Information literacy is outlined in clear standards by the Association of College and Research Libraries and these standards are reinforced by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s accreditation proposals. These are idealistic measures that do not compromise on their definition of success. However, the realities of academic libraries and their ability to meet these measures must be reflected in the highest level of conversation on this hot topic. Information literacy is not only a library matter; its issues and expectations must be addressed by academic administration as a campus-wide initiative.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education readily admits that “general education programs cannot offer a sufficient opportunity for students to achieve fully the higher-order information literacy skills (2).” Yet, rather than review curriculum and academic programming, the Commission and others favor a periphery dialogue between faculty and librarians to resolve this problem. Many academic librarians are already asked to provide bibliographic instruction in less than an hour of class time with no follow-through. Now these librarians are burdened with the additional standards of teaching information evaluation and its social implications – without additional class time, financial compensation, or apt education.
This concern is addressed by Stanley Wilder (2005) who believes “librarians should use their expertise to deepen students’ understanding of the disciplines they study (14).” Herein lies the larger problem. Academic librarians today are often hired without extensive subject knowledge or teaching competence – only heightened research skills. This shift occurred in the late nineteenth century. Initially, scholars worked in academic libraries, supporting patrons with their subject expertise and professorship practice. Then, in 1877, Melvil Dewey established the first library school and, as Frances Hopkins noted, “there is no doubt that Dewey’s good intentions depressed the profession as a whole (Owusu-Ansah, 2004, 7).” Today we are again being asked to be scholars. I view this as a return to a more rigorous academic national curriculum.
Information literacy cannot merely be an extension of bibliographic instruction. In current library instruction, the librarian begins each search process at a superficial and elemental stage of knowledge on the subject, so she stresses trivial methods. By starting each reference search at the know-nothing level, it suggests to the student that research is a tedious and linear development – the exact opposite of what we have learned about common information-seeking behavior. Information literacy places too much emphasis on this erroneous set of actions. Additionally, this process poorly “duplicates what effective teachers,” according to Joseph McDonald, “…already accomplish with their students (2004, 1).” Librarians should be in a position to support these teachers, not replace the focused education and curriculum with agendas hastily created to achieve vague academic standards. Clearly librarians should work with faculty on teaching learners to learn, but offering credit courses outside of subject emphasis places information literacy alongside subject learning rather than directly within it.
It is surprising that something as basic as literacy would be pulled aside for isolated consideration as a requirement for higher education. The ALA’s definition of information literacy reads like the foundation of any university mission statement. University libraries need to support this, not reframe it. While ALA may encourage librarians to work with their institutions in meeting standards, the library should not direct this conversation – the academic administration as curriculum developers should lead. While it can be frustrating to only advocate change and not enforce it, libraries need to push information literacy as more than simply library expansion.
McDonald, J. (2004). Information literacy or literate information? MLA Forum, 3(2), pp. 1-14.
Middle States Commission on Higher Education (2003). Developing research skills and communication skills. Philadelphia: Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Owusu-Ansah, E. (2004). Information literacy and higher education: Placing the academic library in the center of a comprehensive solution. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 30(1), pp. 3-16.
Wilder, S. (2005). Information literacy makes all the wrong assumptions. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 51(18), p. B 13.