Archive for August, 2010

Knowledge Notes: Information Literacy (30 August 2010)

Welcome to Knowledge Notes!  This is the first “topic-based” post in Cowles Library’s semi-regular series of reflections on the changing nature of scholarly information in a digital world.

Personal context:  Your author is Bruce Gilbert, Director of Library Instruction at Drake University’s Cowles Library. I have been at Drake almost long enough to qualify for Beloit College’s Mindset list, which is to say, when I first came to Drake in January 1992, many of Drake’s current class of First Year Students were not yet (or just!) born.

Many of the comments that follow stem from a presentation I gave to the assembled First Year Seminar Workshop on 12 August 2010.  The powerpoint presentation from that talk is embedded at the bottom of this document.  Note that the purpose of these musings is not to be comprehensive, but rather to raise some interesting issues and perhaps point towards some courses of action that make sense in the Drake (and other academic?) setting.  Also note that any viewpoints expressed below are mine alone!

What is Information Literacy (Info Lit)?

Let’s start with the very basic question:  What the heck is Info Lit anyway?  It is a seemingly simple question with no simple answer.  And it also points to a great deal of confusion.

Information Literacy is often confused and conflated with related, but still very different, terms such as Information Technology, or Computer Literacy, or even Library Literacy.  While there is considerable overlap amongst these concepts, there are also very important distinctions.

I prefer to describe Info Lit variously as:  a separate academic disciple; a set of dispositions, skills, and ethical sensibilites; and finally, a unique perspective on research and the academic life.

Note that I will not belabor the well-known ACRL definitions of Info Lit nor refer specifically to their even more widely referenced Competency Standards for Higher Education.  (If you are new to these concepts, however, you will want to give these documents a look)

Pirate's dilemma

A. Information Literacy as an Academic Discipline (“Meta” View)

As a discipline, Information Literacy is both a very rewarding, and sometimes equally frustrating, academic grove to labor in.   Ironically, of course, many of the rewards and frustration stem from the same source:  Info Lit is a constantly evolving discipline that never grows stale; however, at the same time, we practitioners can never truly “catch up”!

One measure of the dynamic and vibrant nature of Information Literacy as a discipline is the out-pouring of truly readable, interesting, timely, and widely-based literature on Info Lit topics.  I have several examples of good books in the ppt presentation (below), but one I should mention as an illustrative example is “The Pirate’s Dilemma:  How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism” (Cowles catalog listing is linked from the book jacket).   This book raises (among others) the interesting question:  What is the danger to our growth as a society if we treat our innovative youth (the “Pirates” of the book title), who want to make something new out of various fragments and snippets of our culture, as criminals to be suppressed, rather than as resources to be developed?  The book examines the recent history of “piracy” in America, from the growth of hiphop to youth clothing and cultural movements, in a kinetic and thought-provoking manner.

I have spent a little time with this book because it demonstrates the wide-ranging nature of concerns that Information Literacy instructors and practitioners must be aware of; these concerns extend far beyond “computer literacy” into the ethical and cultural realm of, “What is the impact of all this change on society in general, and us as individuals?”

B. Information Literacy as a body of dispositions, skills, and ethical sensibilites (“Describe the house brick-by-brick” view)

This is perhaps the most common method of describing Information Literacy:  Define through listing its constituent parts.  This approach is that taken by the ACRL Standards (listed above), for example.

So, what are these constituent parts?  According to the newly-minted Drake Information Literacy rubric (primarily designed for Drake’s General Education curriculum and First Year Seminar courses) in order to achieve a “basic” level of Information Literacy, a student should be good at:  Retrieving, Evaluating, Analyzing, Interpreting, and Citing information.

I think it interesting to note that, in this listing, there is no direct reference to technology per se; that is, the student is expected to be proficient at evaluating and citing information, whether that information comes from a Kindle or a newspaper, a Web site or a journal article (online or otherwise).  There is an underlying level of technical competence that is assumed; however, certain critical faculties, as well as reading and writing abilities as well as a basic ethical sensibilty, are also assumed for the Information Literate individual.

C. Information Literacy as a Unique Perspective on Research and the Academic Life (“Change Management” View)

This approach to “defining” Information Literacy has arisen out of discussions we have had, both among the Faculty of Cowles Library, as well as with other interested Drake individuals.  Those talks stemmed from a general lack of common understanding, and even ignorance, of what Information Literacy was supposed to be at Drake.  Along the way, we considered, but rejected, simply re-naming Info Lit as something else (the trendier term “Information Fluency” being one example) in favor of sharpening the focus of the discipline, especially within a Drake University context.

Part of this sharpening was the creation of the Info Lit Rubric (see above), the first-ever Information Literacy rubric for the Drake curriculum (it was created with input from two librarians, a Computer Science faculty, and the Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences).

Another part of this re-conceptualization was the realization of the unique role that Information Literacy serves as a “gateway” discipline to other “emerging literacies” such as Digital Literacy, Financial Literacy, Media Literacy, et al.  (I can’t do justice in this post to all the other “emerging literacies” out there (they are sometimes referred to as “trans-literacies”); subject for another time?)

The following is from a document that arose out of all these discussions; it discusses the new framework and description, as well as a “two-tiered approach” to Information Literacy within the Drake Curriculum.  The text of this excerpt is underlined:

  1. Information Literacy within the context of Drake’s General Education curriculum. It is intended to support the needs of either the existing General Education AOI requirements, or that represented by the University Curriculum Committee proposal. Digital and Media Literacy refers to the ability of students to retrieve, evaluate, and ethically manipulate information, regardless of format. Digital and Media Literacy may be achieved through a variety of methods (e.g., for-credit coursework, research project, etc.) but it has the following three characteristics: It will be achieved in the student’s first two years; it will provide the students with the broad research-based skills and dispositions that will prepare them for study in an academic major; and it will also provide the relevant knowledge for a student to achieve the learning-based goals of Drake’s mission, such as functioning within a collaborative learning environment, or having the evaluative skills necessary to be an engaged global citizen.
  2.   Research and Scholarly Analysis will be a new formal addition to the Drake experience, but it will encompass many ongoing curricular and co-curricular efforts. Specifically, the learning outcomes associated with Research and Scholarly Analysis will encompass the research and analytical skills and dispositions necessary to pursue a major (either multi-disciplinary or in a single area of study) at Drake. Research and Scholarly Analysis will also address the upper-class requirements of either the current, or proposed, Drake Curriculum (including Problem-Based Learning, advanced/experiential research projects, and the various Capstone projects) as well as the research requirements of Drake students who are either entering graduate school, or are enrolled in graduate studies at Drake.

This is the framework the Faculty of Cowles Library are willing to commit themselves to, going forward.  We realize that we do not “own” Information Literacy at Drake, and that others may wish to define the concept differently; however, we would love to get feedback from any interested parties!  (Whether they be at Drake or not!)  What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses to these statements (both the underlined passages, and the Info Lit Rubric (above)?  How would you define it differently?  Is this approach more, or less, useful than, say, a “technology literacy” or “computer literacy” approach?

Feel free to put your comments at the bottom, or e-mail me at  We’d love to hear from you!



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