The Big Messy World of Information Literacy

Last semester in SI641 (aka: Information Literacy for Teaching and Learning), we walked through multiple different ideas about information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, and all sorts of related ideas. We had most of the semester to read, research and debate definitions and work through ideas about what the heck the role of information professionals should be in teaching & facilitating information skills and competencies with/to the people we serve.

Since I felt like at least a handful of us now in SI643 (this class) had spent quite a bit of time wrestling through these ideas recently, I wasn’t sure how much I’d be drawn into the discussion of the topic in class. Our pre-class assignment — to look for articles about IL that related somehow to our future career interests — was a fun exercise. Although I ended up following a sort of game-centric route in what I fully read and reported on, the searching process exposed me to all sorts of articles to put aside for later. In my search, I found I was drawn to articles written by people who were often outside or on the edge of library-land.

Once we launched into our small-group conversation in this last week’s class, I was pleased that my group-mates had uncovered interesting articles that I hadn’t. Some of the articles related to the ideas of information flows within networks, and some were written by people who weren’t within the traditional library world. I realized that some of the work I found most compelling came from people more focused on Communication Studies or some aspect of the Digital Humanities.

As each group reported to the rest of the class, I jotted down whose blogs to check out, what additional articles to find, skim or read. As much as I was wary that I might be all IL-ed out, I found the ensuing discussion really interesting. Before I knew it, I was drawn in and taking lots of notes for follow-up.

Although there were many sub-topics that struck a chord with me, there was a bundle of related questions that stuck with me most. They weren’t brand new — we’d talked them a bit last semester — but they are questions that still don’t have a simple answer, so I’ll likely keep asking and thinking about them:

Why is information literacy invisible?

  • Is a part of that because IL is more than a list of specific skills? (Even though we often think of it as only a list of skills)
  • Do people’s individual levels of overconfidence — “everyone knows how to Google! I certainly do!” — have a lot to do with that invisibility, and lack of being open to what one might be helped by learning? (This seems like it might have an analog in the ways people feel about learning in relation to health and nutrition)
  • Is IL mostly invisible because of an overall cultural focus on end-point-facts over the process of working through how to find stuff? If you know how to find stuff in general, that’s a skill that’s transferable to all sorts of contexts and situations.

Here’s my own follow-up question that relates to those above:

In a way, does IL’s invisibility have to do with the idea of the “broken tool”?
I mean this in the sense that often a tool or piece of infrastructure is “invisible” until it breaks or simply doesn’t work. That can make recognizing a tool or a system that works “well enough” hard to do. If information seekers are satisficing for info. that they think is “good enough” but may not be…(and then, who sets that standard?!), they may not see the tool, the system or the search skills that are getting them there. They might not even realize that there is a tool or a system. The tool in the case, works well enough, and so it remains invisible.

Does this thought make sense to others who are thinking about IL, search skills, and other related topics?


2 thoughts on “The Big Messy World of Information Literacy

  1. I think the “broken tool” idea is fairly spot on, and I might add an add-on (boy, that’s hideous phrasing).

    It’s not just invisible until the tool is broken. Its invisible until people realize there’s actually a tool there! In the latest rundown of our next nonprofit database organization, I kept asking the chapter why they wanted the things they did. They didn’t really know – they just had been tracking them. And I asked*:
    “What do you do with this information?”
    “We just have it.”
    “Well, if we organize it this way, it’s possible you could actually search for and USE that information.”
    “Really? That sounds great!”

    This may only loosely relate to what you’re writing about, but seems to me that raising awareness of IL’s power/letting people know that the tool is there and it is powerful could be a key part of this.

  2. I really like the “broken tool” metaphor! It reminds me of a reading I did last semester in an education class about an online learning module for middle-school science. What I really liked about the module is how it presents a science scenario and then asks students to predict what they think is the cause or what might happen next. Then, most important, the students have to explain their reasoning. So, for example, something like: “It’s a cold day outside and it’s very sunny. You are going to get into your family’s car, which has been parked all day. Do you think the inside of the car will be warmer, cooler, or the same temperature as the air outside?” This lesson then leads into a longer explanation and exploration of the greenhouse effect.

    By asking students to explain their reasoning, teachers can identify gaps in their understanding of concepts. I think the same kind of technique might be useful for helping people understand how technology and the Internet work. I used to joke in the earlier days of the Net about how it was “a vast system of tubes” — but really, how well could I explain the basic workings of the Web to a novice user? It would be a challenge!

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