1 Susanna M. Cowan 23 Information Literacy: The Battle We Won That We Lost? Susanna M. Cowan abstract: As we continue to revise our formal definitions of information literacy and to hone our delivery of information literacy across higher education, have we failed to see that information literacy as a programmatic aim, for all of its successes to date, is no longer relevant? The essay charts how the institutionalization of information literacy arose naturally from the first calls in the 1970s to create a national program in support of an information-literate population and how that focus became single-minded even as what had once taken place only in research contexts became the activity of our daily lives. Introduction In a 2012 article in the Journal of Academic Librarianship, Sharon A. Weiner makes a series of salient points about what she rightly calls the institutionalization of information literacy. 1 Weiner suggests that strategies of integrating information literacy into higher education must match the organizational structures in which the programs are embedded; that is, different higher educational institutions require different approaches. Drawing on existing models of organizational functioning in higher education, Weiner goes on to argue that the institutionalizing of information literacy must align with these models, notably by recognizing where institutional authority is located structurally and building on that structure. 2 Weiner is right to underscore the challenges inherent in the process of institutionalization including overconfidence amongst students and the perception of an added burden by faculty. 3 She is further right to emphasize that there has been minimal exploration of the degree to which information literacy is best integrated when stakeholders recognize the unique organizational challenges posed by different types of academic institutions for example, the typical governance patterns of small liberal arts colleges versus those of large research institutions. 4 Before discussing the strengths of arguments such as Weiner s, however, let me step further back and pose a question: What have we lost in the battle for, or on behalf of, the portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2014), pp Copyright 2013 by Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
2 24 Information Literacy: The Battle We Won That We Lost? institutionalization of information literacy? In our years-long work to define information literacy as both a concept and a practice, what, despite all of our successes, might libraries and librarians have lost along the way? This discussion is not in any way anti-infolit ; it is more of a yes, and... an attempt to start us asking some difficult questions, not with the aim of demolishing information literacy, but with hopes of guaranteeing its survival. Now is the opportune time to ask such hard questions. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) convened its Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force in 2012 to review [the existing information literacy standards] and make a recommendation to retain [the standards] as written... revise the standards, or rescind the standards if determined no longer useful. 5 The recommendation of the task force as of June 2012 was to reject the current standards as they exist and instead to extensively revise those standards and rearticulate them in relation to other interacting literacies such as media literacy, visual literacy, and so on. 6 This recommendation is a sign of beneficial change, certainly, but this paper nonetheless challenges the idea that any information literacy policy per se should be maintained by the library community and asks: What is the cost, now and long-term, of doing so? The Rise of Information Literacy: A Call for Action Weiner and many others cite Paul Zurkowski s work of the 1970s as the formative moment for information literacy in the United States. Significant in Zurkowski s approach to information literacy is that, from the start, (1) it emphasizes information literacy as a programmatic aim, and (2) it places libraries, and specifically librarians, at the core of this effort. 7 The reasoning was logical, of course. The advent of bibliographic databases in the 1970s, however primitive in hindsight, presaged a new era of research. In the era before such databases, the basic ability to scan alphabetically through large print resources (for example, the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature or one of the scientific indexes) for an author or subject term was all it took (that, and a great deal of time) to find what was published in a given field, defined rather broadly using standardized subject or author headings. But the first databases required additionally a technological know-how that quickly cast the librarian as the knowledge expert who could help researchers navigate this new terrain. Well into the 1980s, CD-ROMs and then the first online databases were unintuitive tools that required users to learn and memorize a set of functions that would enable them to open the data set, search it, and then mark, save, and print search results. Zurkowski urges in 1973: A word to individual librarians, to you who devote your lives to making information available to users: ours is a populist industry. We share your commitment to the open marketplace The advent of bibliographic databases in the 1970s, however primitive in hindsight, presaged a new era of research. The first databases required a technological know-how that quickly cast the librarian as the knowledge expert who could help researchers navigate this new terrain.
3 Susanna M. Cowan 25 of ideas and its continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found. 8 The language sums up well the line that information literacy would follow for the next thirty-five or more years: librarians advocating information literacy are good citizens (devoted) whose calling is the democratization of information (populism) and it is through us (librarians) and our ability to filter access (winnow, sift) that truth will be found. A high calling indeed! Zurkowski and other early writers on the topic were of course right to see a quickly changing research landscape that would soon leave nonexpert researchers (and expert ones too) in the dust without knowledge of the technologies of searching. So was born bibliographic instruction (BI), instructional programs designed to teach library users how to find the information they needed quickly and effectively. If information literacy, as introduced by Zurkowski and developed by writers such as William Badke, Carol Kuhlthau, and Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, went further than BI, it was still closely connected, particularly with regard to educational objectives. 9 These new methods of searching were a kind of grammar of research, without which the researcher would remain functionally illiterate with regard to seeking certain types of information, mostly academic. In other words, the conceptual work that began with Zurkowski s rallying cry was as important as the call for action itself: these new research methods would require more than the adoption of new skills (for example, typing commands, clicking a mouse, and or using enter/return to begin an operation); they would require a whole new vocabulary and a new framework to make it meaningful. And who could possibly be better positioned to teach this new vocabulary than those who had always been in the business of providing the means for research, and who were instrumental in the creation of the new tools themselves? By the time databases began moving en masse into the online environment in the 1980s, and thus suddenly became searchable and usable by nonexperts, librarians were already the resident experts at colleges and universities (and increasingly in public schools and elsewhere) not only in research technologies but also in the murkier but constantly referenced idea of information literacy as both information access and, somehow, research practice. Information Literacy Grows Up: Implementation and Institutionalization Throughout the 1990s the world, and research too, went online. Research practices went into the curriculum across the United States (and, slightly later, elsewhere) primarily in the form of librarians meeting with class after class (after class) to show them the ropes of an increasingly numerous array of databases such as ERIC (the Education Resources Information Center, for research in education and related fields), PsycINFO for articles and books in psychology and the social sciences, and the quickly burgeoning population of citation databases such as Web of Science. The role of librarians as teachers of research skills was fairly well established. What had yet to be clearly articulated was the conceptual piece the meaning of information literacy as a theory as well as a practice within librarianship and in higher education at large and along with that, how information literacy could be something institutional as well as theoretical. Onto the scene stepped the ACRL Competency Standards, as defined in the guidelines approved in
4 26 Information Literacy: The Battle We Won That We Lost? Here, at last, was the document that could be used to show information literacy in all its complexity not just access skills but also the ability to critically evaluate and engage with sources, to use them for the greater good, and to successfully employ those sources in the service of academic and other purposes. The document laid out achievable objectives that could be applied across disciplines and curricula. And it provided a mostly implicit codification of the role of the library and the librarian in relation to this application of information literacy in higher education. For the past almost twenty-five years, we have been building on the impetus that began in the 1970s and then accelerated in the early 1990s. The focus became implementation. Information literacy was no longer a proposition: it was a fully fledged practice with theoretical backing. The challenge became the need to align the outcomes spelled out in the ACRL document with the outcomes of a given institution to make information literacy programmatic, not just within the library, but also at the level of the college or university itself. Many libraries were, and are continuing to be, successful in partnering with their greater institutions to get infolit on the books, as it were, as a defined set of outcomes and practices for undergraduates and curriculum-building. Perhaps the greatest sign of its success is that scholars from the library world have felt comfortable enough with information literacy s stronghold to poke and prod the conceptual nature of the term in order to fine-tune the definition. Examples of this fine-tuning include the lively debate around information fluency, sometimes defined as a combination of information literacy with computing skills and critical thinking skills. 10 In the meantime, the activity of information seeking has become the stuff of daily existence: we google almost every aspect of our lives, and the same Internet search activities that were the gateway to academic or formal research are now the constant motions increasingly necessary to be successful at even the most basic life activities (eating, going from one place to another, shopping, working, and communicating). And with that, it is no longer difficult to convince institutional partners that the acts of critically accessing, evaluating, and using information are crucial to success, not only as students but also as individuals. It is a given. And yet, despite the social-cultural-technological The activity of information seeking has become the stuff of daily existence. Information literacy is still written about, presented, and practiced within libraries and higher education institutions as if it still naturally falls within the purview of libraries and as if librarians are still, somehow, best positioned to create and implement it. currents that took information literacy and made it a concept and practice that applies to twenty-first century life writ large, information literacy is still written about, presented, and practiced within libraries and higher education institutions as if it still naturally falls within the purview of libraries and as if librarians are still, somehow, best positioned to create and implement it.
5 Susanna M. Cowan 27 In other words, we are still carrying out the call to action that went out to libraries and higher educational institutions almost forty years ago. Are the tenets of information literacy (by any name) less true than they were? Of course not. In fact, they are so profoundly true as to be core to our experience of life at this moment in history. The question is not about information literacy s validity. The question is whether we must cling to information literacy as a narrower concept and practice within educational (and now many other) institutions that rely, still, on librarians as key purveyors of this knowledge. Information literacy as an educational practice is perhaps the most profound evidence of success in the modern academic library. It is evidence of an assertion of relevance that still has potent force at academic institutions. We won in so many ways. Who Information literacy as an educational practice is perhaps the most got to first define information literacy? We (librarians) did. Who was and is still at the table when information literacy standards at institutions are discussed modern academic library. and implemented? We were, and in many cases still are. Our focus is almost entirely on the day-to-day work of doing information literacy. We teach. We consult. We create online tools that in their own ways teach and model. We hone and then hone again our instruction sessions and ally ourselves constantly with the most current, talked-about pedagogical strategies, such as learner-centered education, in which learning takes place through active engagement between learners and between learners and instructors; and a more recent extension of this, the flipped classroom, in which students learn new content outside the classroom (usually online) and classroom time is dedicated to active engagement with the content. We are in all senses completely in the thick of it. New Rubrics profound evidence of success in the But already there are signs that we are on the defensive, hints that the world is shifting in ways that ask us not to tie ourselves to the mast of a ship due to sail away and never return. Between 2007 and 2010, the Association of American Colleges and Universities began to develop its own educational rubrics or standards of performance, including one for information literacy. 10 These VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics have now been in circulation for several years, but based on the evidence of recent library publications, no one could be blamed for missing them. If anything, we have worked hard to further codify our own standards, as evidenced by the ACRL Task Force s recommendation to radically revise rather than rescind the existing standards. It is somewhat baffling that nowhere in the eleven-page document representing the Task Force s recommendations does the group even mention the VALUE rubrics, although the Task Force is thorough in its acknowledgement of other library models such as the Society of College, National, and University Libraries (SCONUL) document from the United Kingdom. 11 This is especially puzzling because Our focus is almost entirely on the day-to-day work of doing information literacy.
6 28 Information Literacy: The Battle We Won That We Lost? six of the nine creators of the VALUE Rubric for Information Literacy were librarians or library scholars. 12 This is not to suggest, of course, that no one on the Task Force has heard of the VALUE Rubric, but as perhaps the most visible competing document (with a competing paradigm), its omission is interesting. Information Literacy and Critical Thinking We further see the defensive tone in the many articles and presentations devoted to explaining and proving that information literacy is not just, and was not ever just, critical thinking. It is not, we emphatically argue, merely what faculty have already been requiring students to do for years. It is somehow, ineffably, more than that. And of course, it is more, if by critical thinking we mean something reductive or old-fashioned. I disagree that information literacy is more than the sum of critical thinking, reading, and writing I would argue instead that what we have meant by information literacy these past couple of decades is a sort of reminder that those activities have been further complicated (they were always complicated) by dramatic shifts in the way information is produced and disseminated. When we read critically, we must now include as texts information sources themselves thus we need, as we have done again and again in the academy, to stretch our notion of WHAT we read to include new genres of information delivery, be they blogs, social networking websites, or the search engines and search tools themselves. We still seem to ask, in our publications and at our conferences, how we can even more effectively present in the classroom (or online) our guidelines. What new tips, tricks, and general teaching practices will make us even better at what we have been doing? Information literacy has been a tremendous win for academic libraries. But it risks becoming, looking back, also a symbol of a great loss. If we do not refocus our efforts on the educational, cultural, and technological shifts in which information literacy per se becomes a somewhat arbitrary label for the very stuff of learning and information discovery in today s academic (and larger) world, we will have won the battle but lost the campaign. In other words, our potential loss may come from the need to cling to the programmatic success of information literacy as a program run from within libraries by librarians. Information literacy has been a tremendous win for academic libraries. But it risks becoming, looking back, also a symbol of a great loss. Information Literacy Refined: Matching the Program to the Institution [A head] It may or may not be the case that universities and colleges (and students) are best served by structured programs in which information literacy is matched to specific outcomes and from there to specific assignments and calls for library instruction and the like. Weiner is right to point out that information literacy objectives and implementation must be considered alongside knowledge of institutional type. It is certainly the case that information literacy (by any name or under any programmatic label)
7 Susanna M. Cowan 29 can mean one thing at, say, a small, tightly interlaced liberal arts college and quite another at a large, research-focused public university. At the former or at any small school, public or private, four-year or community college or technical school there are various cross-institutional possibilities for collaboration around what has come to be known as information literacy. Embedded librarians may function as full partners in the classroom. Syllabi may be interwoven in rich, multilayered ways with library tools and resources smaller institutions often reap the benefits of collaborative environments in which collaboration is applauded and innovations in teaching are encouraged. Such institutions can be less vulnerable to silos, which are marked by departments or other structures within an organization working as stand-alone entities rather than partners in collaborative efforts. In such silo-bound organizations cross-departmental sharing of information or resources is limited, leading to inefficiency, duplication of effort, and curbed innovation at the institutional level. At many research intensive universities, silos are solid and difficult to pierce, and teaching is an activity publically lauded but in fact institutionally placed in second or third place behind research and publication and committee or other administrative work. So Weiner is certainly right, but she perhaps does not go far enough in not taking it one step further, beyond information literacy altogether, at least as conceived programmatically. It could be the case that, in some educational contexts, information literacy is best served by moving away from that term with all of its programmatic and institutional history, and instead looking at what model (by any name) best fits a now-evident institutional goal of making sure students are fluent, in the broadest possible context, in critical approaches to locating, evaluating, and using both formal knowledge and ubiquitous information. What Comes Next? The questions we might be asking are not limited to how we can do what we have been doing better. The questions need to be about what we can envision as the organic outcome of, and successor to, information literacy in its institutionalized form. If not information literacy as a programmatic entity, then what? How do we engage other librarians and natural partners within academic organizations in discussions about where this all has led us and where we take it from here? If, in fact, we have succeeded and information literacy, from an institutional point of view, is curricular in nature, how do we hand the keys over, as it were, to the faculty and administration? While librarians have been, both unknowingly and quite intentionally, guarding their turf regarding information literacy, the information world has continued to move in the direction of unmediated discovery and access, of intuitive discovery landscapes that teach seamlessly. We take studies pointing out students lack of discovery sophistication as proof that we, literally we librarians, must remain front and center. But as information access becomes easier and, perhaps, research becomes more successful in its rigor despite itself, at what point does trying to interrupt the research process with the intrusion of instruction sessions, consultations, and tutorials become anachronistic, out of touch, and eventually irrelevant? It is already the case that subject librarians in science, technology, engineering, and math struggle to find a role for themselves when print collection development is almost nonexistent and activities related to critical
8 30 Information Literacy: The Battle We Won That We Lost? engagement in the humanistic sense seem buried at the undergraduate level under curricula built around the accrual of facts and the mastery of number-based skills. But of course it is not just the scientists heading online for unmediated access to the stuff of research: it is the given practice of modern research across all fields, at all levels. How can we let this signify a great positive leap in education and not just the specter of bad research done without the guiding hand of librarians? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), a nonprofit organization that promotes new ideas, awarded its 2013 prize to educational researcher Sugata Mitra. Mitra has issued a call to action: he challenges librarians and other educators to let learning happen (as opposed to make it happen). 13 Conclusion If we care about information literacy, let us be brave enough to let it go and find innovative ways to further the educational underpinnings of the concept without the bulky and perhaps untimely programmatic weight. The brilliance of Zurkowski s message was its incredible foresight regarding electronic resource discovery. We should continue to ask what s next by looking first, as Zurkowski did, at what is. Then we can predict how current innovations are likely to shape the information-seeking landscape, which no longer stops in any meaningful way at the borders of formal academic enquiry. The movement of research online was the movement of research into the world at large, with all the complexity that brings. Perpetuating silos and expertise in that context becomes, at some point, desperate and regressive. Information literacy is alive and well. And should be. But perhaps not by that name, and perhaps not in the hands at least not mostly in the hands of librarians. Information literacy must, like so many other library services, enter the educational commons, in the sense of a collaborative network of pedagogies and practices that crosses internal and external institutional boundaries and has no home because it lives in no one place. Perhaps we do this by aligning with a broader and more broadly defined critical literacy movement that would not only encompass the practice of teaching students to actively analyze texts and other materials, but also include the intersection of skills acquisition, analysis, and critical engagement that is the hallmark of a growing list of literacies and fluencies (information, digital, media, technological, statistical, and others). Perhaps we do this by reinvigorating our efforts to really hand over infolit to our faculty and, most of all, to our students. Or perhaps we begin by not contributing to the conversation for a while. And instead watch, listen, and only then consider how, and if, the programs we have built so carefully and so well have a role moving forward. If we care about information literacy, let us be brave enough to let it go and find innovative ways to further the educational underpinnings of the concept without the bulky and perhaps untimely programmatic weight. Information literacy is alive and well. And should be.
9 Susanna M. Cowan 31 Susanna M. Cowan is undergraduate education team leader at the University of Connecticut Libraries, Storrs, CT; she may be reached by at: Notes 1. Sharon A. Weiner, Institutionalizing Information Literacy, Journal of Academic Librarianship 38, 5 (September 2012), , accessed March 22, 2013, doi: /j. acalib Ibid. Weiner s primary source is Robert Birnbaum; for example, How Colleges Work: The Cybernetics of Academic Organization and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988). Birnbaum s four models of organizational functioning in higher education are (1) the Collegial, (2) the Bureaucratic, (3) the Political, and (4) the Organized Anarchy types, and Weiner s article offers specific strategies for creating information literacy programs within each of these institutional types. 3. Ibid., Ibid., Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards Review Task Force, Recommendations of the Information Literacy Competency Standards Review Task Force, ACRL AC12 Doc 13.1 (June 2, 2012), accessed March 22, 2013, pdf. 6. Ibid., Zurkowski, Paul G., and the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, The Information Service Environment Relationships and Priorities: Related Paper No. 5 (Washington, DC: National Program for Library and Information Services, 1974). In this paper, Zurkowski codifies the notion of an information literate versus an information illiterate person. The final page of the report under the subheading Education advocates the creation of a national program aimed at achieving a completely information literate society in ten years: The top priority of the Commission [the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science] should be directed toward establishing a major national program to achieve universal information literacy by 1984 (27). 8. Zurkowski, Paul G., Protestations, American Libraries 4, 5 (1973), 258, accessed April 23, 2013, 9. There are dozens of smart practitioners of information literacy practices I could mention, but my focus here is on those who have expanded the idea of information literacy, its theorists. Again I could mention a number I name here only three by way of illustration. William Badke has been prolific in his writings in the past twenty or more years. Almost any of his writings are exemplary of his persuasive and often eloquent articulation of, and sometimes defense of, information literacy. Seminal, perhaps, is his early book The Survivor s Guide to Library Research (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990) and the follow-up, available in many editions, Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog (San Jose, CA: Writers Club Press, 2000). Carol Kuhlthau aims her writing at the information professional and focuses on the rigorous intellectual work of searching. See, for example, Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1993). Even as she moves into information literacy as the encompassing framework in more recent work, there is still emphasis on the role of the expert see her book, with coauthors Leslie K. Maniotes and Ann K. Caspari, Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21 st Century (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2007). As important as her own work is Kuhlthau s recent overview of information literacy research. Carol Collier Kuhlthau, Information Skills for an Information Society: A Review of Research. An ERIC Information Analysis Product, (Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 2012), eric.ed.gov/pdfs/ed pdf.
10 32 Information Literacy: The Battle We Won That We Lost? For me, Edward K. Owusu-Ansah is the most interesting of the scholars to take a lead in defining the concept both as it emerged and as it was institutionalized. Still significant is his 2003 article, Information Literacy and the Academic Library: A Critical Look at a Concept and the Controversies Surrounding It, Journal of Academic Librarianship 29, 4 (2003), doi: /S (03) VALUE: Valid Assessment of Learning Undergraduate Education. Project Description, The VALUE Rubric for Information Literacy is accessible at 11. The Society of College, National, and University Libraries (SCONUL) Working Group on Information Literacy published a report in 1999 titled Information Skills in Higher Education: A SCONUL Position Paper. The updated report is titled The SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: Core Model for Higher Education (London, UK: Society of College, National, and University Libraries, 2011), default/files/documents/coremodel.pdf. 12. See VALUE: Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education, Information Literacy Rubric Development Team, 13. Sugata Mitra, Build a School in the Cloud, TED Talk presented at TED2013 (Technology, Entertainment, Design 2013), Long Beach, CA, February 26, 2013, talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html. Mitra s famous hole in the wall experiments suggest that education takes place when you provide the means (computers, in the case of his work), sometimes supply a goal (something complex like explain DNA ), and then get out of the way, stepping in only to offer encouragement (act the part of the granny is how Mitra describes it).