Information literacy: it’s over and out


“Information literacy” was a phenomenon of the late 1990s end early 2000s and it is officially dead. Looking at the numbers, you can see that the level of interest globally in information literacy is rapidly approaching zero. Take a look at the Google-trending data for this:

Trending data for searches for term "information literacy"

Google trending data for searches for term "information literacy"

What is “information literacy”? In libraryland, it’s a specific thing (I’ll translate the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority’s definition):

Information literacy is a collection of skills that make a person able to identify when information is necessary, and which make them able to locate, evaluate and use – in an effective way – this information.[1]

This sounds reasonable, however it isn’t, it’s silly: are there any plausible instances where people who are trying to achieve something don’t know when they need information? I hope not. Note that Plinius [Norwegian] has commented (so well in fact that I translated it) that “information literacy” is not really a valid thing in the traditional library sense; an interpretation of information literacy, however, that is viable is one where it is a facet of subject-related competence.

The idea that it is possible to teach localization, evaluation and use of information without reference to a subject-specific set of skill is ridiculous; let me explain: within certain formal disciplines, intuition is a valid way of gathering data, while within others it is really not. Knowing your subject-specific ethics will help you evaluate the content you are looking at. Knowing which sources to look at will also depend heavily on the subject-specific approach you’re taking: if you’re researching language, you might be interested in grammars, but you might equally be interested in literature from medicine and neuroscience. Using information effectively is where the ABM-definition really hits ground: how can you use information effectively without understanding it?

The library really doesn’t have very much to offer in terms of subject-specific skills: yes, an academic library may have subject librarians, but “subject specific” really equates to “individual”, and the extent to which a librarian will know the individual researcher’s needs is based on a dialogue with that individual, not on an understanding of the concept “information literacy”, and whatever they impart of useful information is likely to be based on the local systems in use at that particular library.

It isn’t the case, however, that the library doesn’t have anything to offer; we have a lot of resources that are likely yet to be discovered by researchers, and a number of tips and tricks that will make the researchers’ lives a lot easier. But creating heavyweight courses in CQL and search strategy isn’t going to cut it; it’s about marketing and one-on-one contact.

The death of monolithic library teaching should be nigh, and I hope that it is.

[1] Informasjonskompetanse — ABM-utvikling – Statens senter for arkiv, bibliotek og museum. (n.d.). . Retrieved January 18, 2010, from

[edited for grammar and imprecise formulation 2010-01-26]



6 Responses to “Information literacy: it’s over and out”

  1. Christina Tovoté Says:

    Hej Brinxmat!

    Hoppas det är ok med kommentar på svenska. Ditt blogginlägg dök upp på den svenska BIBLIST och jag svarade där. Nu klistrar jag in min kommentar här också:

    Man kan inte sätta likhetstecken mellan sådan och informationskompetens. Det är också ett sällsynt dumt bibliotekarieord, som inte säger något och kan misstolkas. Många gånger har vi försökt hitta ett nytt begrepp men till slut accepterat eftersom det används så vitt internationellt.

    Helt säkert var googlandet på biblioteksbegreppet information literacy mycket större runt sekelskiftet och tidigare när det spreds över världen från USA, som myntade det redan 1974 och skapade sitt National Forum on IL 1989 (alltså 20-årsjubileum förra året). Varje land gjorde sedan sin tolkning och i Norden har vi varit kritiska till att ställa upp standarder och beskriva det enbart som en allmän kompetens som man kan ge övergripande kurser i. Du har säkert också sett/läst de nya nordiska kritiska forskningsrapporter, som visar att informationskompetens är beroende av kontext och social praktik. Se t ex “Informationskompetenser. Om lärande i informationspraktiker och informationssökning i lärandepraktiker” utgiven 2009 av Jenny Hedman och Anna Lundh.

    Den pedagogiska utvecklingen vid våra bibliotek innebär så mycket mer. Den handlar om bibliotekets stöd för lärande, handledning, integrering i ämnesundervisning och inte minst samarbete med lärarna. Den handlar också om rollen i referensarbetet baserad på dialog precis som Brinxmat skriver.

    Behovet av vårt stöd och våra kurser minskar inte men de har definitivt spelat ut sin roll som “monolithic library teaching”, det håller jag helt med om. Och jag fortsätter gärna diskussionen och hoppas fler hänger på. Så blir det ökad statistik i ämnet =o))

    Christina Tovoté
    Stockholms universitetsbibliotek

  2. Sheila Yoshikawa Says:

    In lieu of a more complicated argument about information literacy; the word “universities” has a similar downward curve in Google Trends, but I wouldn’t therefore conclude that people are using *that* term any less than in 2004 … And why does Jamaica feature so heavily one year? (I fiddled with the figures awhile and then gave up)

    I think that information literacy is context specific, and indeed our research showed that conceptions varied with disciplines, also I agree “monolithic” library teaching is not good idea.

    However, I don’t think that makes information literacy yesterday’s news , I think it just makes it more interesting ;-

    Sheila Webber (just noticed I am logged in to WordPress with my “Sheila Yoshikawa” (Second Life) name.)

    • brinxmat Says:

      The key points are still: interest in information literacy is dwindling, and librarians in higher education need to look at their motivations as they are looking to teach something that is clearly subject specific at a non-subject specific level (i.e. you need to be a practitioner of the subject in order to understand and teach it).

  3. P 27/10: Informasjon og sveitserost « Plinius Says:

    […] (2010) Information literacy: it’s over and out. Bloggpost på bloggen Infonatives:  Information/library tech […]

  4. Randi Tyse Eriksen Says:

    Monolithic library teaching is yesterday´s news…

    According to

    Tuominen, K., Savolainen, R. & Talja, S. (2005). Information literacy as a socio-technical practice. Library Quarterly, 75(3), 329-345,

    one should instead understand information practices as embedded in ‘the social, ideological, and physical contexts and environments in which information and technical artefacts are used’ (p. 340)

  5. cyber security expert Says:

    cyber security expert…

    […]Information literacy: it’s over and out « Infonatives[…]…

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