March 22, 2017

Information Literacy: Undervalued or Ubiquitous? | Peer to Peer Review

The Department of Education has just released a preliminary glimpse at academic library statistics from 2010 and Steve Kolowich of Inside Higher Ed did us a favor by looking at the tables and extracting interesting information from them. Here are a few highlights:

  • In 2010, academic libraries spent more than they did in 2008, but less per student.
  • The number of staff in academic libraries has declined.
  • Spending on print resources is down.
  • The number of ebooks has risen dramatically and spending on electronic subscriptions is way up.

One thing that hasn’t changed are the figures on information literacy, which are surprisingly low. Slightly under a third of academic libraries report that information literacy is included in an institutional mission or strategic plan, the same percentage as in 2004. Perhaps even more dismaying, of institutions that mention information literacy in their strategic plan, only a quarter indicate that the library has a role to play. (See Table 13 [PDF] for details.)

That’s depressing.

Given that virtually every academic library has some kind of information literacy program, and given that the library’s role in student learning informs so much of what we do, why is it that over two-thirds of institutions don’t mention it in their mission or strategic plan? Does this mean it’s not important to a majority of colleges and universities? Or perhaps it’s further confirmation of what the latest ITHAKA survey of faculty [PDF] found: that libraries are increasingly identified not as a shared cultural resource, but as the office that pays bills for individuals’ immediate information needs.

So basic, it’s invisible
I think we’d be wrong to draw that conclusion. We know [PDF] that students are doing more researched writing than they did 20 years ago, and the papers they write today are longer than they were. Further, I think we would be hard pressed to find faculty who think information literacy is not important and shouldn’t be part of a college education. In fact, I suspect the reason it isn’t mentioned in strategic plans is that it’s simply so fundamental a skill that it doesn’t rate mention any more than breathing would be included in a list of wellness priorities. Of course students need to know how to find, evaluate, and use information. You don’t have to call it “information literacy” to believe that it is an intellectual skill as essential as breathing.

Nor should it be seen as primarily a library concern. In my experience, faculty admire librarians’ know-how, but feel this thing we call information literacy—the ability to frame a question, seek information, make informed choices among sources, and use them effectively—is their job. When students fail to choose and use sources well, faculty don’t blame us. But they also don’t expect us to instill these skills, not when it’s something they ask students to do all the time.

Different lenses
Our concept of information literacy is a bit different than it is for those deep in their own disciplines. We tend to think in terms of skills that apply to all knowledge domains, involving dispositions and habits that we feel prepare graduates for civic participation and personal fulfillment. We have a wide-angle holistic view. We take a practical approach: let us show you how to find information on any subject using these search tools and techniques.

Faculty are more likely to think in terms of how using sources plays into the values and traditions of a particular discipline. Historians want students to understand how to interpret primary sources, using other historians’ work to put historical evidence in context. Biologists train students in the skill of reading scientific papers, including understanding why each new contribution nests itself in previous work. Psychology professors ask students to design research projects, which includes reviewing related literature. Each frames the critical skills involved differently and as part of a disciplinary epistemological framework. Student taking courses from these three faculty members will learn different ways to approach knowledge, but in the library, we tend to treat them all as more or less the same task: finding good stuff to get the job done.

We have a better grasp than many faculty in the disciplines do of just how challenging it is to master several different ways of knowing in any one semester. We help students develop some all-purpose ways to approach any question, knowing that this will remain an important ability later in life. Faculty in the disciplines may be much more focused on polishing the particular lens through which they help students see the world, but being able to find, sort through, and use information is also very much a part of what they teach.

Evaluate the source
At first glance, the figures from the Department of Education on information literacy are discouraging. But when I look at them more critically—what is the context? How was the question framed? Does the document I’m examining gather meaningful data from the right sources?—I’m reassured. To understand how important this thing we call information literacy is to higher education, we shouldn’t look to strategic plans. Chances are they don’t name a lot of things that are essential for our students’ learning. To know if it’s important, we’d have to look at everyday practice. What are faculty asking students to do? How are students learning how to do those things? By the time they graduate, how well can they do them, and can they transfer these skills to other contexts? Those are much harder questions.

If information literacy belonged to libraries, we might seek answers in an academic library survey. But since it belongs to the entire institution and is threaded through many courses in many different programs, we will have to look elsewhere.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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