Librarians and educators have been discussing the tenets of  information literacy for over a decade. The conversation was compounded by the introduction of the internet into day-to-day life and, especially, into the research process. A recent report from Project Information Literacy, an influential study of adults enrolled in higher education and directed by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg of the University of Washington iSchool, shows that most students use Google as their entry point for daily information seeking tasks (“everyday life research”). While students tend to consult course material and library databases first when it comes to class projects, Google (metonymically standing in for all search engines) is not far behind. Badke (2009) says we dropped the ball a long time ago: that we failed to show users how to understand information they retrieve on the web and let them become alienated from the library as an authoritative source of information. Perhaps we did. Perhaps technology moved faster and more pervasively than we anticipated, but in our hearts as educators and information professionals we intuitively know that there is always a better way to “do” research.

There are many questions that repeatedly need to be reexamined and answered. What is missing when working with first year undergraduates? Is it something lacking in our instruction? or in their learning capability? or in their previous education? And what does it mean to be information literate? If I were to say that student X was a product of successful information literacy instruction, what would that mean? What skills would that student possess and how would those manifest themselves in her academic and non-curricular information pursuits?

In 1989, the Association of College & Research Libraries stated that information literacy was the ability to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. The ACRL further defined IL with six characteristics. In an effort to explore recent research, I want to briefly examine each of these six concepts.

  1. Determine the extend of information need

It does not help that one of the most difficult aspects of student research, namely, narrowing the topic, is one of the first steps in the information seeking process. While examining how students operationalize research, Head (2008) determined that even though students are eager to begin a project they often have difficulty narrowing the topic to an appropriate level of focus. Part of the problem stems from information overload, but also from not understanding the assignment. To make matters worse, students are often reluctant to ask for help either settling for the convenience of a single search box or feeling overwhelmed by the resources the library offers, unsure of their efficacy. It’s a problem we’ve always had to deal with (see Clay Shirky on filter-failure), so it’s no surprise that it comes up and again in the research literature.

  1. Access the needed information effectively and efficiently

Students recognize how helpful face-to-face research consultation can be, especially help from librarians and professors (Head, 2008), but there is still a disconnect between what students understand and what they practice. Maybe this is due in part to the way in which they seek information for non-research purposes, preferring the convenience of Google (or any single-box search engine). Yet, we know from studies such as Kellers, Watters, & Shephard (2007) that students interact with browsers differently depending on what their information seeking task entails.  Ineffective and inefficient use of information may also be due to the fact that many students admittedly procrastinate on assignments (either intentionally or due to a heavy course-load) to a point when their information need is so constrained by deadlines, access trumps effective analysis. Whatever the cause(s), students often need significant help in this area (and it is the point of need that we most often address when sitting at the reference desk).

  1. Evaluate information and its sources critically

McClure & Kellian (2009) studied how students evaluated authority and bias by examining the sources they used in research papers and following up with students and teachers on their research process. They found that many students struggle with finding authoritative, unbiased sources. This is nothing new. More importantly though, students struggle with defining authority and explaining biases that may be present in sources. As McClure & Kellian point out, it is an aspect of information literacy on which students AND instructors need to focus.

  1. Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base

This aspect of information literacy is often missing from librarian-student interactions. Our usual modus operandi, perhaps due to the brevity of our interactions with students, is assisting them in accomplishing a specific task: find sources for a writing assignment, find specific data sets, etc. Only in special moments (or in uniquely-designed programs) do we have the chance to continue instruction beyond the initial and often only encounter. Students recognize the benefit of working with information professionals and perform better research when they understand information literacy as a specific, internalized skill set (Bowler & Street, 2008). How can we use this to our advantage?

  1. Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose

This aspect of IL ties in closely with critical thinking: being able to move beyond the information and recognize its potential as a tool for accomplishing both specific and more broadly defined purposes. As Rollins & Hutchings (2009) point out in their survey of IL programs in Louisiana, faculty and administrators often have difficulty realizing the impact of IL instruction on the critical-thinking aspect of a college education. It is not enough for students to conduct a library scavenger hunt or meet for an hour with a reference librarian once during a Writing 101 course. Developing critical thinking skills for college-level research requires more time and more intimate instruction. As Rollins & Hutchings also note, it’s about more than technological know-how, “it is about lifelong learning and those pivotal concepts that enable students to do research as independently as possible.” It may not be our responsibility as librarians to teach critical thinking skills, but without them, how can we develop information literacy?

  1. Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally

In my opinion, this is the most difficult of all six competencies. It requires both competencies #3 and #5 and also insists students reach beyond the current assignment and examine their own practices and bias. O’Conner (2009) discusses this in her call to reconceptualize IL (interestingly, she uses this competency to deconstruct the assumptions of IL theory itself!) and concludes with a statement extolling the civic virtues of IL: “information literacy has the potential to help citizens become critically aware-a condition that will lead to increased agency. This empowerment is desperately needed by the citizens in the modern mass society.” I couldn’t agree more.

There is more to information literacy than what is expressed in these six concepts, so over the next few weeks, I want to explore each of them in more detail: seeking out current discussions, examining strengths and shortcomings, and coming to a better understanding of what it means to be information literate.


Badke, W. (2009). How we failed the net generation. Online, 33(4), 47-49.

Bowler, M. & Street, K. (2008). Inves­ti­gat­ing the effi­cacy of embed­ment: exper­i­ments in infor­ma­tion lit­er­acy inte­gra­tion. Ref­er­ence Ser­vices Review, 36(4), 439–449.

Head, A.J. (2008). Information literacy from the trenches: how do humanities and social science majors conduct academic research? College & Research Libraries, 69(5), 427-445.

Kellar, M., Watters, C. & Shepherd, M. (2007). A field study characterizing web-based information-seeking tasks. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(7): 999–1018.

McClure, R. & Kellian, C. (2009). How do you know that? An investigation of student research practices in the digital age. Portal : Libraries and the Academy, 9(1), 115-133.

O’Connor, L. (2009). Information literacy as professional legitimation: a critical analysis. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 50(2), 79-89.

Rollins, D.C & Hutchings, J. (2009). Are we there yet? The difficult road to re-create information literacy.  Portal : Libraries and the Academy 9(4), 453-473.

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