[Paleopsych] CHE: Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions

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Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.7

[Letters from the 5.2.4 issue are appended.]


    Academic librarians were quick to react to the threat posed by
    Internet competition. In 1989, half a dozen years before the first
    official release of Netscape, they recognized the explosion in
    networked information and proposed "information literacy," a
    reinvention of the educational function of the academic library. The
    premise of information literacy is that the supply of information has
    become overwhelming, and that students need a rigorous program of
    instruction in research or library-use skills, provided wholly or in
    part by librarians. A survey conducted by the Association of College
    and Research Libraries six years later found that 22 percent of U.S.
    academic libraries reported running some kind of information-literacy
    program, and in the years since, the idea has become the profession's
    accepted approach to its educational function.
    But information literacy remains the wrong solution to the wrong
    problem facing librarianship. It mistakes the nature of the Internet
    threat, and it offers a response at odds with higher education's
    traditional mission. Information literacy does nothing to help
    libraries compete with the Internet, and it should be discarded.
    Librarians should not assume that college students welcome their help
    in doing research online. The typical freshman assumes that she is
    already an expert user of the Internet, and her daily experience leads
    her to believe that she can get what she wants online without having
    to undergo a training program. Indeed, if she were to use her
    library's Web site, with its dozens of user interfaces, search
    protocols, and limitations, she might with some justification conclude
    that it is the library, not her, that needs help understanding the
    nature of electronic information retrieval.
    The idea behind information literacy is that our typical freshman is
    drowning in information, when in fact Google provides her with
    material she finds good enough, and does so instantaneously.
    Information literacy assumes that she accepts unquestioningly the
    information she finds on the Internet, when we know from research that
    she is a skeptic who filters her results to the best of her ability.
    Information literacy tells us that she cannot recognize when she needs
    information, nor can she find, analyze, or use it, when she
    demonstrably does all of those things perfectly well, albeit at a
    relatively unsophisticated level. Simply put, information literacy
    perceives a problem that does not exist. Furthermore, it misses the
    real threat of the Internet altogether -- which is that it is now
    sufficiently simple and powerful that students can graduate without
    ever using the library. That is unfortunate because, for all its
    strengths, the Internet cannot give students the high-quality
    scholarly information that is available only through subscription,
    license, or purchase.
    But if you have already decided that students are drowning in
    information, then your mission becomes obvious: Teach them the
    information-seeking skills they need to stay afloat. To put it another
    way, information literacy would have librarians teach students to be
    more like them.
    The problem with that approach is that librarians are alone in
    harboring such aspirations for students. As Roy Tennant noted in the
    January 1, 2001, Library Journal, "only librarians like to search;
    everyone else likes to find." Any educational philosophy is doomed to
    failure if it views students as information seekers in need of
    information-seeking training. Information-seeking skills are
    undeniably necessary. However, librarians should view them in the same
    way that students and faculty members do: as an important, but
    ultimately mechanical, means to a much more compelling end.
    Information literacy instead segregates those skills from disciplinary
    knowledge by creating separate classes and curricula for them. There
    is no better way to marginalize academic librarianship.
    Information literacy is also harmful because it encourages librarians
    to teach ways to deal with the complexity of information retrieval,
    rather than to try to reduce that complexity. That effect is probably
    not intentional or even conscious, but it is insidious. It is not
    uncommon for librarians to speak, for example, of the complexity of
    searching for journal articles as if that were a fact of nature. The
    only solution, from the information-literacy point of view, is to
    teach students the names of databases, the subjects and titles they
    include, and their unique search protocols -- although all of those
    facts change constantly, ensuring that the information soon becomes
    obsolete, if it is not forgotten first. Almost any student could
    suggest a better alternative: that the library create systems that
    eliminate the need for instruction.
    My final objection lies in the assumption that it is possible to teach
    information literacy to all students. Most college libraries can reach
    some students; some libraries can manage to reach all students. But no
    instructional program can reach enough students often enough to match
    their steady growth in sophistication throughout their undergraduate
    careers. To do so would require enormous and coordinated shifts in
    curricular emphases and resource allocation, none of which is either
    practical or politically realistic.
    One alternative to information literacy is suggested in a comment by
    my colleague Ronald Dow: "The library is a place where readers come to
    write, and writers come to read." Dow casts students not as
    information seekers, but as apprentices engaged in a continuous cycle
    of reading and writing.
    The model of reading and writing suggests that the librarian's
    educational role is analogous to that of the professor in the
    classroom: Librarians should use their expertise to deepen students'
    understanding of the disciplines they study. More specifically,
    librarians should use their intimate knowledge of the collections they
    manage and the writing process as practiced in the disciplines to
    teach apprentice readers and writers.
    Much of what academic libraries already do would fit neatly within
    that approach. For example, libraries place a high premium on
    disciplinary expertise on the part of their reference staffs and
    subject liaisons, which means that many of their staff members
    understand the norms of discourse in the disciplines they work with.
    Libraries have also shown enormous creativity in integrating their
    subject liaisons into the life of their disciplines on the campus, so
    that those librarians have a good understanding of curricula, class
    assignments, and faculty interests.
    How might the model of reading and writing work in practice at the
    reference desk? A librarian would first try to find out what kind of
    writing assignment a student needs help with and where he is in the
    writing process. For example, a librarian helping an undergraduate on
    a term paper in art history might help him pick or narrow his topic,
    point him to standard reference works like the 34-volume Dictionary of
    Art for background reading, and offer suggestions on how to follow the
    citations in those works to other material. The librarian might show
    him relevant databases or print collections for supporting evidence,
    and provide help in preparing a bibliography.
    Each interview at the reference desk does not need to include a
    complete review of the writing process, but the writing process should
    provide the framework for the librarian's response to the student's
    request for help. The library's educational function would be to make
    students better writers, according to the standards of the discipline.
    Librarians would not be teaching students to become librarians, but to
    absorb and add to their disciplines in ways that make them more like
    their professors.
    Replacing instruction in information literacy with instruction in
    reading and writing scholarly material, however, is not enough. The
    library must also do a better job of reaching more students, more
    often. Librarians need to use their expertise to make the library's
    online presence approach the simplicity and power of the Internet.
    Every obstacle we can remove makes it more likely that reference and
    bibliographic instruction will get to the heart of the matter:
    connecting students with information. Libraries have high-quality
    collections; we have to make sure that students know about them. By
    pairing instruction with smart information-technology systems, we can
    create educational programs that reach everyone on our campuses, every
    time they turn to us. No educational model that focuses exclusively on
    instruction can say as much.
    Yet the most important thing libraries can do to educate students is
    not technological in nature. We must change the way we think of
    students and of librarians. Students are apprentices in the reading
    and writing of their chosen disciplines, and librarians are experts
    who can help them master those tasks. Here is an educational function
    that creates real value within our institutions.

    Stanley Wilder is the associate dean of the River Campus libraries at
    the University of Rochester and author, most recently, of Demographic
    Change in Academic Librarianship (Association of Research Libraries,

Letters: Librarians' Role in Helping Students Sift Through Information
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.2.4


    To the Editor:
    Stanley Wilder's assumptions are wrong and harmful to the education of
    students ([3]"Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions,"
    The Chronicle Review, January 7).
    Students do have difficulty finding, evaluating, and using information
    appropriately and ethically, and we have the data to prove it from
    multiyear, quantitative, and qualitative studies undertaken in the
    California State University System. ...
    That is why members of the CSU library faculty work with professors to
    integrate information literacy into the learning outcomes of academic
    disciplines, and work hard to teach students information-literacy
    skills through one-on-one instruction at reference desks, team-taught
    classes, Web-based tutorials, chat-based sessions, and credit-bearing,
    classroom-based instruction. Contrary to Mr. Wilder's assertions, we
    do not segregate information-literacy skills from disciplinary
    knowledge, or fail to reduce the complexity of information.
    The California State University is a teaching institution, and our
    librarians teach every day. They use their expertise to help students
    understand how information is produced within the disciplines, when to
    use print and electronic resources, how to evaluate the merits of
    information found on the Internet, and how to cite and give credit to
    the authors who produced the information.
    Mr. Wilder comes from a research institution. He could learn much from
    the experiences of the California State University libraries.
    Ilene F. Rockman
    Information Competence Initiative
    California State University
    Long Beach, Calif.
    To the Editor:
    I am afraid that Stanley Wilder is barking up the wrong tree in his
    essay about the wrong assumptions of information literacy. I certainly
    agree that librarians should not spend all of their teaching time on
    information technology and database searching. However, that claim
    would have been more accurate 10 or 20 years ago, when online library
    catalogs and bibliographic databases first became prevalent.
    Contemporary views of information literacy are much broader than that
    narrow emphasis, including all of the various stages of research and
    reporting, and the ethical, legal, political, economic, and social
    study of information. ...
    Let me respond to a few of Mr. Wilder's characterizations of
    information literacy. Mr. Wilder is correct that librarians alone
    should not be pushing students to learn to search the databases.
    Librarians should be working closely with faculty members on what and
    how to teach students about research methodologies and library
    resources. Siena College has a successful program that gives
    curriculum-development grants to faculty members, so they -- in
    collaboration with librarians -- can embed teaching modules and
    exercises in their courses to integrate information literacy into the
    course of study. ...
    As far as teaching students to read critically and write papers, there
    is no question that this fits under the broad umbrella of information
    literacy. Information literacy can and should encourage students to
    explore, discover, and investigate. Information literacy can and
    should encourage students to read for comprehension, read with a
    critical mind, and read and gather information with the goal of the
    creation of new knowledge through oral and written communication. ...
    Gary B. Thompson
    Library Director
    Siena College
    Loudonville, N.Y.
    To the Editor:
    Stanley Wilder's essay was certainly thought provoking, but I find
    many of his arguments problematic.
    I am particularly disappointed with Mr. Wilder's remedy for the
    students drowning in information: "Teach them the information-seeking
    skills they need to stay afloat." Is that all Mr. Wilder believes
    students need to be able to do? Rest assured, students will need to do
    more than simply "stay afloat" in the real world. ...
    Also, Wilder seems to ignore the fact that students' information
    literacy varies. Some graduated from high school with the ability to
    recognize the need for information, find it, and use it effectively.
    However, many do not fit Wilder's description of the student who "does
    all of those things perfectly well," and these students need to be
    Mr. Wilder's dismal proclamation that "any educational philosophy is
    doomed to failure if it views students as information seekers in need
    of information-seeking training" is very disheartening. I believe that
    students come to a college or university to learn. A large part of
    that learning process involves seeking information. Since information
    seeking is not an innate quality, it must therefore be taught to
    students. If a library develops an information-literacy rubric that
    clearly outlines and defines goals and objectives for each stage, or
    semester, of the undergraduate career, that library can successfully
    reach all students.
    Finally, Mr. Wilder seems to be misplacing the blame for the
    complexity of information seeking and retrieval. I certainly concur
    with his assessment that the search protocols and interfaces for many
    databases are insanely complicated; as a professional librarian, I
    myself can barely keep up. However, much of this complexity is beyond
    the control of librarians. Developing library systems that eliminate
    the need for instruction (and hence give librarians the ability to
    reduce the complexity of information retrieval) remains a long way
    off. ...
    Asking library professionals to change the complexity of information
    seeking and retrieval is like asking banking professionals to change
    the complexity of the stock market. Yes, your professional banker has
    a responsibility to help you wisely manage your money and investments,
    but he or she cannot control the stock market. ...
    Sarah Hood
    User Services Librarian/Webmaster
    Columbia College
    Columbia, S.C.
    To the Editor:
    Granted, I have only two years under my belt in the library field, and
    I don't have the Association of College and Research Libraries'
    information-literacy guidelines memorized. However, I am compelled to
    contribute a word or two based on my experiences as a reference and
    instruction librarian who is a fan of information literacy.
    First, I think that we librarians have already lost the battle if we
    refer to the Internet as a "threat" or "competition." It might have
    been like that at first, but now our library catalogs, research
    guides, online tutorials, and reference chat services are all on the
    Second, why can't the skills that the students logically develop while
    searching Google, Yahoo, or Amazon be used as steppingstones for
    library instruction? I often introduce the ideas of Boolean searches,
    truncation, and search limits this way. ...
    Pointing out the similarities between Web sources and online library
    sources can help students analyze what they are searching for, find
    similar patterns in search options so that new databases or interfaces
    are less daunting, become more efficient when conducting a search,
    understand that each new source brings on a new set of hits, and be
    better prepared to find the differences among databases. I am not
    looking to have information-literacy instruction make students become
    librarians, but to bring out a little bit of the librarian in them.
    Another part of information literacy was addressed in Wilder's
    reading-and-writing model. He mentions that under the model,
    librarians should help students narrow topics, use ready-reference
    works, and build citations. This advice to librarians seems akin to
    advising doctors to get their patients' temperature. Topic
    development, reference sources, and citation building are standard
    components of both online library tutorials and information-literacy
    I agree that we cannot reach every student. That would be ideal, but
    it is unrealistic considering that most libraries are understaffed and
    most librarians are overworked. On our campus, students are required
    to finish a series of writing classes that work in collaboration with
    the library. In addition, we offer credit-bearing classes at the
    introductory and advanced levels. ...
    I also agree that there are students who think they are experts and
    get everything online. ... However, most faculty members ask students
    to use scholarly works that are primarily found on restricted
    databases or high-quality Web sites. These assignments are what
    usually bring the students to the reference desk or
    information-literacy class.
    I don't see information literacy as a way to battle anything or even
    teach a specific thing. ... I think information literacy is a bigger
    concept, designed to help students develop a way of thinking and
    evaluating information that will be highly useful to them in college
    and in life.
    Liza Posas
    Assistant Librarian
    University of California
    Santa Barbara, Calif.
    To the Editor:
    The Internet has spawned, among a great many other novel phenomena, a
    new genre of literature written by and for librarians: the
    self-flagellation proclamation. It seems that on a quarterly basis, if
    not more often, we librarians take yet another scolding from a member
    of our own profession. Our transgressions are legion: We try to turn
    students into miniatures of ourselves; we take for granted that
    students have an intrinsic interest in the research skills we're
    teaching them; library databases are nonintuitive; etc. I was dismayed
    to read all of these chronic complaints, as well as a few new ones, in
    Stanley Wilder's essay. ...
    What I'm waiting for is an article that acknowledges, even to some
    small degree, the immense efforts librarians consistently put into
    learning the latest, nonintuitive software application, the latest
    veritable wonder guaranteed to place resources of the highest quality
    at the fingertips of our students. Having dutifully mastered all these
    new wonders, we turn our attention to packing the greatest amount of
    succinct yet clear instruction on their use into the 50- or 75-minute
    session grudgingly allotted to us. ...
    How could I not agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Wilder that sessions
    covering nothing but the rudiments of information seeking are a
    disservice to our students? The day cannot come soon enough when I no
    longer have to spend valuable time demonstrating the "limit" function.
    In the meantime, however, students' bewilderment in the wonderland of
    database and Internet searching is so palpable that we librarians are
    compelled to address it. ...
    The real heart of the information-literacy controversy is this: If we
    as instruction librarians were entrusted with the full spectrum of
    what is by right our curriculum too, we would be partners with our
    course-instructor colleagues in teaching the higher-order cognitive
    skills. This is what many of us argue for, even fight for, academic
    year after academic year.
    The innovative writing program developed by Mr. Wilder and his
    colleagues is an example in point. Unlike them, however, I do not see
    the synthesis of research material as a process apart from, even
    antithetical to, information literacy. Evaluation and synthesis have
    been identified as two of the higher, more-sophisticated
    information-literacy skills in various studies. ...
    It is unfortunate that Mr. Wilder did not include a few words of
    support for those of us who are still battling to claim our full
    vocation as teachers. Would that he had included in his essay a call
    to course instructors to work with us in creating more team-taught
    endeavors. ... Sadly, even a presence in the electronic classroom,
    other than the perfunctory links to library resources, remains beyond
    the purview of many of us. Mentoring students as they synthesize their
    research findings into original writing is still a distant dream
    indeed; a dream that I, for one, will never give up struggling to
    But I don't do self-flagellation.
    Barbara Quintiliano
    Instructional Design Librarian
    Villanova University
    Villanova, Pa.

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