Libraries and Information Literacy: Now More than Ever

There is a trend afoot. It’s information literacy, and it’s in our public libraries!

Have you heard of information literacy? Do you consider yourself an information-literate person? If so, ask yourself the following:

  • Have you ever seen something posted on social media that just didn’t seem right? Maybe it even seemed manipulative?

This article discusses information literacy, who’s involved with it, and how it benefits society.

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Information Literacy Defined

There are multiple and intertwining ways to define the term “information literacy.” None are exclusive. For instance, Skyline College defines information literacy as “the ability to find, evaluate, organize, use, and communicate information in all its various formats, most notably in situations requiring decision making, problem-solving, or the acquisition of knowledge.

According to Madison College Libraries, to be information-literate, you should:

  • Have an awareness of how you engage with the digital world.

Information literacy is critical because, even though in the 2020s, a large portion of the U.S. population can publish information online and share it with millions, sometimes billions, this hardly guarantees that they use and share that information responsibly. Indeed, many rely on inaccurate information, whether unknowingly or deliberately, deceiving the public.

Why Information Literacy and Why Now?

Writer Joanne de Róiste reminds us of the obvious yet often overlooked misunderstanding that “digital natives” are, by default, digitally savvy. While some younger people reject this notion outright as a stereotype, others see it as their “fingerprint” to enter a world where it’s perfectly acceptable to present gossip and lies as fact without qualms or repercussions. Of course, many people legitimately deserve to be called “digitally savvy,” but hardly entire generations.

So whether you learn information literacy skills formally in school, studying independently, or less formally by asking a librarian for help, you will be more skillful at vetting information thoroughly and only then passing it on to others. Information-literate people also have a moral obligation to point out information inaccuracies to those responsible for them.

Why Libraries, Not Schools?

The longer question here is, why use libraries for teaching information literacy instead of schools? The answer is that both should be responsible for information literacy education — along with parents, the media industries, the government, and other influential people and groups. Yet, the persuasive messages we see every day only grow more powerful and deceptive.

Released in January 1989, the Final Report from the Presidential Committee on Information Literacy laid the foundation for this new and urgent way of giving the public a broader understanding of the practical and intellectual tools we would need to thrive in the 21st Century. It stated that:

The school would be more interactive, because students, pursuing questions of personal interest, would be interacting with other students, with teachers, with a vast array of information resources, and the community at large to a far greater degree than they presently do today. One would expect to find every student engaged in at least one open-ended, long-term quest for an answer to a serious social, scientific, aesthetic, or political problem.

It’s become clear that active students at K-12 and college levels are not the only ones who stand to benefit from information literacy. However, since adding adult courses would tax the budgets of many school districts, public libraries got involved. We point to libraries specifically because they serve a vast slice of the population, including adults.

Moreover, public libraries can instill the drive for lifelong learning that contributes to and benefits from information literacy. The following section looks at one very promising course designed for library employees specifically.

Teaching Information Literacy in the 21st-Century

Introduction to Information Literacy for Library Staff

The Brooklyn (NY) Public Library recently began offering a free online course for librarians. This timely project came about through the hard work of librarians at Brooklyn Library, Syracuse University, and other institutions — plus a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The course draws librarians who are interested, and those who pass earn 12 continuing education contact hours.

Amy Mikel, developer of the new course, began the project by offering library-focused professional development to K-12 teachers in Brooklyn during the 2010s. As her class grew more popular, she realized that since library staff also need professional development, a similar but reconfigured course could also work for them.

That way, the adult population would develop information literacy skills, too, with their help. So, with the grant and a helpful connection at S.U.’s Information School, she started developing a flexible course that would be free to librarians across New York State.

So, what is the course like for the librarians enrolled in it?

As a student in the course, my experience has been engaging and highly informative. Course Coordinator Jess Hoffman speaks for many other librarians when she explains that working in a public library heightens their concern about how patrons can most easily find and use information.

Hoffman says that her understanding of information literacy positions her to empower others by building their confidence when searching for information. She and her colleagues show patrons how to separate truthful and accurate news and social media accounts from flawed ones.

At a broader, more encompassing level, the information literacy course covers the research process, using archives and databases, and other less trendy (but equally important) information literacy components.

What Lies Ahead for Information Literacy?

The course just discussed will likely extend its reach as more librarians learn of its existence. But will it reach the degree of virality that social media messages have? Perhaps. But I hope even more that a new wave of information-literate librarians and their patrons will soon be active participants in uncovering misleading information and fake news — and its many propagators.