Why I Care About Information Literacy (And You Should, Too!)

Information literacy is a concept that has come up several times in recent news and discussions in my life. As previously noted, it’s a topic that I find not only inherently interesting but the process by which it has become a topic of national concern and interest is itself very interesting and potentially informative even to those not interested in the topic.

The American Library Association’s Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report, issued in 1989, defines information literacy as the ability to “recognize when information is needed and…locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” These skills have become increasingly important as more information in more formats have become available; some have even connected information literacy to democracy by arguing that for voters to be informed they must be information literate. It is worth noting that these concerns (a) generally mirror the larger concerns of liberal education as infusing learners with a broad knowledge base and the ability to seek out, identify, and integrate knowledge on one’s own and (b) predate the World Wide Web and consumer use and knowledge of the Internet (the ALA formed their Presidential Commission on Information Literacy in 1987; Berners-Lee did not invent the critical parts of the World Wide Web until the very early 90s).

There are definitely ties between technical literacy and information literacy but the two concepts are distinct. Some mistakenly conflate the two skillsets as they are often intertwined both as concepts and in how the concepts are taught and evaluated. To some extent that is understandable as the concepts are often taught in the same class and closely tied together in their presentation to students and patrons. Several examples of how the concepts are intertwined can be found in Ann Grafstein’s recently-published and very excellent article “Information Literacy and Technology: An Examination of Some Issues” in the current (Vol. 7, No. 1) issue of portal: Libraries and the Academy. That the concepts are closely related, however, in no way changes that they are distinct.

As already mentioned, I am fascinated not only by the concept of information literacy but also the way it has become a topic of national concern and interest. I don’t know all that I want to know about how this evolution came about but I really want to know more as I feel there could be very valuable lessons for others. For example, the concept of technical literacy has not gained near as much traction or attention as information literacy despite their very close ties. As already noted, the ALA has for nearly two decades invested some of their resources in defining information literacy. ETS, the company that administers tests such as the SAT and GRE, has created an ICT Literacy Assessment that purports to measure test-takers’ “ability to use digital technology, communication tools and networks appropriately to solve information problems in order to function in an information society.” Some of the work funded by The MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media, Learning & Education initiative focuses on media literacy, a subset of information literacy.

Why has information literacy become the focus of so much attention while other skillsets have not? It may be that those concerned about information literacy have been that much more organized and methodical; not only I am hard pressed to think of an organization with the resources and clout of the ALA in the technology sector but technologists do not have near as uniform a prepatory and professional path as librarians. I don’t think that we can honestly say that the time is ripe for information literacy but not for technical literacy, particularly as we continue to worry about our children’s safety on the Internet (even if those worries are largely unfounded). It may be that information literacy is a very general concept with extremely broad application whereas technical literacy is (arguably) much more narrow in focus and application; information literacy concepts will serve you for a lifetime whereas some technical literacy concepts may live for only a few years.

Let’s close this post with some links to recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative documents and projects that help underscore (a) the continuing importance and evolution of information literacy and (b) the ties between information literacy and technical literacy:

(Note how these documents tie together not only concepts mentioned in this post – information literacy, technical literacy, and even media literacy – but also other concepts discussed in previous posts that discuss characteristics of the current generation of traditional undergraduates.)