Academic Illiteracy: An Undergraduate’s Perspective Into The Library System

November 20th, 2015

Part Three: Information Literacy

On the screen, space cowboys are doing something impressive. I forget what it was, you can only watch a movie so many times before you stop paying attention during certain parts. Not to mention that I was busy with my head in the crook of my girlfriend’s neck and our hands intertwined. There were more important things happening. At this moment, I was thinking about a lot of things: “I hope that I do well on my Japanese quiz on Friday.”; “This is really nice.”; “Oh my goodness, this is so nice.”; “This would be a great time to ask her about information literacy.”

“Wait,” I ask myself. I imagine a little shoulder devil popped up right about now. Maybe that’s too clichéd—for all I know it could have been a shoulder Englishman. “Why would I do that now? We’re having a great time.”

He puts on a sneer, like the kind that you can only find on Dicken’s villains. “Because,” he says, “that would be a perfect way to start the blog post—by completely ruining the mood right now.”

“I could just lie in the post,” I retort. A fearless victory for ethical journalism.

“You wouldn’t do that,” he smirks as he talks, and I remember why I considered him to be a shoulder devil at first.

“You’re right,” I decided. “But I will ignore you.” And with that I return my attention to the TV. Well, as much attention as had been on it in the first place.

So, I did not ruin movie night for the purposes of this blog. I’m not torn up about it. Instead, about an hour later, I asked my girlfriend an hour later what she knows about information literacy. That seems like a much better way to do things.

As you might have guessed, this week, I was on the hunt for knowledge. Unsurprisingly, it went poorly—after asking over a dozen people to answer my questions, I got all of two answers. And it all had to do with literacy.

What does the term “literacy” even mean? Your first thought might be: “the ability to read and write in a given language”. And you would be write. Boring question, I’m not sure why that came to mind first. But did you know that there are more than one kind of literacy? Given that most of my readers are likely librarians , regardless of my desire to reach out to others (that would be a really cool topic to discuss—oh, wait) I’m sure you knew that as well. But I had never put much thought into the idea of there being more than one kind of literacy.

Then, one day, I was talking with one of my supervisors, and they mentioned how there was a debate, currently ongoing within the library system, about whether the term “information literacy” was accurate. I had never heard this phrase before; and, because I cannot keep from self-improvement, I decided that I must know what the term meant. Once I learned what it was, it seemed fairly self-evident, if perhaps straying into meta-academiology (a subject of such self-examination that even the Wachowskis would find it exhaustive).

I found that I had known what information literacy was already—through my experiences and without ever applying a label to them. And so I wondered, did other people—who were not necessarily tied to the library systems—know what the phrase meant.

As I said, I received very few answers to my questions. Two, to be exact. There may be a lack of any scientifically-provable patterns here, but this series is written to feature humor and self-parody undertones. As such, I have no shame in stating the following:

100% of students surveyed had no idea what information literacy meant. For all they knew, it could have been a type of rutabaga.

Obviously, there is a large amount of over-exaggeration in the above claim. It’s true that neither student knew what information literacy meant; however, when asked to supply an answer of their own, both did give relative accurate statements (especially when compared to claims of origins with cabbage-turnip hybrids). The responses were as follows:

  • It (information literacy) implies either the ability to absorb information or the ability to identify new information.
  • One’s capability to comprehend information that they receive regardless of media they receive it through.

Obviously, both answers have their merits, and are certainly more serious than anything I’ve ever produced.

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My allergy to seriousness strikes again! Curse my immune system’s inability to tell abstract tonal concepts from deadly germs!

Furthermore, both correctly references the necessity of being capable of identifying information—one of the key concepts of information literacy. Unfortunately for our contestants, neither of them won the million dollar prize. To be fair, it was actually just the Nigerian Naira I had left over from the last post. Regardless of how close they were, they still did not actually know what information literacy is. That is a pity, because it is a fairly common sense idea. In my own words, information literacy is “the capability to verify the authenticity of a source of information, and the understanding of how to pragmatically apply said information for the purposes of research and study”.

In the most basic of terms, it’s one of those reasons why we don’t use Wikipedia as a source, because it doesn’t have the veracity behind it that other, more reputable wellsprings of knowledge will have (Granted, Wikipedia has been cleaning up their act, but the point does stand). Our information literacy also shows in how we use information—how much information from a source is necessary, in what format, and the like. It’s a skill set that most people in the modern day utilize, even if they don’t recognize it by name.

Which brings me to an important point—I don’t think that the phrase “information literacy” is actually that useful.

In case it needs to be elaborated, I am not talking about the usage of a term itself. Words are good to have, and I would rather have one that I never use than have to refer to a concept as being a ‘thingy’. Joss Whedon does the often enough to cover for the rest of us. Rather, I’m wondering if there are any preconceptions loaded with the term “information literacy”, particularly the usage of the word “literacy”.

Literacy is an inherently dichotomous word. You either know how to read and write or you don’t. There are some areas that seem to be grayer—you may not know how to read or write well, after all, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is still a line between the two sides, rather than a gradual blurring. Not only that, but the illiterate side carries plenty of negative connotations that can affect someone regardless of their actual skill. Even though I likely meet the definitions for being information literate, I certainly felt like a putz when I didn’t know what information literacy means, and I work in the libraries, where I’m used to asking questions about these sorts of topics, so imagine the average student, who knows even less.

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Also imagine if that last sentence had half as many commas as it did.

So “information literacy” creates an illusory concept that these skills are something that must be trained, honed even, that separates the “literate” from the “illiterate”, except there isn’t. At least, not in any grand sense. Whether or not students realize this, they received their first doses of information literacy fairly early, likely in middle school or even before, and then honed those abilities. One of the earliest examples of this shift in thinking might be the aforementioned forbidding of Wikipedia as a source. Since then, students will have built up their skills and have grown more information literate, without having ever realized as much. Yet the tone presented in several places, including the Association of College & Research Libraries’ page on the subject (found here) presents the issue as something which individuals do not comprehend, that is the libraries’ duty to illuminate to others, and I feel that this can create a bias on both sides regarding the term and the contents therein implied.

So what should be done? There are a number of ways I can think of, but at the same time, each comes, I feel, with their own obstructions. So allow me to play devil’s advocate; or rather, Englishman’s advocate, for a moment:

We could teach everyone at our university what the term means!

How? That would require far too much time, too many resources, and would be a waste of librarian’s efforts. I doubt most people would be affected by this knowledge, and bringing in everyone to classrooms would disrupt the school’s functions.

If the libraries try and spread the same information across the web, it runs into several issues, most of which I’ve detailed in my last post.

We could stop using the term!

That won’t happen. Even if it did, not using “information literacy” isn’t a way to solve the problem, in fact, it reverts to an earlier problem I’ve mentioned, that of not having a designation that can be used to describe the referred to methods. Taking away the term is like solving the problem of having a puke-green folder by taking the papers out, throwing the folder in the trash, and tossing the papers into the air. Though if it stops people from using puke-green folders. . .

We could rename “information literacy”!

This is probably the answer that has the least pitfalls. Choose a new name that gives the same understanding, but in a fashion that implies more fully the skill set involved, and removes the dichotomous and limiting implications of “literacy”. Perhaps “information evaluation skills” could be its successor. Librarians could have a brainstorming party, throw things to the wall and see what sticks.

But a gathering like that is unlikely to happen. Unless something can be genuinely seen as wrong with “literacy”, then it is unlikely that such a conversation will take place. It is also not efficient to change the phrase, due to similar points as when I suggested teaching everyone. And if a poorly thought out term is chosen, then the problem remains and all of the resources put forward had been for nothing.

We could do nothing!

Yeah, that’s probably what’s going to happen. Let’s be honest here.

Text by Alex McKenzie

Photographic Media Courtesy of Wikimedia and Intersection Consulting

About the Author: Alex McKenzie is an undergraduate student in the UW-Madison Libraries’ ISIP program, majoring in Environmental Studies and East Asian Studies, and has a collection of evil European shoulder-people.

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