May 26, 2018

The Livelong Day | Office Hours

Michael StephensWe spend a lot of time talking about various forms of literacy. Various approaches have risen up and faded quickly—transliteracy, metaliteracy, etc.—but the idea remains: How can everyday folks navigate a continually plugged in, all-access world? I think of these skills as life literacies or simply how we make sense of the world. (See “Infinite Learning,” LJ 10/15/13, p. 58, for more.)

Learning from PIL

Serving as a member of the advisory board of the Project Information Literacy (PIL) Lifelong Learning study has impressed on me the importance of understanding and addressing the information needs of citizens throughout their lives, especially as they move into the “real world,” ­postuniversity.

The board recently discussed the findings and these results/outcomes should be of interest to all information professionals. We are all in the business of lifelong learning. One of the study’s overarching findings is, “Today’s young graduates prefer lifelong learning resources that have three information qualities: usefulness, connectivity, and currency.”

Barriers exist. Obstacles prevent people from feeling informed or current. From the findings:

The large majority said it was hard to find the time for continued learning (88%) and staying on top of everything they thought they needed to know (70%). At the same time, half (50%) of the sample was frustrated by no longer having access to academic library databases…and to college professors and their lectures.

The biggest red flag: only 27 percent of the graduates reported they had left college with the ability to formulate questions of their own. Further, Alison Head, director of PIL’s two-year study, stated that “more graduates who had attended a teaching college or university rather than a research university reported that questioning was a critical thinking skill they thought they had acquired in college and applied now in their lives.” What’s going on in some of these ­classrooms?

Helping reentry

What could be done to help recent graduates keep current with the “rapidly changing digital age”? Could life literacy instruction begin via the academic library and then transition to the public library? What might the “continued learning” requirements be? Is there a place for large-scale online courses or individualized instruction devoted to personal finance, household tasks such as cooking, and handling other life ­situations?

Peter Morville, an advisory board member, weighed in on the “difficult to stay informed” obstacle, noting three problems: “most people lack the necessary search skills and information literacy; our information environment is increasingly fragmented, hard to use, and dangerous to trust; and technology is driving rapid change across all areas of life and work.” Later in our discussion, Morville shared the words of Internet Librarian keynoter Lee Rainie from the ongoing Pew Internet and American Life Project: “Librarians have a mandate to intervene in their communities.”

This is a loud call to action for public libraries to engage with folks to find out what they might need to know—the 70 percent mentioned above—and for improved, upgraded, and out-of-the-box learning opportunities for all. We focus so much on services to youth, older adults, and teens, but maybe the next frontier of the evolving public library is pulling in the twenty- and thirty­somethings for creative courses devoted to the above.

We can’t do it all with our own staff, but we can engage with residents for support. We can position public libraries to be the place in the community where learning happens.

Invisible access

Finally, that 50 percent surveyed desire continued access to scholarly research databases is fascinating in light of data (from OCLC, etc.) that states that library users have little knowledge of the databases available to them. Would learning opportunities hosted by libraries and created by community experts (professors, businesspeople, etc.) fill this gap and educate folks about access? Is it an issue, once again, of marketing what we have to those who need it?

Data as inspiration

Our offerings must be useful and current and provide an interactive experience. This requires a nimble approach to services that might elude some libraries. Perhaps as we learn more from large-scale studies like these, community learning centers will become commonplace within our information institutions, helping patrons find the way to solve problems and get answers to questions they might not even know they have.

The full PIL report comes out in November. This is an important, evidence-driven opportunity for public libraries and other institutions that serve learners. We shouldn’t miss this chance.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

Fund Your Library: Tools and Tactics for Getting to Yes!
Whether you’re going to voters, city councils, school boards, college board of directors, or any other funder, the fundamental issues are the same: how do you convince the stewards of a limited budget that the library is their best investment?


  1. It is interesting that students graduating from universities and colleges are not equipped with the information literacy skills they need once they graduate, but it is not surprising. When I took my searching classes in the Library Technician Program at Seneca College I had this aha! moments when I finally learned how to find the information that I needed. I kept wondering “why did someone not teach me this before?”

    I think that to lack of information literacy skills in university and college graduates goes back to the K-12 level where the disconnect between the library and the classroom starts. Some teachers have the assumption that students should just naturally know how to search and evaluate resources. This is not true!

    Classroom teachers, university and college professors and (school/academic/public) librarians need to start to bridge the gaps between the ‘traditional’ teachers and the librarians who know how to teach the information literacy skills which will serve students for a life time.