What it Means to be Information Literate

Information literacy is often defined as the ability to access, evaluate, and use information legally and ethically. Implied aspects of this definition are that students also know when they need information beyond what they already know (or think they know); that they know where (and when!) different kinds of information may exist; that they understand the pitfalls of different paradigms of information ownership, creation, and reportage; that their evaluation of information will include the nuances of timeliness, objectivity, and credibility; and finally, that they will understand the cultural, political, economic, psychological, and even biological forces that compel each of us to prefer one message over another. I am excited to see that the ALA and ACRL are moving to change the definition of information literacy to be less a set of steps and more a framework of understanding.

Somewhere on the webpage of every college or university at which I have ever worked is a list of general education objectives. Information literacy is always included on the list, either as its own unique item worth learning about as part of your college experience, or lumped together with computer literacy as a kind of catchall. Usually schools try to satisfy the information literacy objective by having some classes assign research papers and projects, and in turn having some of those classes bring their students to the library for one-hour training sessions. That, they hope, is information literate enough. But the media/information landscape is more confusing and sprawling than ever before, and it seems clear that a one-hour session in which students mostly learn how to do keyword searches in a couple different databases is insufficient to prepare students to navigate it.

Thus, the idea of what it means to be information literate must move beyond such a set of functional steps. For while it is important to be able to search for information and use it accordingly, a far more important component is the ability to understand how the creation, dissemination, and reception of information are influenced by various forces both external and internal to the searcher. Asking students to be information literate is fundamentally about asking them to understand how and why we communicate and to think critically about what is being communicated and how it is being communicated, as well as the relationship between communicator and audience, and ultimately to bring those understandings into an informed research practice that aims for truth, even if that truth is upsetting, unwelcome, or impractical. All the while, a source may be topical, timely, out of date, primary or secondary; credible, incredible, or a mixture of both; biased, objective, or falsely balanced; some combination of fact or opinion, opinion about fact, fact about opinion, distortion of fact, oversimplification of fact, oversimplification of opinion; and so much more. Understanding how all of this fits together to help inform society’s understanding of the world around us is the challenge of information literacy. In order to meet this challenge there are some basic guidelines that it would be best to take to heart.

Regarding the political aspect of information literacy:

* There is a long and rich history of those in power creating, framing, and/or selectively presenting information in a way that would serve their interests.

* How we access information is often dependent on our political beliefs, and those beliefs have more to do with biology than previously imagined.

Regarding the economic aspect of information literacy:

* Knowing the right information at the right time is a very valuable skill to have.

* The wealthy and elite have access to information that the poor and disenfranchised do not have access to.

* Free information is often worth exactly how much you paid for it.

* In capitalist societies, the availability of information must be dependent on at least one of the following conditions:  the revenue from selling that information, the revenue from selling advertising to try to influence the people who access it, and/or a wealthy benefactor or body who pays for the publishing up front.

Regarding the socio-cultural aspect of information literacy:

* How information is presented and how we react to it are both influenced by our culture, which is comprised of language, beliefs and norms that are meant to represent our shared history, ideology, and values.

* Certain words accrue extra- and meta- meanings over time as they are imbued with meaning inherited from belief systems and culture, thus, the same sentence might mean two different things to two different people.

Regarding your individual relationship to information:

* Understand your own biases and resist the temptation to build those biases into your research.

* Establish a rubric for evaluating sources and apply it evenly both to sources with which you agree and disagree.

* Compare how new information fits in with the other information in its field and report accordingly.

Learning these guidelines will demystify much of the discourse you hear on any given day. Moreover, internalizing the guidelines for understanding your individual relationship with information will help you compensate for one of the major impediments to information literacy, which is the fact that people almost invariably give greater weight to sources that agree with them than to those that don’t. This is called confirmation bias, and though you will never be rid of it entirely, it is good to be aware that it exists. Understanding some of the contours of the information map as well as where you are on that map are crucial first steps to becoming information literate.


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