[Paleopsych] CHE: Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions
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Mon Jan 31 15:47:11 UTC 2005
Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.7
[Letters from the 5.2.4 issue are appended.]
By STANLEY WILDER
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
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
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
To the Editor:
Stanley Wilder's assumptions are wrong and harmful to the education of
students ("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
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
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. ...
User Services Librarian/Webmaster
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
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.
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.
Instructional Design Librarian
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