Information literacy mythology


The Norwegian blogger Plinius wrote an interesting piece on information literacy the other day, much of what is said here, I really agree with. I’ll translate a bit of it for non-Norwegian readers:

I’m deeply skeptical towards the concept “information literacy” as it is commonly used.

This doesn’t mean that [I think] that librarians are surplus to requirement; both schoolchildren, university students, knowledge workers and people generally should be able to get help finding information when they need it, as well as help using the information where necessary. In these cases, both courses and supervision have their obvious place.


But, what we’re talking about is information used for a concrete purpose: a biology test, a poetry analysis, a population prognosis, an inheritance claim. I have been teaching information searching for thirty years, but never general information literacy.

A belief in “information literacy” as a general skill hinders our ability to understand what librarians need to learn. The profession firstly needs to cope with the change from an industrial to a digital universe of knowledge. And then we need to look at what is happening with our users.

  • Then: people were prepared to build their workflows around library services.
  • Now: the library must be prepared to build its services around people’s workflows.
  • Kilde: Lorcan Dempsey. Workflow is an intermediate consumer

Information literacy – citing ABM-utvikling (The Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority) –

is a collection of skills that make a person able to identify when information is necessary, and make the individual capable of localizing, evaluating and using this information effectively.

[Though] these are doubtless practical skills, they have very little to do with librarianship. Every experienced skilled worker from lumberjacks to dental technicians manages to decide when they need information. Skilled workers that can’t manage to localize, evaluate and use this information are either totally green in their trade, or numbskulls that should leave their trade or profession as soon as possible.


Previously, libraries provided skills related to their specialization: practical use of large catalogue and retrieval systems. Our acute problem was disintermediation in two different forms:

  1. When the library first became digital and then searchable online, users became far more independent of the help provided by librarians.
  2. In addition, much in-demand information is now available outside the traditional systems through academic webpages, open access sources, Wikipedia, etc.

Librarians’ traditional knowledge, which was based on a short period of study and a lot of experience, thus becomes less sought after.

This does not mean that the profession stands before the abyss; in key development environments, there’s a remediation going on: developing new systems for search and retrieval, evaluation and use of digital texts.

In the old days, we provided user training. We had a monopoly on search and retrieval and users had to politely learn to user our systems, Today, the monopoly is broken; if we want to provide something that is meaningful, then we have to both understand, master and go beyond users normal practice in a digital information environment.

The profession’s most important task in the next ten year — I think — is to develop new services, to acquire new skills and to actively participate in the new ways of doing library work. We’re not starting from nothing. Skilled people are already at work building the profession’s new foundations in countries like the USA, the UK, Denmark…and Norway.

But, what is being created by the innovators has to betaken up by the practicians. This will require a lot of learning, development and collaboration with other professions and institutions. Before we begin teaching, we need to learn.


Information literacy in its widest sense is basically a necessary and integrated part of any area of expertise. The skills we’re talking about belong to the field itself.

I dare to venture that the public library’s old role within reference — answering a broad spectrum of everyday questions from common people — is growing less and less important. The Net is mainly taking over this role; thereby, the industrial or “Gutenbergian” information literacy from the previous century is devalued.

The digital Net invites new ways of working. What librarians — and all other skilled workers — need to master is that transition to digital working methodologies. This learning process has only just begun, and we need to pace ourselves and not promise more than we can deliver.


Library education cannot, of course, provide a general background in every subject, but the conceptualization of information literacy as a general, overarching, generic subject leads nowhere either. The attempts at defining information literacy — often inspired by thinking from the USA — rapidly becomes so all-inclusive that it begins to encroach on the subjects themselves.


Librarianship is practical. Librarians in the field need to gather their own digital working skills before they teach the many possibilities of the Net…


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5 Responses to “Information literacy mythology”

  1. Carina Says:

    Hear hear. More and more I too believe that information literacy is subject specific. If it exists. Perhaps nowadays it means the ability to browse through heaps of information and find the interesting bits? As you mention elsewhere.

    Which means that we need to redefine what our core competences as librarians really are. I´m not sure.

  2. brinxmat Says:

    Hi C. thx for commenting!

    I’m not sure either, but then who is? I’m easily convinced if you provide good arguments/evidence for something, as I recently was, regarding the usefulness of Netvibes.

    I think that the notion of generalized information literacy is a useful abstraction, but it isn’t a real thing; you can talk about skills needed by all human beings to get on, but it’s difficult to say exactly what these are. The core elements of subject-specific information literacy can, at least, be defined to some extent. I am very much in agreement that we need to look at how we teach students information skills, and I believe that any discussion of this topic can only be a good thing.

    I’m quite convinced that the skills librarians have regarding understanding systematization, search and retrieval are congruent with what many people think of as “generalized information literacy”. Funny old world.

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