For University Days (my institution’s internal professional development days) I’m offering a roundtable session on what information literacy looks like and could look like on our campus. I’ll kick off the session with a 5 minute ignite style presentation. It was very hard to keep it down to 5 minutes, so what follows is what I would have said if I had more time.
Last year on sabbatical I thought about information literacy. First I tried to get a handle on a definition of information literacy. It seemed to be equal parts accessing information and evaluating information. It turns out there are a lot of different frameworks and a lot of adjacent literacies, like media literacy, and digital literacy. I found I couldn’t meaningfully distinguish between any of these. At one point I was drawn to metaliteracy since it promised a way to understand all these different literacies in relationship to each other. But it kind of ended up being like this xkcd comic.
And after much effort I found that maybe what I needed wasn’t a be all end all definition of info lit, what I needed was to know what I should be doing as an instruction librarian. How does information literacy manifest in the work of librarians?
Old Info Lit
The slide below is how I used to think information literacy instruction looked for librarians. This is a suggested session outline for a librarian meeting with with a first year seminar (FYS) class that I was given when I started here 8 years ago.
Yes, this is absurd. For one thing, that all of this could be meaningfully addressed in a single session, in the times indicated presupposes superhuman attention on the part of the audience. But even setting aside that problem, it seems to suppose that it is adequate to speak only of the “how” without any conceptual understanding of why it might matter.
I don’t think anyone actually tried to do this, at least not more than once. I quickly moved towards working with individual instructors to pick two or three of these topics. And more recently I’ve tended to narrow my session scopes even more, while moving toward more toward conceptual understanding.
But it continues to be true that a single session is largely how librarians interact with students, (outside of the students that self-select into reference desk interactions.) And the idea that these topics are the boundaries of librarians led instruction still exists. And for good reason, this is what I thought they were. This is what we told instructors that they were.
New Info Lit
Last year I got my hands on all the textbooks and syllabi by and for librarians that I could find. And I collected every topic that I found covered there. I made lists, mind maps, categories, and eventually a wiki. Yes, I found the topics from that suggested First Year Seminar session: citation, catalog and database searching, boolean operators, etc. But I also found a lot of new topics, conceptual topics: cognitive biases, algorithms, epistemology, disinformation.
Of course. Because what does it mean to teach information literacy in our current environment. In an age of algorithms that determine what we see based on stores of personal information including what we clicked on yesterday? When we are increasingly aware that cognitive biases lead us to choose search terms that return info that reinforces our beliefs. That as much as we want to believe ourselves impartial we are predisposed to notice and remember some info while more than others.
Project Information Literacy’s Algorithm Study found that students are increasingly aware of the challenges they face in navigating the information around them and that much of the information literacy instruction they receive is inadequate. Students perceive that “the information [they] needed for school assignments had nothing to do with life beyond college.” The following is a student quote from this same study:
“Usually, it’s like a two-day thing about ‘This is how you make sure your sources are credible.’ Well, I heard that in high school, you know, and that information is just kind of outdated for the caliber that the internet is today. I mean it’s just not the same as what it used to be.”
I’m not going to tell you traditional topics aren’t important. They are, but the old and new topics are linked. You will do better academic research if you have a strong conceptual understanding of your info environment and if you can think critically about the information environment you find yourself in.
Critical Info Lit
After struggling through all the information/media/digital literacy frameworks mentioned above, it was in reading about critical information literacy that I found the unifying, big picture concepts that I was looking for. Librarians used to like to think that libraries were neutral. We make sources available from all perspectives, we exclude nothing, because that is not our place. (Note the sarcasm, it is literally impossible to select any work for the library without making about 87 value judgements.) And we teach people to use our databases to find these carefully curated resources.
Critical information literacy teaches that nothing is neutral. That if we don’t teach people to think critically about the systems that generate information, we support whatever the existing systems are. If we limit ourselves to teaching students to search library databases (that they will not have access to after graduation), then we are not preparing them for the information environment they are in. These days people don’t find information, information finds you.
Partnership, Not Ownership
To go back to the proposed FYS session. It contained an absurd number of topics because 1. this is what the librarians understood our info lit responsibilities to be and 2. a single FYS session was all the interaction we were guaranteed to have with students. So if all of this is “our job” and we get one session, sure that’s what you end up with.
I’ve encountered a lot of opinions about who “owns” information literacy. There is little agreement, (connected, I think, to how many different definitions exist.) Clearly at my institution, librarians must have felt some ownership of those topics to propose the session plan above. But a 2017 survey found that around that 29% of teaching faculty did not see a role for librarians in information literacy. And many of the topics showing up more recently in librarian info lit materials are strongly grounded in other disciplines. Cognitive biases – psychology. Epistemology – philosophy. And the whole enterprise has media studies written all over it.
But wait, I just remembered: I don’t care who “owns” info lit. I don’t think that’s a particularly useful question. Which brings me to the theme of University Days this year: partnership. Our best shot at providing for our students is by teaming up, is through partnership.
We have experts in all the individual pieces that make up info lit. With so much change going on around us over the last few years, I don’t fault us for not prioritizing this conversation. But now I’d like us to communicate a little more than we have been about what parts of info lit should be integrated into our curriculum, how, and where they are going to show up. I’d like us to find ways to partner on info lit. In this era of scarce resources we can still be each others’ resources and partners. Thinking creatively about these partnerships will be the focus of the rest of this session.
Even if you were not able to attend the roundtable discussion, I’m interested in your thoughts on our discussion questions (below).