Reflections on definitions of information literacy – Part 1

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It seems that information literacy has been all the rage in library studies for the past 20 or so years, and yet there seems to be only a little consensus as to what it actually entails.


Information Power: guidelines for school library media programs (ALA/AASL/AECT 1988) announces a focus on information literacy. This statement was designed, at the time, to respond to the burgeoning ICTs that were shaping up to make the impact on education that, since then, they most certainly have. In its mission statement AASL spells out an information literacy focus without actually naming it as such:


“The mission of the library media program is to ensure that students and staff are effective users of ideas and information”  (ALA/AASL/AECT 1988, 1)


This is a start. What does it mean to be an ‘effective user’ of information? And where do ‘ideas’ fit in here? And how about coming up with ideas, too? Teachers know that students sometimes struggle with this and that journey from information to knowledge to creative, new ideas and applications for knowledge is often long and arduous.


Every educator has had the experience of the student who seems unable to make decisions about how to use the information available. They are a bit like the person standing in front of the bursting-full wardrobe saying plaintively that they have, ‘Nothing to wear!’


Perhaps it is easier to think about what constitutes ineffective information use. Here are some of the symptoms I consider to signal problems with information literacy:


  • ignoring the need to find information;
  • not knowing where to start to find information;
  • lack of search-and-find skills;
  • not being able to sort out relevant and reliable information from the extraneous and/or spurious;
  • copying vast swathes of information verbatim, without the intervention of thought, or interpretation, or standards of ethical use;
  • a ‘cut-and-paste’ culture;
  • using only the top few hits of a search engine;
  • not thinking flexibly about the range of sources that might be helpful – print, electronic, non-text;
  • being unable to extract the main points or ideas from articles;
  • inability to summarise, précis, synthesise, or make connections;
  • being confounded by complex or contradictory information that demands sifting and careful interpretation.


Anyone who has taught students in an information-rich environment knows that it is no longer information scarcity that is the problem – but teaching students to use information nimbly, judiciously, ethically, critically and imaginatively.


More recently, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) put out an updated Standards for the 21st Century Learner (2007). Interestingly, the document puts old-fashioned, linear reading at the top of their list of skills needed for the 21st century:


“Reading is a foundational skill for learning, personal growth, and enjoyment. The degree to which students can read and understand text in all formats (e.g., picture, video, print) and all contexts is a key indicator of success in school and in life. As a lifelong learning skill, reading goes beyond decoding and comprehension to interpretation and development of new understandings” (AASL, 2007).


I find this intriguing, because in the current climate of ‘media boosters’ and the changes wrought by fast-evolving ICTs, many are discussing old-style literacy as if it is a skill we can hop-scotch over as an unnecessary stage on the way to using digital texts. Information literacy begs the question of what we mean by literacy. The ALA seems to think that ‘understanding’ and ‘interpretation’ are still key – both cognitive activities that demand deep engagement with the material.


This goes beyond being able to decode letters into words. Taking a society-wide view, participation in higher education, which is the portal to professional life for most people, still depends on a certain fluency in ‘old-style’, bibliographic literacy, as well as new, digital literacies.


In an article, “Libraries for a post-literate society” (2010) library and information science academic Doug Johnson argues that we live in a ‘post-literate’ society wherein “multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read written words, is no longer necessary” (Johnson borrows from Wikipedia’s definition). He states that the ‘post-literate’ is someone who can read, but who chooses to “meet their primary information and recreational needs through audio, video, graphics and gaming.” In this way of life, traditional print is “relegated to brief personal messages, short informational needs, and other functional, highly pragmatic uses such as instructions, signage and time-management device entries”.


I am willing to admit that this is probably an accurate picture of how print and alphabetic text is used by a majority of young and not-so-young people – but the whole picture it provides gives me pause. Is this the sum total of what we really mean by ‘literacy’ and even ‘information literacy’? And is this what we want for everyone? There are still situations in which at least some of us need to be able to sustain attention while reading a longer piece of writing and the ability to construct a longer piece of writing or speech.


What about the use of language that is not purely ‘pragmatic’ – such as imaginative literature? The ‘post-literate’ world is one that most of us, to different degrees, inhabit – and yet, the older forms of literacy evolved to accomplish all those feats of scientific advancement, rational debate and inquiry, sustained reflection and knowledge management that gave rise to the Renaissance vision of the human and the liberal-democratic civilisation that it birthed.


Perhaps it is more useful to discuss “literacies” that encompass traditional reading, but also feed into the range of skills needed to use and interact with new media. Embedded in any discussion of literacy, too, is an assumption about what we mean by thinking and learning.


The purely pragmatic, short-burst texts described by Johnson may make up a large part of our use of written languages, but they are not the full extent of what we mean by learning, thinking and communicating – otherwise, we would hardly have need for the higher-order dimensions of reflection, debate, weighing up and evaluating evidence, constructing an argument, or drawing conclusions from evidence that still make up a large part of professional discourse. We hope they also comprise political and corporate decision-making. The vision of the human mind indicated by purely ‘post-literate’ and ‘pragmatic’ fare is of a data processing device – we are simply nodes in the information and communications network, blurting out signals and passing them on. This is “thinking as data processing” (Jackson, 2009, 83). What does the individual add to the data they ‘process’ – where is the human in all this?


By starting with a digression, I am trying to wend my way closer to inspecting the various definitions of ‘information literacy’ I have encountered in my reading for this part of my teacher librarianship studies. I have decided that the ‘post-literate’ sounds too facile – there is too little place for reflection, analysis, and the kinds of intellectual accomplishment that long-form reading and writing have evolved to support and express. While there is certainly a place for the kinds of ‘pragmatic’ literacy Johnson describes, a student who graduated from high school only able to engage in these kinds of interactions with texts would still be considered poorly equipped to deal with many of the demands of modern adult life. They don’t have to read War and Peace – but just reading tweets?


To return to the Standards for the 21st Century Learner, the document deconstructs information literacy under four main headings, each of which are then allocated about seventeen or so indicators under the headings “skills”, “dispositions in action”, “responsibilities”, and “self-assessment strategies”. The four headings are:


  1. Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge.
  2. Draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge.
  3. Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society.
  4. Pursue personal and aesthetic growth.

Broadly speaking, these “skills, resources and tools” map closely along the lines of the information literacy definitions and models I have been studying for the past two weeks. They foreground what the learner is doing to find, gather, organise, interpret and present information. Verbs like “think critically” and “draw conclusions” show that this is an active process that demands higher-level thinking skills from the learner.


Linda Langford (1998) in her article “Information literacy: a clarification”, goes over the history of debate over the meaning of the term. Some working definitions she gathers together are:


“…the ideas and practices of developing in … students an independence in defining and solving their information problems.”


“the ability to access, evaluate, and use information from a variety of resources, to recognise when information is needed, and to know how to learn.”


“inherent in this concept is the attainment of skills, which relies on a process; that is, information literacy is an applied concept that takes on many approaches depending on what part of the curriculum is in focus.”


Some of these definitions highlight skills, others capacities, and others still the process. All imply a certain amount of self-awareness in the learner when identifying information needs, finding and evaluating information, and monitoring the research process. Hence, some of the information literacy debate is about processes that are hard to detect because they are thinking strategies used by the student and often done so intuitively.


Abilock (2004) offers a different interpretation of information literacy:


“Information literacy is a transformational process in which the learner needs to find, understand, evaluate, and use information in various forms to create for personal, social or global purposes.”


I am a little uncertain what ‘global purposes’ are, but I do like the idea that information literacy is a “transformational process”. Unlike purely functional or skills-based explanations of information literacy, Abilock’s definition looks at the alchemy that happens when thinking, and concentration, and creativity are applied to information – it becomes transformed from the dross of “information” into the gold of knowledge. This puts the student at the centre as an active, interpreting, thinking human being who is using critical judgement at every stage of the process. It also suggests that in the process something new is made.


James Herring (2007) takes a more process-oriented approach. He also describes information literacy in relation to what an information literate student is capable of doing, and in this he comes close to defining it as a mixture of skills, dispositions, capacities, and behaviours in a learning process. In another article, Herring (2011) defines information literacy as “a critical and reflective ability to exploit the current information environment, and to adapt to new information environments; and as a practice.”


Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP) has caught my imagination the most of all. I think this is because she looks at the experience of being engaged in an information research task and the emotional dimensions of the process. By looking at the patterns of students’ feelings, she has mapped the ways in which we feel at the outset of the process, during the middle, and then how we move to a resolution. Her ISP also, to my mind, foregrounds the processes of revisiting questions and initial understandings the most, and the processes of thinking through an information process. Although none of the dominant information literacy models insist on a linear process, stating that their process is “iterative”, Kuhlthau gives the strongest permission to take a while to come up with an ‘answer’ and the keep revisiting and refining the initial understandings as information is encountered and interpreted.

The MEd. (teacher librarianship) lecturers have posed the question of how information literacy is more than a set of skills. Clearly it entails skills, but it also more than that: it encompasses a series of strategies, a process, an applied concept, and a practice. Overall, my sense is that the metacognitive dimension is key – that information literacy is a way of helping students develop a mental construct of how they learn and how this can be transposed to a range of learning situations. This is perhaps what distinguishes the more able, successful students from those who struggle. Herring’s research (2011) suggests that it is this aspect of the more able student – being able to think about what they are doing and how they can use a repertoire of information strategies to address an information problem, that makes them more apt at school-based tasks.

When I think of the people I know who have experienced success at school and then in adult, professional life, the aptitudes Herring, Kuhlthau and Eisenberg write about are there – making connections between apparently discrete learning tasks and situations; applying prior learning to new problems; knowing how to go about formulating a question or focus and sourcing the information they need; being resourceful and persisting in the face of difficulties; being able to interpret, understand and synthesise information; turning information into new products or ideas; tolerance for ambiguity and working through complexity; looking back and reflecting on the process and what has been learned.




Abilock, D. (2004). Information literacy: an overview of design, process and outcomes. Available at:


American Association of School Librarians; Association for Educational Communications and Technology; American Library Association (1988). Information power: guidelines for school library media programs. ALA/AECT: Chicago, IL.


American Association of School Librarians/American Library Association. (2007). Standards for the 21st century learner.


Herring, James. (2007). Progress in developing information literacy in a secondary school using the PLUS model. School Libraries in View, 23, 23 – 27.


Herring, James. (2011). Year seven students, concept mapping and the issues of transfer. School Libraries Worldwide. 17(1), 11-23.


Jackson, Maggie. (2009). Distracted: the erosion of attention and the coming dark age. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.


Johnson, Doug. (2010). Libraries for a post-literate society. Connections 72.  Schools Catalogue Information Service (SCIS)/Curriculum Corporation: Carlton South.


Kulhthau, C. (2012) The Information Search Process (ISP).


Langford, Linda. (1998). Information literacy: a clarification. First appeared in School Libraries Worldwide (4), 1, 59 – 72. Available from






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