Monday, July 20, 2009

Four Decades of Defining Information Literacy
by Chad (G-man)

The 1970s
While aspects that we now consider to be a part of “information literacy” (also known as IL) were discussed in the 1960s a definition was not formulated until the 1970s (Tuominen, Savolainen, & Talja) when the librarianship profession was sensing there were important changes ahead to its relevance in the world. In 1974, Paul Zurkowski, president of the Information Industry Association, made an argument to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science that the profession was undergoing a significant change in how information was accessed and made available, so much so that a new skill was required. He defined “information literates” as “‘people trained in the application of information resources to their work’” (as cited in Bawden, 2001, p. 230). As Zurkowski was referring to “work” or the workplace IL began its life with a focus on information professionals conducting their daily activities. He continued: “‘They have learned techniques and skills for utilizing the wide range of information tools as well as primary sources in moulding information solutions to their problems’ [78]” (as cited in Bawden, p. 230).

Lee Burchinall gave the next significant definition of an “information literate” in 1976 before a library symposium. Like Zurkowski’s definition it emphasized how information was needed in the new information age to solve problems: “‘To be information literate requires a new set of skills. These include how to locate and use information needed for problem-solving and decision-making efficiently and effectively’” (as cited in Behrens, 1994, p. 310). This definition was influential since later there would be the argument that information literacy does not mean simply “locating” information in a library. So Burchinall’s definition moves away from a workplace-centric definition and anticipates later more complex definitions by adding the idea of “utilizing” information in addition to locating information.

Other definitions like these were offered throughout the decade. In 1979 librarian Robert Taylor seems to be the first one to use the actual term “information literacy” in discussing the future of librarianship and again stressed the importance of information to problem solving (Behrens, 1994). He addressed the acquisition of information and the variety of sources but he also moved us closer to a more complete definition of IL by getting us to think about different “strategies (when and how) of information acquisition’” (as cited in Behrens, p. 311).

The 1980s
This decade saw an explosion in information technology and it is remarkable that by as early as 1982 the Information Industry Association already saw a divide in society between those who know how to use information and those who do not. Information literacy had become a feature of society and was described as “‘a gap which...divides the information sophisticate who knows how and when to use the technology and does so easily and efficiently from the information naive who cannot use the technologies and hence has limited access to knowledge resources’” (as cited in Behrens, 1994, p. 311).

A significant change in definition came with the University of Colorado Auraria Library’s development of a policy for information literacy in the educational arena. It said that information literacy “‘is the ability to effectively access and evaluate information for a given need’” (as cited in Behrens, 1994, p. 312). But more than that, perhaps for the first time, it sought to detail the actual skills needed such as “research strategy, “evaluation,” and “attention to detail.” This is seen as the first connection between user education and information literacy and increased the focus in librarianship as the problem was more complex than locating information in a library (Behrens).

Behrens sees the increased attention given to IL, particularly by academic librarians, as “the library profession’s response to having its role essentially ignored or overlooked in the educational reform process” (1994, p. 313) begun by the A Nation at Risk and College reports. Patricia Breivik and E. Gordon Gee’s work Information Literacy: Revolution in the Library (1989) sought to place librarians and libraries at the forefront of educating citizens to become information literate. In particular they made the case that librarians, academic librarians in particular, were essential to undergraduate curriculums which were increasingly incorporating information literacy courses (Behrens).

We now come to the most influential definition of IL which is stated in the ALA’s Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report released in 1989: “To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” It stressed the ability was necessary to obtain a job and to be a citizen in a democracy (ALA). It declared that “the landscape upon which we used to stand has been transformed, and we are being forced to establish a new foundation called information literacy” (ALA, Conclusion section). Again like Zurkowski they recognize librarians are in a position to take the lead on an emerging societal problem.

The idea of educating a democratic citizenry to process increasingly demanding information loads influenced the creation of standards in 1998 by the American Association of School Librarians in their Information Literacy Standards: “access information efficiently and effectively,” “evaluate information critically and competently,” and “use information accurately and creatively” (AASL). Other educational organizations followed suite as in 2000 the Association of College and Research Libraries created their own definition in Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education: determine the need, assess the need, evaluate and use the information, and understand the larger context in which information functions (pp. 2-3). This definition of IL was endorsed by the American Association for Higher Education in 1999 and the Council of Independent Colleges in 2004 (ACRL).

The 1990s
By now there was enough interest that the focus was less on pointing that IL was important to society and more on figuring out how to incorporate it into society through education. Putting information literacy into the context of other types of literacy was given a push by the United Nations General Assembly’s efforts in 1990 to combat illiteracy (Behrens, 1994). Librarians were advocating “resource-based learning” and “lifelong learning” (Behrens). Public libraries were getting involved in the effort to teach IL (Behrens).

Other important definitions of this decade include Doyle’s: IL is 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’” (as cited in Langford, 1998). There was also the Big6 model developed by Eisenberg and Berkowitz in 1990 which essentially saw IL as involving defining the task, strategies for seeking information, locating and accessing, using, synthesizing, and then evaluating the information (Eisenberg, 2008, p. 42, Figure 2).

One prominent advocate of moving away from the tradition of “lists of skills and attributes” started by the ALA definition is Christine Bruce who studied how IL is “experienced by those who use information” (2007) in The Seven Faces of Information Literacy (1997). Bruce’s definition of IL involved (a) “using information technology for information retrieval and communication,” (b) “finding information located in information sources,” (c) “the ability to confront novel situations, and to deal with those situations on the basis of being equipped with a process for finding and using the necessary information,” (d) “us[ing] various media to bring information within their [the information user’s] sphere of influence, so that they can retrieve and manipulate it when necessary,” (e) “evaluation and analysis” to “build up a personal knowledge base in a new area of interest,” (f) “working with knowledge and personal perspectives adopted in such a way that novel insights are gained,” and (g) “placing information in a larger context, and seeing it in the light of broader experience, for example, historically, temporarily, socio-culturally” (Bruce, 2007).

The 2000s
Beginning at the turn of the century there was criticism that accepted definitions of information literacy failed to understand the social context of information. Early definitions such as the ALA’s were criticized for being too simplistic in how they view democracy and education by Pawley (2003), Elmborg (2006), and O’Connor (2009). The claim is essentially that the underpinning philosophies behind current definitions of IL, the political philosophy of liberal pluralism and the educational philosophy of functionalism, are too apolitical. What is needed is, first, a radical democracy approach which understands information literacy to be “more than a skill set” (O’Connor, p. 86) and more about constructing agency; and, second, a critical pedagogy approach which says “the self-realized needs of the person” are more important than “a skill set prescribed by educators” (O’Connor).

But there are still those who advocate a skill set approach to defining IL such as Webber and Johnston who define IL as “‘the adoption of appropriate information behaviour to obtain, through whatever channel or medium, information well fitted to information needs, together with critical awareness of the importance of wise and ethical use of information in society’” (as cited in Virkus, 2003, “The concept of information literacy...” section). It is probably the “behaviour” part that critics feel leads to a checklist type of assessment which they feel fragments a fluid process. However we can see that Webber and Johnston are careful to add (i.e., they say “together with”) the “seventh face” of Bruce’s definition which is “wisdom” (Bruce).

Currently most of the work in the IL field accepts the ALA or ALA-inspired definitions like the AACR’s in order to study the best way to teach IL and there is much discussion about how to assess all of these experiments and pilot programs. One writer in 2009 observes that “most writers focus on practical applications. They offer details of program implementation at individual institutions or, in some cases, draw connections between information literacy instruction and general education theory and pedagogy” (Saunders, p. 100). Yet there is still healthy debate on the adequacy of accepted definitions like ACRL’s and there is recognized need for preventing the IL field from becoming balkanized into dozens of camps following their own definition and assessments (Saunders).


American Association of School Librarians. (1998). Information literacy standards for student
learning: Standards and indicators
. Retrieved July 19, 2009, from

American Library Association. (1989, January).
American Library Association presidential
committee on information literacy: Final report
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Association of College and Research Libraries. (2000). Information literacy competency
standards for higher education
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Bawden, D. (2001). Information and digital literacies: A review of concepts.
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, 57(2), 218-259. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from Library Literature & Information Science Full Text database.

Behrens, S. (1994). A conceptual analysis and historical overview of information literacy
[Electronic version]. College & Research Libraries, 55, 309-322.

Breivik, P.S., & Gee, E.G. (1989). Information literacy: Revolution in the library. New York:
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Eisenberg, M.B. (2008). Information literacy: Essential skills for the information age. DESIDOC
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Maybee, C. (2006). Undergraduate perceptions of information use: The basis for creating user-
centered student information literacy instruction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(1), 79-85. Retrieved July 18, 2009, from Library Literature & Information Science Full Text database.

O’Connor, L. (2009). Information literacy as professional legitimation: A critical analysis.
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Pawley, C. (2003). Information literacy: A contradictory coupling. The Library Quarterly, 73(4),

Saunders, L. (2009). The future of information literacy in academic libraries: A Delphi study.
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Tuominen, K., Savolainen, R., & Talja, S. (2005). Information literacy as a sociotechnical
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Peter said...

Sadly, neither the Information Industry Association, nor the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science are still in existence. With all of the debate and different camps and definitions of IL, it's no wonder that libraries are marginalized by their communities, that funding is scarce, and associations are drying up. I think libraries and information professionals have to come to some sort of consensus for loosely defining IL, and by loosely I mean defining it enough that it can bend to different teaching and learning styles, and bend to fit the needs of the community which is being served. But defining it is not the only issues, in "Defining Relevancy" there is also much debate on *who* should teach IL. There are camps that suggest it should be part of the core curriculum and taught in collaboration with teachers and librarians, some suggest is should be required but not as part of the general education curriculum, and taught only by librarians. I admit, I'm not sure what the best approach is.

I'm surprised we haven't come across this already but, I think Christine Bruce's "Seven Faces of Information Literacy" is a great spring-board for professionals to come together on this topic so the information industry can move forward with IL, instead of debating its definition and design.

Cathy Colella said...

Really interesting post. I had no idea there was such a debate on this subject. I suppose more than one definition is probably okay and that several points of view could probably still work in harmony. I don't view that as a big problem unless there are differences that are stunning to the professionals involved. This almost reminds me of a mission statement conversation. Thanks for the good discussion!

Unknown said...

That was quite a compelling narrative of the history of IL. It is interesting to see such heated debates on how to implement IL and as Peter said WHO should teach IL skills. I also find it interesting that those buzz words like "lifelong learner" and "skill set" are a big part of my own vernacular as well as the instruction that I have received from many professional librarians.

HeidiJoGustad said...

I like this definition of the digital divide that you used: “‘a gap which...divides the information sophisticate who knows how and when to use the technology and does so easily and efficiently from the information naive who cannot use the technologies and hence has limited access to knowledge resources’” (as cited in Behrens, 1994, p. 311).

The digital divide really is a fascinating beast. It's impressive that the digital divide truly began forming from day one, and now, thirty years later, more people are beginning to recognize the need to diminish the beast. Thanks for the post.

G-man said...

Peter, it is quite amazing that half of the literature is about what exactly IL is. And it is frequently mentioned how everyone has their own definition. But I would say that the majority of studies conducted on implementing an IL program in the curriculum use one of the school library or college association definitions. These definitions represent national agreement but they are also a synthesis of decades of thought on the matter.