librarians and information literacy

There’s a post over at ACRL, the blog for the Association of College and Research Libraries, that made reference to an earlier post of mine. In my view it misrepresents me somewhat, so I was going to comment there, but then, not surprisingly, my comment started expanding, and I didn’t want to leave a super-long comment. Long story short. I’m writing here instead.

Briefly put, the ACRL defines information literacy here as "a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate,
evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.’" The definition does go on, as you can see there, but this is the main idea, and it resonates with other definitions of information literacy I have been offered by librarians. What this indicates is that, general speaking, librarians view literacy in terms of existing information (i.e. how to locate, evaluate, and use information that is already out there somewhere).

There is little if any discussion of the production/composition of new information. From my view, the production/consumption of information is just as integral to literacy as the ability to "locate, evaluate, and use" it. Now, I have no problem if librarians wish to focus on the latter. Working with faculty and students to locate, evaluate and use information is an important and labor-intensive task.

However, I see this definition of information literacy, as functional as it maybe for the institutional mission of libraries, to be misleading in its assumed definition of information as a static, independent collection of data rather than as a dynamic, cultural-cognitive process. Information doesn’t exist "out there" to be located, evaluated and used. In my view, information (as problematic as that term may be) unfolds in the interaction between intelligent systems and data sets. As such, the "location, evaluation, and use" of information is impossible outside of the production/composition of information. And now, when we teach production/composition, we must think not only of writing text but the production of a range of other media. Developing this ability of production/composition is my concern.

In any case, the post on ACRL makes references to this particular post of mine, where the thrust of my discussion is the difficult task of developing faculty so that they might incorporate networked new media into their courses and perhaps have their students produce such work as well. In short, what I was discussing is not something that even really fits into the ALA/ACRL definition of information literacy, and perhaps that’s what evoked such a strong reaction.

That said, this does not mean that librarians are not an important part of this process. If a faculty member at my college wants to incorporate video or have his/her students create blogs in a course, they might find a couple folks in the library who would be able to help them to a certain extent. That’s fine, but what happens when you have 50 faculty and hundreds of their students looking for support from the same handful of librarians? Suddenly the model of "ask a librarian" doesn’t work very well, does it?

In the lengthy discussions I’ve had on committees with our college librarians and information resources staff, the model we’ve pursued is an "information commons" where the hope is to instruct faculty and their students, sort of a "teach them to fish" model. This will work well for self-motivated faculty. However my feeling, expresed in the aforementioned post, is that a more proactive tactic will be required to develop the next generation of faculty for the networked conditions in which they will be teaching. So the majority of my post is really about how you might strategize this training. And in my mind I see librarians and other information resources staff as leading much of this training.

However, what I can glean from this ACRL post is the notion, bizarre to me, that faculty can/should just rely on librarians to provide this instruction/support for courses. I’m just curious: which librarian is going to come into my class for a month straight and provide support as my students compose a video? And, as I’ve posed in the past, when we have 60 sections, 1200 students, of first-year composition producing podcasts or videos, which librarian is going to go into all of those sections and answer 1200 different questions? Exactly how many librarians are we going to hire? And which librarians have these skills anyway? Because I’m not seeing this kind of literacy as being any more common among librarians than among faculty to begin with.

2 thoughts on “librarians and information literacy

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  1. thanks for carrying on the conversation about IL that I started in the post over at ACRLog. Sorry if I misreprented your original post. I do find it interesting to hear what faculty think about IL, and how they are collaborating with the librarians at their institution. I didn’t see much said about that in your post, but that appears to be happening at your institution. I agree with your points that IL should not be limited to traditional research but that it should encompass all the types of multimedia literacy our students need to suceed academically. I also couldn’t agree more that faculty need to take more responsibility for library education in the classroom. I’ve written previously on the need for more faculty-led library instruction. In my post I’m not suggesting that only librarians can teach students to gain IL. But I am suggesting that it is up to librarians to do a better job of communicating what IL is and putting it into terms that faculty and students can better relate to. I advocate that librarians should be in a more support/transparent role, assisting faculty with the types of digital learning materials to which you refer. That’s what our blended librarianship program (http://blendedlibrarian.org) is all about – helping librarians to develop the new instructional design and multimedia skills they need to better assist faculty to acheive their learning outcomes. Thanks again for responding to post and extending the conversation. I hope our ACRLog readers will visit Digital Digs to read it as well.

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  2. Thanks Steven. I checked out the Blended Librarian website, and I’m going to point it out to my librarian colleagues here, if they don’t already know about it. It certainly looks like the work going on there connects with what is going on in our library.

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