Monday, April 11, 2011

Information literacy: mixing models

There are few concepts in academic librarianship that vex me as much as information literacy. I avoid the phrase whenever I can, to the extent that I sometimes worry I will shoot myself in the foot if I someday have an interview for an instruction position.

A major part of the vexation is that there appear to be two competing (and possibly conflicting) models of what information literacy is for. One is a scholarly research model, excellently described in Wayne Bivens-Tatum's latest post on the subject, "The Myth of Information Literacy." The other is a life skills model, which gets invoked whenever librarians start talking about preparing students for lifelong learning (e.g., IFLA's "Guidelines on Information Literacy for Lifelong Learning").

Identifying these two models puts us on the fast track to getting derailed by the perennial (and false) distinction between "impractical" liberal arts education and "practical" professional training. I would like to avoid that. So I am going to simply make the claim that crafting a scholarly argument about a subject is a different task than making an informed decision about it. Both are useful tools and important abilities for educated, engaged citizens to have. The problem is when the teaching methods and learning outcomes appropriate for one model get mixed in with the methods and outcomes of the other.

This confusion is one of the reasons I am a pain about urging librarians to see setting information literacy goals as the proper responsibility of the teaching faculty. Different institutions have different priorities and different cultures.

And it is precisely on those differences that I go back to being vexed about information literacy, because I think when Wayne says

Ultimately, this means that I'm not concerned with information literacy in the broadest sense, with whether students or anyone else have all the skills necessary to find, evaluate, and incorporate information about any topic whatsoever. Almost nobody but excellent reference librarians will ever meet that goal anyway.

then I immediately think he is missing the question of the baseline. It is like talking about how nobody except excellent literary scholars will ever be able to competently analyze any text they come across, while ignoring the students who have difficulty even telling the difference between, say, a scientific study and newspaper reporting about that study and an op-ed that draws on that study to try to score political points. Does everyone need to be able to make sense of War and Peace? No. But everyone does need to be able to take a look at War and Peace and say, hmm, maybe not the best source for information on Russian military history.

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