Information Literacy

K. Alix Hayden

EDCI 701 - The University of Calgary

The Information Age

Today, we live in the information age. We are bombarded with massive amounts of information each day. Not only are we confronted by traditional sources such as books and newspapers and even television, but we now we have to also contend with the Information Highway, video conferencing, CUSEEME technology, and virtual reality. Bill Moyers (1989) referred to a report that stated "there is more information [data] in a single edition of the New York Times than a man or woman in the sixteenth century had to process in the whole of his or her life" (cited by Lenox, 1993, p. 312).

The information entering our world each day is composed of facts, data, figures, details, tidbits, advice, wisdom and even lore. By itself, information is not knowledge. Information and data must be gathered, read, assembled, observed, questioned, conceptualized, judged, manipulated, integrated, analyzed, synthesized, and evaluated before it becomes knowledge. Information must be filtered through our experiences and applied to our lives in order to become knowledge. It must be used and reflected upon to become meaningful, otherwise it remains just facts and figures. Lenox (1993) suggests that information is the manipulator of a passive mind; knowledge is the liberator of an active intellect. Nobel Prize winner Herbert Seaman contends that in the past, to know meant to have in one's own memory. Today, however given the deluge of information, to know means to have access to the informational process. Possession is replaced by access (Hade, 1982, p. 8).

In 1775, Samuel Johnson said:

Knowledge is of two kinds:
we know a subject ourselves
we know where we can find
information upon it.

Today, more than every before, we must be able to find information because there is simply too much available to possibly possess in our own minds.

To prepare the leaders, teachers, librarians, engineers, administrators, and academics of tomorrow, we must today strive to teach students to become critical thinkers, intellectually curious adults, and life long learners. Librarians, along with teachers, are the ones who can start and guide students on their journey to information literacy.

What is Information Literacy?

The question arises, What is Information Literacy? There are many definitions of information literacy just as there are many definitions of literacy. From some people, information literacy means being able to cope and adapt to technology. Many seem to have this narrow view of information literacy. This definition is somewhat akin to saying that being literate means one can read; being information literate means one can use a computer. Both literacy and information literacy are abstract concepts, that entail and varied levels and complex processes.

In its broadest sense, information literacy refers to the ability to access and use a variety of information sources to solve an information need. But, just like literacy meaning more than the ability to read and write, information literacy entails finding, evaluating, using, and subsequently communicating knowledge. The person must desire to know; must use analytic skills to formulate questions; must identify research methodologies; and must utilize critical skills for evaluation. In addition, the person must be able to search for answers to those questions in increasingly complex and diverse ways. Information literacy, then, involves a complex set of skills that allow us to express, explore, question, and understand the flow of ideas among individuals and groups in a vastly changing technological environment.

The American Library Association's definition of information literacy is the one that is used most often today, partially because it was widely publicized and distributed.

To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information . . . . . Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand. (ALA, 1989)

Educators, including both librarians and teachers, need to create an environment, a community, where students can acquire the skills needed for information literacy. As Lenox (1993) states, educators need to shift their emphasis from acquisition of a product to execution of a dynamic process. Students need to be transformed from passive information gatherers to active, participating knowledge finders.

Librarians and Information Literacy

Librarians have a particularly important role in fostering information literacy. This is just beginning to be recognized the Canadian universities. Librarians, are in fact, the epitome of information literacy. Their career focuses on identifying information problems, finding information, analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating the information, and then ensuring that the library's community has access to the information. Traditionally, librarians were the gate keepers of information; today, they are the gateways to information. As librarians, we need to become facilitators of students learning; we need to teach information literacy skills which involves curriculum and information strategies that help students formulate the right questions. We need to teach students how to use information sources to answer their questions; to help them understand how to manipulate and mold information into knowledge; and to help them learn how to communicate this knowledge with the world. Lenox (1993) maintains that librarians need to, most importantly, design a curriculum and pedagogy that helps students use their "knowledge in deciding, acting, and behaving in this world" (p. 5). Librarians need to weave the fabric of information literacy into the souls of the students.

Most of the literature on information literacy contends that an information literacy curriculum cannot stand alone; rather it must be integrated into the academic curriculum. Librarians, therefore, need to actively forge teaching relationships with academic faculty. They need to work together to integrate information literacy into the teaching and learning processes. Information literacy needs to be across the curriculum rather than a component of a single course. For information literacy skills to be viewed as being vital to the academic curriculum, librarians must take an active role in education faculty about its value. To this end, librarians need to have a voice in the curriculum development. Librarians and faculty need to work together as equal partners, rather than the librarian being seen as a service to faculty. Integration of information literacy into the curriculum is analogous to writing across the curriculum.

Questioning Information Literacy

Prior to collaborating with faculty on constructing a curriculum for information literacy, we need to question what is involved. Certainly, information literacy can be defined as the ability to effectively access and evaluate information for problem solving and decision making; however, what complex processes and strategies are involved in becoming information literate? Literacy teachers investigated how students learned to read, what processes they used, and what strategies they implemented prior to creating new curriculums which encompass whole language. The same research methodology should be used for information literacy. We should look at the strategies and processes that one uses when solving an information problem. Through detailed analysis and reflection, a model of information literacy may appear that can be incorporated into the curriculum.