From the first time I heard it, I was never that smitten with the concept of “Information Literacy”. I learned about it at library school and I didn’t entirely get it; I figured I had just misunderstood, or not listened well enough, or just blanked out on a key element of it. It just didn’t sink in.
Information Literacy: a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. [ALA].
I just couldn’t get a handle on it. Not that I can’t get behind it, but I couldn’t find the edges, the gripping spot for me to take this thing and run with it. I’ve heard the sessions about it, but it feels stuck in a rut. We end up talking about the difference between a book and a journal, the dangers of websites, the difference between one database product and another, and citations. I get how these things are important, but how does a term like “Information Literacy” come into play? What does it mean to say a person is Information Literate?
Literate: Able to read and write. Knowledgeable or educated in a particular field or fields. Familiar with literature; literary. [dictionary.com]
The term is fairly basic, from an academic perspective. Yes, we expect students to be literate; they should know how to read and know how to write. The emphasis, though, is often of the read part. Certainly it’s difficult to write if you don’t know how to read; reading is a key building block for building knowledge.
So when we talk about information literacy, are we talking about making sure students (or patrons generally) are literate in the language of information? They can read the map of the information world, see where it veers into wilderness and where the paths get too steep? Where they need to stop for water and where they need to press on? Being information literate is like being a pathfinder; you can read the metadata of the world around you, you know what the clues mean, you can give them a context. I think this is an apt description of what librarians are (very often) trying to accomplish with information literacy instruction, and it’s a good metaphor. Students need the tools to navigate an information-saturated society, and being information literate means they can read the contours of the land, they can find their destination without getting sidetracked by false trails and misleading signs. The information literate person can read the world of information (web, tv, radio, newspaper, and even word-of-mouth) like a book.
In spite of my very active hiking metaphor, the concept of reading, reading in the classic sense, is very much a passive exercise. Being a reader, being literate, is about our ability to be an audience, our ability to be passive. Reading at it’s pleasurable best is the ultimate submission; we give up all of our senses to a stranger and let them show us what she wants us to see, feel what she implores us to feel. When we read, we allow strangers define the way we see the world, at least in that moment. I remember once in grade eight I was reading The Lord of the Rings. At one point the fellowship is desperately climbing a snowy mountain, only to be defeated by a brutal storm that nearly freezes them all. I had just finished that part when class ended, and on the way out of the classroom I thought that I would make myself some soup for lunch, because that would be warm and restorative. I was halfway home before I realized that it was summer, I was not cold, and I really didn’t want any soup. While reading I was so engaged in someone else’s imagination I temporarily forgot my own reality. That’s the beauty of reading, of becoming fully an audience. We teach children early on to lose themselves in books; it’s part of how we teach literacy.
Being information literate is about being a good audience too; in a rather opposite way. We want students to stop being so beguiled by content; we want them to be “literate” about the envelopes it comes in. Who sent it? How did it get here? How could I find it again if I needed it? On one hand we acknowledge that reading fiction, being sucked into the author’s point of view, is not what we want from students when it comes to academic work; we want them to be critical, to be objective, to remember themselves when they dip into this knowledge/honey. They are still an audience, they are still “readers”, regardless of the medium. We’re trying to pull them out of the classic definition of audience without giving them a better label to adhere to. A critical audience is a cynical audience, a scornful one. The way we’ve chosen to teach students to interrogate texts is to dispense with the pleasurable side of reading in favour of the dry, sarcastic, negative audience; always criticizing and always about to walk out the door.
Critical consumers shouldn’t be the metaphorical goal. There is a better way of looking at this whole process that is less focused on positive/negative, less fighting against fate and pleasure by trying to surreptitiously redefine the beloved pastime of “reading”.
Rather than Information Literacy, why not Information Fluency? We don’t want students to only have the skills to read the tracks made by others, to merely contemplate them from the roadside. We want them to be contributors, to be creators of information in their own right. This isn’t about quality of content, because quality will come with time. This is about training students to talk back to the information that rushes toward them, to question it, to poke at it and make comments.
This is a tweaking of the metaphor. Rather than “reading” the information culture like a beloved book, let’s listening in on the information culture as it draws up to the bar and starts spouting off its opinions. Students are not consumers, they are participants. They are being spoken to, being asked questions; their opinions are being solicited. In the expectation of interchange we can inspire students to be more thoughtful about what their reading. This isn’t a bit of verbose text whose author has never heard of you; this is the beginning of a discussion.
You have walked into a party filled with interesting people. There are conversations going on everywhere. What do you want to say back? Who do you want to engage? What have you got to contribute? Students still need to learn to navigate the culture, but isn’t the conversation a better metaphor than the book?
The reality of the world we’re in, and the world we’re heading into, is that the distinction between content producer and content consumer is getting hazier and hazier. The movie is over, the lights are up, the audience is moving around and talking about what just flashed on the screen. We are no longer passive consumers of information culture; we are creating it day by day. We still read, we are still allowed to be engaged by what we read, to be beguiled. But when it’s over it up to us to speak up. What beguiled us? Why? Why does one thing resonate and another doesn’t? The practical matters of how to find a source, where it came from, who produced it and why, are all part of the conversation, and with a conversational goal the menial tasks of investigating the author are less mundane and more detective work that can result in an interesting new perspective. When you read with an eye to what you’re going to write about, to how you can redirect the conversation, we are encouraging the creation of a critical eye. That’s the thought process students need, that critical faculty no one names let alone teaches.
What’s your question? What’s your piece of the dialogue? Rather than students that are merely “literate”, why not create students who are fully fluent in information culture?