Information literacy resists tight definition

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A new book considers information literacy. One of the book’s authors, Andrew Walsh, looks at some of the challenges of defining this subject too closely

Definitions of information literacy vary, but normally have the same key concepts at their core: having abilities and awareness around searching out, organising, using, and communicating information.

However, we feel that some of the detailed competency standards and models that have been developed take information literacy and abstract it to nonsense. Like pinning an insect to a board for display, if you fix information literacy in too much detail you can create something lacking in life and meaning.

Information literacy is not a fixed set of skills and cannot be measured as a percentage or grade. Instead it is completely contextual: what it means to be information literate depends on how we are, what we are doing and where we are doing it. There is no right or wrong way to be information literate, there are simply ways that work, or don’t work, for an individual in their current context.

This thinking drives our approach to the new book, ‘Only Connect ... discovery pathways, library explorations and the information adventure’. Instead of trying to pin information literacy down to readily measured lists of competencies or detailed descriptions, we take pleasure in the diversity of ways we can be information literate. There are many different facets of information literacy and the individual contributors to the book have chosen to reflect those facets in ways as diverse as ‘traditional’ texts; a fairy story; video; graphics; and deep self reflection on learning journeys.

The book is divided into two sections. Section One, ‘The Mapmakers’, presents a set of planned routes, suggested and tested by knowledgeable guides. In this section, librarians offer a range of thoughtful observations on how learners encounter, negotiate and construct knowledge. Rather than giving a blueprint or template for ‘how to do it’, they give a topographical record of their learners’ journeys.

This includes some well-signposted ‘paths, including a number of ‘scenic routes’ or imaginative ways in which librarians and academics can help their students to choose appropriate sources of information.

The second section is composed of, and by, ‘Travellers’. These authors show more of the process behind an information discovery journey in a way that as yet does not have a fixed ‘lens’ of information literacy imposed. The authors employ a range of voices, registers and genres, sometimes within the same chapter; narratives are not brought to closure but left open, the linear sequence disrupted; the learning is ongoing.

All these visions have in common a perception of the librarian as neither gatekeeper nor shaman but as collaborator and partner in learning. They also share a vision of the library - real and/or virtual - as a space in which to create and experiment, which fosters ‘a joyful, playful’ attitude to information.

We hope the book demonstrates the richness, the variation, the joy and frustrations of ‘real’ information literacy and helps anyone working in libraries, or in education in general, to see that there is no right or wrong way of seeking, organising, managing,  and using information. While we may wish to control the information behaviours of others to match our expectations and conventions, we cannot do so, and perhaps should not try. Instead we can useful describe and illustrate it in a way that may enable us to support others in developing their information skills and their information literacies as they are required in varying contexts.  

Andrew Walsh is a researcher in information literacy at the UK's University of Huddersfield