University of Rochester

Review Point

Beyond ‘Information Literacy’

How can academic libraries best help students sort through the growing thicket of online information? 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.

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.

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 Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries: “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.

Librarians should use their expertise to deepen students’ understanding of the disciplines they study.

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. This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.