, the teacher cannot give the students everything they need to know about the canyon.  The canyon is too vast, and the backgrounds and questions of the students are too varied.  The teacher can point out some interesting features and ask questions to bring the canyon into focus in a way that many students have not considered before.  But no one will leave having mastered the canyon, and that is the way it should be.  It is enough that the students have taken in one of the big, rich features of their world and come away more curious, inspired, or humble than they were before.

The canyon metaphor has important limitations.  It is too visual, as though information is something that we look at from afar rather than participate in up close.  In fact, none of us can ever really leave the information canyon.  We are composed of information in much the same way that we are made up of water, carbon, and iron.  Further, our choices, both big and small, influence the character of the information ecosystem that sustains us.  We must be mindful to do no harm.

Instead of mastery, I would rather see my students come away from our time together more alert to the likelihood that there is more to information than initially meets the eye, more aware of the ways that information shapes their lives, and more mindful of the ways that their choices influence the future, both for information and for themselves.  To awaken and encourage that sort of deliberate and probing curiosity, information literacy needs a really good question.

Can we meaningfully discern the human purpose (and, frequently, the human negligence) lying behind the information artifacts that occupy so much of our lives?  How do our information choices make us more (or less) fully human?

That’s my version of information literacy’s big question.  What’s yours?


[1] Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, “Debating definitions of information literacy: enough is enough!.” Library Review 54, no. 6 (2005): 366-374.

[2] Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, “Information literacy and the academic library: a critical look at a concept and the controversies surrounding it,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 29, no. 4 (2003): 219-230.

[3] I am not the first to use the image of a landscape to describe information literacy.  For an influential example, see Annemaree Lloyd,  “Information literacy landscapes: an emerging picture,” Journal of documentation 62, no. 5 (2006): 570-583.  The Sconul 7 Pillars of Information Literacy also makes extensive use of the landscape metaphor.

Pulling back the curtain: Conversations about process and information literacy

My colleague Kate Morgan and I developed a series of panel discussions this past year that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We invited campus faculty and staff to select a piece of research or creative work and discuss some aspects of its making. By sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we hoped panelists would reveal their steps and stages, as well as the skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to their processes. By increasing the transparency of their works’ component parts, we aimed to help faculty and students recognize and discuss the role of information literacy and digital literacy in research and creative experiences. We also hoped that uncovering process would make research feel more approachable for our students. This idea germinated from a seed I first explored in this post a few years ago.

In our planning meetings with panelists, we shared some questions like the following to help them prepare their remarks:

  • How did you ask questions?
  • How did you identify a path for your research?
  • How did you validate and support your ideas?
  • How did you engage with other scholars’ work?
  • How did your work change course during the process?
  • What attitudes were important to your process?
  • What skills and tools were key to your process?
  • How did you draw conclusions?
  • What were your hesitations, fears, and missteps? How did you manage/overcome them?

I find it interesting that many of the panelists chose to share stories related to their professional paths rather than discrete projects. They talked about their early and adult life experiences, their undergraduate experiences, and their transitions to graduate school. While panelists spoke less about research strategies and tools than I had originally imagined, they spoke more about choices they made, attitudes they cultivated, and about how personal and professional interests and choices cross-pollinated. In so doing, they illustrated skills, practices, and attitudes key to information literacy development such as: how they came to understand authority and develop expertise; affective aspects of their research and writing processes; how they negotiated ambiguity, formulated questions, and synthesized ideas; and how they honed mindsets for curiosity, inquiry, and reflection.

I’m excited by the success we had with this first iteration: attendance at each session was high, the audiences were engaged, and conversations buzzed in hallways and offices well after the sessions ended. I believe that by engaging students, faculty, and staff in conversations about inner workings and rough edges, this series took a productive step toward transforming our perspectives on how we participate and create. Yet, I’m left wondering if the centrality of information literacy in the series was quite so apparent to everyone as it was to me. Did we truly pull back the curtain in such a way as to build a shared understanding of those oh-so-foundational information literacy skills, behaviors, and concepts?

So as we look ahead to the next iteration of this program for the coming academic year, I’m thinking about some of the goals at the heart of this series, particularly our goal to broaden our campus community’s awareness of the scope and nature of information literacy as well as the library’s role as a partner in teaching and learning processes. I’m reflecting on how information literacy is so closely intertwined with critical thinking, metacognition, and a growth, rather than fixed, mindset. And I’m reflecting on how I can better uncover the relationship between these inherently linked strands and how to make my thinking and my process more transparent for others.

How do you talk about process and information literacy? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

#1Lib1Ref: An Easy Gateway to Wikipedia Editing

If you haven’t heard yet, the latest round of #1Lib1Ref is currently underway. This initiative, running from January 15 to February 5 this round, encourages librarians to add one missing citation to a Wikipedia article. Much has been written before about Wikipedia, its uses in libraries, and how librarians can help to improve Wikipedia. Check out Siân Evans’s post from a few years ago to read a bit more about that.

In the case of #1Lib1Ref, the idea is simple: as librarians, we’re good at finding resources, so even if writing a whole Wikipedia article seems daunting (which it certainly did for me!), we can bring those resource-finding skills to bear by editing articles that have already been written but aren’t up to Wikipedia’s citation standards.

I’ve been interested in learning to edit Wikipedia, but haven’t managed to get to an edit-a-thon yet, so hadn’t done any editing at all until I learned of #1Lib1Ref. When I did, it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get started. I was especially drawn to the idea of adding citations. Lately, I’ve been thinking about librarians (like me) with specialized subject knowledge, and how we can make use of that knowledge in our work. Yes, I have a degree in Southeast Asian studies, but I don’t know everything about Southeast Asia, nor can I know everything. That said, I do know enough to edit some Wikipedia articles, so spurred on by #1Lib1Ref, I set out to do just that.

There’s a lot of ways to get started with editing. I decided to start with finding an article to edit. Citation Hunt is a fun tool that scans through articles and shows you the snippets tagged with “citation needed.” If you think you can add the citation, it will take you that page for you to edit it. I found, though, that this cast too wide of a net, so I instead turned to the WikiProject Cleanup Listings. This page has articles grouped by topic, which made it much easier for me to drill down to a topic I felt I knew something about. Clicking on “by cat” takes you to a list of articles that need various sorts of attention: the neutrality has been called into question, or the article has been flagged for redundancy and possible merger with another article. On this page, I paid particular attention to articles under “Cites no sources,” “Cites unreliable sources,” and “Unsourced passages need footnotes {{citation needed}}.” This gave me enough options to find an article on a topic I knew something about that also needed a citation or two.

Which meant it was time for editing. The #1Lib1Ref page has a quick guide to editing Wikipedia articles, and Eric Phetteplace has also made a short video documenting his edit for #1Lib1Ref.

Beyond the technical aspects, though, I had questions about sources. What kinds of sources does Wikipedia favor? What’s this about valuing secondary sources over primary sources? There’s extensive documentation available to learn more about sources on Wikipedia, as well as a helpful guide addressed specifically to librarians and other cultural professionals. One major takeaway is that Wikipedia favors open access sources, which makes sense: people using Wikipedia might not have the access necessary to view the full text of books or articles cited, which means that the citation doesn’t allow them to read more. That said, Wikipedia also recognizes that sources will not always be open access, and there is no open access requirement. Again, though, this is where librarians can help: can we find alternate sources that are open access?

With all that reading under my belt, I finally felt ready to start editing, and began by combing through some of my favorite sources on Javanese gamelan and dance. Look for me poking around through related articles for the rest of #1Lib1Ref!


Are you participating in #1Lib1Ref, or do you run other sorts of Wikipedia-related events in your library? Let me know in the comments!

How Vs. Why: A New Way to Look at Incorporating the Framework

This piece started out as my attempt to figure out how to write about the difficulties my community college colleagues and I have encountered when trying to find effective ways to incorporate the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education into our one-shot library instruction sessions. As I sorted out my thoughts on that topic, I saw a different, but related, question we should answer first: what is the balance of “library instruction” versus “information literacy instruction” we can and should achieve in this instruction session?

If I define “library instruction” as “teaching students about how to use the library’s resources and services” (whether that’s a point-and-click demonstration of a database, an explanation of what can be found in a subject-specific research guide, or answering questions about what services are provided at the reference and circulation desks) and “information literacy instruction” as, well, teaching what is found in the Framework (identifying authority, considering information’s value, understanding scholarship as a conversation), then I don’t think I’m making a bold statement by saying: “Library instruction is not the same as information literacy instruction.” To over-generalize a little, “library instruction” is the “how” of research, and “information literacy instruction” is the “why.” This is something we probably all already knew, but I had not thought about it in the context of answering the question of how to incorporate the Framework into my one-shots.

Both “how” and “why” instruction are important, and a student needs both to thrive in their research. If a student doesn’t have the nuts-and-bolts information of how to access a database in the first place, how are they supposed to apply the information literacy concepts that help them choose a high-quality, reliable, scholarly article from that database? On the other hand, if we don’t allot enough time to evaluating one’s sources, the student might just choose the first article that pops up in the database, without critically considering its authority or value. We need to strike a balance between the two, but what is the right balance? There is, obviously, no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. It will vary based on the course, the instructor, the students, the assignment, and the librarian.

The next question, for advanced users, is: can I fit both “how” and “why” into the same activity? For a little further reading, this is the article I was reading when this new question clicked for me. I realized that I do the things that Shawna Thorup describes, such as doing on-the-fly searches for the students’ suggested topics without knowing what the results will be. This squeezes “Searching as Strategic Exploration” into the same activity that used to be just demonstrating the use of a tool. You get a two-for-the-price-of-one experience if you use your demo time to explain why a student might want to use limiters like “peer-reviewed only”: they know how to do it and they also know why they should do it. (Bonus points when they understand if they should do it!)

I know that none of this is revolutionary, but for me at least, it is a new way of looking at an old question, and I hope that it might help you approach that question in a new way in the new year.

In and out of context: Musings on information literacy, institutional, and higher ed landscapes

After more than a decade at a private small liberal arts college, my recent transition to a large, public research university has been full of learning opportunities regarding both the content of my work and the culture of this organization. Since arriving, I’ve identified a need for jumpstarting and growing a dormant information literacy program. Developing information literacy initiatives–including course-embedded instruction and faculty development, for example–was a significant focus for me at my previous institution. My experiences and the expertise I developed there certainly apply here. Yet that application requires some translation; my previous work, no surprise, was deeply steeped in that institution’s context.

In my previous position, talking about information literacy by articulating its connections with critical thinking, for example, packed a solid punch for faculty and students. My former institution’s mission statement illustrates the context of our discourse and work, dedicated to the development of “independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile” and “committed to life-long learning.”

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of language and these values aren’t hard to find at my new institution either. In our general education learning objectives alone, I can point to both explicit and implicit language about information literacy. Telling the story of information literacy in terms of strengthening our abilities to think and learn and live is still compelling. But it doesn’t feel like it goes quite as far a distance here–where I’ve heard gen ed branded as “connecting curiosity and career,” for example–as it did in my previous context.

Surely, it’s not institutional culture alone that explains the difference. The landscape of higher ed altogether has been and continues to be shifting. Yesterday’s joint statement by AAC&U and AAUP, for example, characterizes the trend in this way: “Politicians have proposed linking tuition to the alleged market value of given majors. Students majoring in literature, art, philosophy, and history are routinely considered unemployable in the technology and information economy, despite the fact that employers in that economy strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m against pre-professional training nor that liberal arts will save us. This is not an either/or situation. One of the reasons I sought this type of job at this type of institution was to find a new context, a new learning experience. After so much time at one institution, I wanted to see other ways that higher ed works. But I certainly still subscribe to the maxim that critical thinking is just as important, if not more, as content knowledge for our students’ (and our society’s) future success and that information literacy is an elemental part of those critical thinking habits, attitudes, and skills.

So as I’m thinking about growing our information literacy program here, I’m thinking about our institutional context and higher ed landscape with fresh eyes, too. I’m thinking now about all the ways to make the long reach of information literacy visible beyond the classroom. My thoughts turn first to the application and impact of information literacy skills in students’ internships, a signature experience on my campus. How have you illustrated the power of information literacy for your context(s)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.