Posted Remarks From The Great Information Literacy Debate

Here you will find the remarks from those presenters who supplied them to ACRLog.

Gary Radford’s Remarks

To be asked to argue that information literacy is not a waste of librarian’s time and talent could itself be considered to be a waste of time and talent, especially when that argument is being presented to an audience of library scholars and practitioners whose stated purpose is the advancement of information literacy. So how should I go about persuading you all that what you do and aspire to is not a waste of your time and talent?

I considered a number of approaches to this debate. One would be to report the results and conclusions of empirical studies and show you through the use of data how information literacy programs have made an impact in people’s lives. But this has already been done, and much more besides, on the ACRL website, a wonderful resource on this topic which contains advocacy points, literature, resources, glossaries, surveys, toolkits, standards, tutorials, curricula, assessment, initiatives, listservs, grants, consultants and speakers, databases, and an institute for information literacy. The arguments and evidence for the concept of information literacy are articulated superbly. So it does not take me, a professor of communication studies and an outsider to ACRL, to try and persuade you here today that what you do is important and not a waste of time. All it remains for me to do is to applaud these efforts and initiatives. Why? Because they are crucial and necessary components in helping me do my job, which is to get students to be able to think and use information in useful ways, rather than simply regurgitate information back to me in papers and tests. So let me talk about information literacy from my point of view as a teacher attempting to instill in his students a sense of wonder, awe, and curiosity and to have them consider research and scholarship as an adventure rather than a chore.

First of all, I have never known a student get excited about a textbook or an assigned reading. No matter how carefully I select a book for a class, for the student it always remains “the book assigned by the professor.” They read it because they have to. The love of research and knowledge comes only when a student has the confidence and know-how to explore readings not assigned by people like me. It comes when a student has the ability to identify legitimate primary information which enables them to develop and articulate their own ideas and positions. It comes when a student knows the satisfaction of using information to make contributions to the communities in which they live and work, whether that be the social community or the community of scholars.

An information literate person also has the means to develop healthy skepticism. She knows that there are many sides to every story. They know when it is appropriate to question and, if necessary, to challenge dominant voices. “Text book” education is not enough to instill these qualities into students. Students who are content to read assigned chapters and take assigned tests are destined to become corporate drones. Students with the curiosity, imagination, and drive to go beyond the textbook and beyond the Professor have to be identified, nurtured, and given the tools and skills needed to flourish. It is impossible for the professor to do this alone. We can try and plant the seed in the classroom, but the librarian is an essential partner in the effort to make it grow.

Reflecting on information literacy and “textbook education” led me think about the situation of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” Orwell describes Winston’s doomed attempt to understand the nature of the totalitarian society in which he lives. The only way he can understand it is through locating documents which can either confirm or deny his everyday experience. Such documents include the Party history books, the newspapers, and the heretical book of the arch-traitor Goldstein. However, as Winston well knows from his occupation in the Ministry of Truth, the content of all available documentation is completely controlled by the Party. Winston’s understanding of his situation and the world is completely constrained by the Party’s total control of information. He cannot articulate his understanding in any terms other than those provided to him by the Party: “The past, he reflected, had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed. For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory” (Orwell, 1949, p. 33). Sometimes Winston could put a finger on an obvious lie. “It was not true, for example, as was claimed in the Party history books, that the Party had invented airplanes. He remembered airplanes since his earliest childhood. But you could prove nothing. There was never any evidence” (p. 33). Yet Winston’s insight that he cannot articulate an objective understanding of his own circumstances is itself a crucial one. Winston’s insight is an example of information literacy of the highest order. He recognized that the information he was able to locate was flawed, biased, and limited, and, by so doing, he understood the need to move beyond the information given to him.

I believe a textbook-educated student essentially settles for a 1984 world, where all claims are made and believed on the basis of authority rather than critical thinking. Students learn this material because they are compelled to, and not because they want to. They use the information in their text books and required readings to achieve a desired end – the earning of a grade, the awarding of a degree, and the landing of a job. Beyond these immediate aims, the material has no value. Information is not there to be believed, questioned, or discussed. It is there to be used in order to achieve pragmatic goals that have little or nothing to do with the information itself. The students understand this perfectly well. Like Winston, they understand that there is nothing beyond the textbook or the assigned reading because any such information has no practical value to them. Have you ever known a student who looked at a bibliography or list of recommended readings in a textbook, and actually found and read any of them on their own initiative? Why would they do that? Because they are “interested” in the subject? But there is no “value” in being “interested.” There are no rewards to be gained from such an activity. In my experience, it is extremely rare for a student to voluntarily to do this because of an intrinsic interest in the subject matter itself. There are very few Winston Smiths who are prepared to risk some part of themselves in the quest for a deeper and instrinsically satisfying knowledge.

Textbook students can certainly be considered information literate in the sense that they can use a reference tool to locate some information to satisfy some assignment given by someone like me. Jeremy J. Shapiro and Shelley K. Hughes in their article “Information Literacy as a Liberal Art.” suggest that this represents information literacy only in its narrowest sense: that is, the practical skills involved in effective use of information technology and information resources, either print or electronic.” I agree with their assertion that these skills are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for information literacy. Shapiro and Hughes offer a broader conception of information literacy which is more profound: “Information literacy is a new liberal art which extends beyond technical skills and is conceived as the critical reflection on the nature of information itself, its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural and even philosophical context and impact.” In other words, we need to make our students more like Winston Smith.

In Shapiro and Hughes’s broader conception of information literacy, the notion of “critical reflection” is crucial because such reflection cannot take place in textual isolation. To “critically reflect” on a text is not to read it, put your hand on your chin, ruffle your brow, and then, as if by magic, you “critically reflect.” The act of critical reflection requires knowledge of and access to other texts with which to compare and contrast the claims of the text in question. The reader needs to engage a whole network of texts to contextualize and determine the significance of that text. But what texts are appropriate to consider the text at hand, and how should the reader evaluate those texts? Well, with other texts, and so ad infinitum. This is where information literacy proves to be a real challenge to our students: the process never ends and there is no single and definitive meaning, conclusion, or answer to be found. Indeed, a truly literate person doesn’t find answers, but only more texts. The semiotician and literary theorist Umberto Eco captures this sense of information literacy wonderfully in his novel The Name of the Rose. Years after the murders at the abbey and the burning of the great library, Adso returns to the site of the adventure and finds the ruin of the library. Poking around in the rubble, the monk Adso finds scraps of parchment that had “survived like treasures buried in the earth” (Eco, 1983, p. 500). Inside the ruins, Adso searches for the remains of the books:

Mine was a poor harvest, but I spent a whole day reaping it, as if from those disiecta membra of the library a message might reach me. Some fragments of parchment had faded, others permitted the glimpse of an image=s shadow, or the ghost of one or more words. At times I found pages where whole sentences were legible; more often, intact bindings, protected by what had once been metal studs. . . Ghosts of books, apparently intact on the outside but consumed within; yet sometimes a half page had been saved, an incipit was discernible, a title (Eco, 1983, p. 500).

Adso continues: “At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books” (Eco, 1983, p. 500). Adso maintains his relics with a crude catalog, which he constantly reads in order to find the meaning which holds them all together. Adso writes:

The more I reread this list the more I am convinced it is the result of chance and contains no message. But these incomplete pages have accompanied me through all the life that has been left me to live since then; I have often consulted them like an oracle, and I have had the impression that what I have written on these pages, which you will now read, unknown reader, is only a cento, a figured hymn, an immense acrostic that says and repeats nothing but what those fragments have suggested to me, nor do I know whether thus far I have been speaking of them or they have spoken through my mouth. But whichever of the two possibilities may be correct, the more I repeat to myself the story that has emerged from them, the less I manage to understand whether in it there is a design that goes beyond the natural sequence of the events and the times that connect them. And it is a hard thing for this old monk, on the threshold of death, not to know whether the letter he has written contains some hidden meaning, or more than one, or many, or none at all (Eco, 1983a, p. 501).

Adso ends the book with the following: “It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about” (Eco, 1983, p. 502).

Adso finds himself in the same place as Winston Smith. Both find themselves at the end of a long and tortuous textual journey only to conclude that the texts themselves have no meaning. This may seem to a depressing and hopeless conclusion, but to me it is the very opposite. Adso and Winston represent figures to be venerated and admired. They have sought out texts, located them, compiled and arranged them, sought the linkages which connect them, and, ultimately, exhausted their meanings. Their willingness and ability to explore texts to their very limits are qualities to be instilled in all of our students.

For me, information literacy is about creating a change in attitude. Information literacy is less the learning of skills and more the development of a mind set – a way of being in the world of information that consists of understanding and accepting that there is more information out there than we dare to know about, and that we need information to understand information. But this attitude is inevitably accompanied by a certain amount of fear and, worse, uncertainty; two things my textbook educated students will go to great lengths to avoid. For them, information literacy is the last thing they need. For a student seeking the path to a good grade, the uncertainty produced by true information literacy is to be avoided rather than embraced. And this is precisely the challenge we face, both as librarians and teachers, and the reason why the nurturing of information literacy in our students is not a waste of our time and talent. My students need you not to give up on them, even when it seems they do not care or are not interested. They do care and they are interested, but they are afraid and their educational conditioning compels them to treat information in limited and pragmatic ways. We need to move them beyond this mindset, and set them free.

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