Plain Ol' Literacy
Oddly enough, "illiteracy" preceded "literacy" in common usage. The Oxford English Dictionary (March 2012 Online Edition) quotes a 1660 text as the earliest appearance of "illiteracy" and an 1880 text for "literacy." Nor is this a fluke. Literacy didn't catch up with its negative predecessor until the 1940s:
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What explains this growing interest in literacy without, apparently, an increase in the discussion of illiteracy? I had trouble finding an answer here. What is clear is that this new, positive focus on literacy developed into a 1960s and 70s interest in functional literacy, which goes beyond basic literacy to include the concept of getting things done in society with written language.
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Rise of the Literacies
The next step in the evolution of literacy came in the 1980s with the concept of computer literacy. This was the first decade of household computers. I fondly remember my (parents') Apple IIe with its green screen, big floppy drive, and complete lack of networking. Literacy came to be about competency in some area, without necessarily having a strong connection with written language. A slew of literacy terms came into common use in the 80s and especially the 90s. Information literacy really took off in the early 90s at the same time as the World Wide Web. Probably not a mere coincidence.
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Why did computer literacy usage fall while information literacy usage rose? I suspect the novelty of computers as devices was wearing off even as an understanding of networked computers as gateways to information was dawning. At present, iPads represent a high level of technological ease-of-use, but it's still up to human users to wisely locate, evaluate, and use information.
There is an ongoing controversy among librarians and other professionals about the precise meaning of information literacy. I take this as evidence that the term "information literacy" is being used to label a bundle of concepts, and not everyone's bundle is quite the same. When it comes to successful communication, the sufficiency of the term will depend on context and the assumptions of those involved. Can you tell I take a very pragmatic view of language? Anyway, let's look at the most prominent short(ish) definition of information literacy:
"To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. [...] Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand." — American Library Association's Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report, 1989The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) characterizes information literacy as six abilities. "An information literate individual is able to:
- Determine the extent of information needed
- Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
- Evaluate information and its sources critically
- Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base
- Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
- Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally"
from ACRL's Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, 2000ACRL fills in a lot of detail for each of these six abilities (or "standards") by breaking each one down into several "performance indicators" and each of those into "outcomes." For example:
Standard: "The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system."Many elements in the above definitions appeared in President Obama's 2009 proclamation of National Information Literacy Awareness Month. I recommend taking a few minutes to read it over.
Indicator: "The information literate student articulates and applies initial criteria for evaluating both the information and its sources."
Outcome: "Analyzes the structure and logic of supporting arguments or methods."
You may be thinking, "Sure, information literacy is important, but it sounds so general. Why is there a special connection to libraries and librarians? Why don't librarians stick with library instruction/bibliographic instruction?" I haven't found a good, critical discussion of these questions (yet), so I'd like to break the "special connection" question into two parts and give my working hypotheses.
Why are librarians so interested in information literacy instruction?One of the less encouraging responses I've gotten to going back to school to become a librarian is, "There won't be any libraries in a decade." The assumption here is that libraries exist to access books, films, etc. and that libraries won't be needed for much longer due to Internet services like Amazon, Netflix, etc. Libraries are dinosaurs on the verge of following Borders and Hollywood Video to extinction. Maybe public funds would be better spent on direct student or citizen access to digital resources.
At least, this is one specter haunting modern libraries. I see information literacy as a way of establishing continued relevance in the twenty-first century. Access to information may become trivial, but librarians can still function as professional facilitators and teachers of information selection, evaluation, and use. Even the term "Library and Information Science" reflects this shift in philosophy.
Why are librarians relatively more active in the promotion of information literacy compared to other groups?Basically, librarians are more keyed into these issues as general issues than, say, chemistry or veterinary school teachers. Commercial enterprises and political organizations may be in excellent positions to understand information literacy, but they tend to view people as voters and consumers to manipulate, rather than as individuals to empower. When it comes to spreading the message about information literacy, librarians stand at a particularly relevant intersection of professionalism and philosophy.