‘Information literacy’: its history and problems.

This is part of my Ed.D. literature review, part of my ongoing thesis which can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis. You can view everything I’ve written on this blog for and about my thesis here)

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CC BY-NC anthony mattox

Information literacy is a term that was coined in the 1970s but which has undergone a number of transformations to keep it current and relevant. Unlike ‘technological literacy,’ ‘computer literacy,’ and ‘ICT literacy’ is it is not technology-related (and therefore likely to become outdated), nor is it a corrective to an existing ‘literacy’ (as with ‘visual literacy’). Because it is not dependent upon any one technology or set of technologies, ‘information literacy’ has been eagerly taken onboard by librarians (Martin 2008:160) and governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50) alike. Indeed more recently it has been defined as a ‘habit of mind’ rather than a set of skills:

[I]nformation literacy is a way of thinking rather than a set of skills… It is a matrix of critical and reflective capacities, as well as disciplined creative thought, that impels the student to range widely through the information environment… When sustained through a supportive learning environment at course, program or institutional level, information literacy can become a dispositional habit… a “habit of mind” that seeks ongoing improvement and self-discipline in inquiry, research and integration of knowledge from varied sources. (Center for Intellectual Property in the Digital Environment, 2005:viii-ix)

Although evident in the literature since the 1970s, the concept of ‘information literacy’ gained real traction in the 1990s with the advent of mass usage of the internet. Suddenly information was a few effortless keystrokes and mouse clicks away rather than residing in great tomes in a physical place. Accessing this information and using it correctly constituted, for proponents of the concept, a new ‘literacy’. This was a time when politicians used the term ‘Information Superhighway’ to loosely describe the opportunities afforded by the internet.

‘Information literacy’ as a term was boosted greatly by a definition and six-stage model for developing the concept agreed upon by the American Libraries Association in 1989. The committee tasked with investigating information literacy proposed that an ‘information literate person’ would ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information’ (quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:52). Achieving the state of being ‘information literate’ involves passing through six stages, outlined in Bawden (2008:21-22):

  1. Recognizing a need for information
  2. Identifying what information is needed
  3. Finding the information
  4. Evaluating the information
  5. Organizing the information
  6. Using the information

Boekhorst (quoted in Virkus, 2003) believes that, indeed, all definitions of information literacy presented over the years can be summarized in three concepts. First there is the ICT concept: using ICT to ‘retrieve and disseminate information.’ Second is the information resources concept: the ability to find resources independently ‘without the aid of intermediaries.’ Finally comes the information process concept: ‘recognizing information need, retrieving, evaluating, using and disseminating of information to acquire or extend knowledge.’ As such information literacy has at times been seen as including computer-related literacies, sometimes as part of such literacies, and sometimes as being tangential to them.

From these statements in the late 1980s/early 1990s information literacy developed to include an ethical dimension (‘knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner’ – SCONUL (1999) quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:52) and an economic dimenstion (‘Information literacy will be essential for all future employees’ – Langlois (1997) quoted in Martin, 2003:7). Information literacy has been seen as a ‘liberal art’ with an element of critical reflection (Shapiro & Hughes (1996) in Spitzer, et al., 1998:24), critical evaluation (Open University Library website, in Virkus, 2003), and as involving problem-solving and decision-making dimensions (Bruce, 1997).

The problem with such a definitions and models is that they continue to view literacy as a state which can be achieved rather than an ongoing process and group of practices. However much ‘information literacy’ may be praised for being an inclusive term (Doyle, 1994), be evident in the policy documents produced by western governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50) and seen as ‘essential’ to the success of learners, it has ‘no agreed definition’ (Muir & Oppenheim in Virkus, 2003). It is, in the words of Stephen Foster ‘a phrase in a quest for meaning’ (Snavely & Cooper, 1997:10). How, he wonders, would we recognize, and seek to remedy, ‘information illiteracy‘?

However many theorists propose it as an ‘overaching literacy of life in the 21st century’ (Bruce, 2002) and bodies such as the US Association of Colleges and Research Libraries come up with ‘performance indicators’ for the concept (Martin, 2008:159), ‘information literacy’ suffers from a lack of descriptive power. It is too ambitious in scope, too wide-ranging in application and not precise enough in detail to be useful in an actionable way. Even a move from talking about being ‘information literate’ to ‘information savvy’ (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:47) runs into difficulties for the same reasons. Definitions of the concept are too ‘objective’ and independent of the learner – even when described as ‘seven key characteristics’ (Bruce, cited in Bawden, 2008:22-23).

(References can be found at my wiki. Want more? You may have missed my post The history of ‘new literacies’)


4 thoughts on “‘Information literacy’: its history and problems.

  1. A good summary, I think. For a while now I have been thinking about information literacy as being a way of thinking, and I think there is mileage in considering how someone who is NOT information literate thinks. I’m putting this clumsily I think because it’s late and I’m tired, but that was basically the thinking behind the ‘rules base’ I came up with as a basis for the automatically-marked Key Stage 3 Test, ie if a candidate did X but did not do Y, that would suggest s/he was working at one level rather than another. It wasn’t quite as simple as that, but that was the general idea.

    You may be interested to learn that in the 1980s a lot of ground-breaking work was done in the field of ECONOMICS literacy, in which some researchers looked at developing ways to determine, from a psychological basis, whether a student had really gained an economics way of thinking. It’s fraught with difficulties, but so are other approaches, and there was the happy consequence that some excellent teaching resources came out of the work.
    Good luck.

  2. The name to look up is Linda Thomas, who at that time was at the Institute of Education. Her articles appear to be behind a paywall of academic journals, but as a student u may have access to them. Look up Linda Thomas economics literacy and you will get some relevant references. She’s now at Brunel Uni I believe.

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