Information Literacy: A Discussion Paper1

The Challenge
The past decade has seen dramatic changes in instructional technology, a proliferation of information resources accessible through libraries, and a rapid expansion of the Internet. These changes have had a significant impact on scholarly research, with the Web increasingly becoming one of the information resources of choice. While a gift in providing access to distance learning and information at any time of day, it is also a challenge in that it provides users with a wide variety of choices in unfiltered formats. Faculty and students may not only access the library's resources and a spectrum of preselected scholarly databases, but also a massive amount of information that is neither peer-reviewed nor published from authoritative sources. Without guidance, researcher s may find themselves with a plethora of information while still missing key scholarly resources. Given "the uncertain quality and expanding quantity of information…[as well as] the sheer abundance of information,"
2 colleges across the country are being called - in fact, compelled - to focus on ways these innovations impact student-centered learning, disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies, and the structure of knowledge. In tune wit h a nationwide awareness of "changing knowledge, changing pedagogy, and changing students,"3 there is growing interest and concern in having students graduate fully "information literate."

Information Literacy
Information Literacy has been an active concept since it was coined in Australia in 1965. It was first used in the United States in 1974, embraced by the American Librarian Association (ALA) as part of bibliographic instruction in 19774, incorporated into the Middle States Commission on Higher Education's Standards for Accreditation in 1989, and acknowledged as a critical skill by EDUCOM in 1994. Recognizing the role of critical thinking in the learning process, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Board established in 1998 a Task Force on Information Literacy Competency Standards and charged it to develop standards in this area for higher education. 5 These standards were approved in January 2000. 6

Over the years, information literacy has been equated with a variety of terms. Gustavus Adolphus librarians have opted for "developmental research skills," while St. Olaf College's Political Science Department Self-Study Report 2000 used "intellectual competencies," which were defined as "an array of skills and abilities which are transferable across disciplines and which will support students in their lives beyond graduation." Other terms also used include "information fluency" and "computer literacy." However, as noted in Information Literacy Competency Standards, these terms are different.

"Computer literacy" is concerned with rote learning of specific hardware and software applications, while "fluency with technology" focuses on understanding the underlying concepts of technology and applying problem-solving and critical thinking to using technology. [There are also] differences between information technology fluency and information literacy…. Among these are information literacy's focus on content, communication, analysis, information searching, and evaluation; whereas information technology "fluency" focuses on a deep understanding of technology and graduated, increasingly skilled use of it.7

The focus of information literacy is on an "intellectual framework for understanding, finding, evaluating, and using information," rather than an understanding of software and hardware. For the record, the Information Literacy Competency Standards define information literacy as

A set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information…." Information literacy forms the basis for lifelong learning. It is common to all disciplines, to all learning environments, and to all levels of education…. An information literate individual is able to:
  • Determine the extent of information needed
  • Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Incorporate selected information into one's knowledge base
  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
  • Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally 8
Is information literacy merely a new name for an already established practice? Is the distinction between it and bibliographic instruction an issue of semantics or one of philosophy? These are important questions, for at colleges such as St. Olaf, with a strong tradition of course-related/integrated bibliographic instruction and an active library liaison program, virtually all of the standards have been part of both bibliographical instruction and numerous courses for years. Yet, has this been consistent and is there a college-wide consensus that the skills identified in the Information Literacy Competency Standards are important and may be applicable to our liberal arts curriculum and students?

One important distinction between information literacy, as it is being implemented nationwide in larger institutions, and bibliographic instruction and research at colleges such as St. Olaf, is the latter's commitment to research strategies linked to a course-integrated assignment; an awareness of the organization and flow of knowledge; the use of scholarly resources; and a firm foundation in disciplinary knowledge. Many institutions actively promoting information literacy focus on teaching students how to access and evaluate information unrelated to course content. While utilitarian, this approach may miss what is at the heart of a liberal arts commitment to lifelong learning. Research skills not integrated into courses frequently lack relevance, fail to touch the hearts of students, and seldom involve complex higher level critical thinking skills. Moreover, research skills - as with writing skills - are developmental and best situated within a curriculum sequence that can take advantage of this. Simply put, information literacy best manifests itself in the specific understanding of knowledge creation, scholarly activity, and publication processes found within disciplines. St. Olaf is fortunate in being able to examine information literacy and the ways in which it may connect with our curriculum from a firmly established tradition of course-integrated bibliographic instruction and research.

Given the challenges and opportunities of innovative technology, electronic resources, and the information literacy national standards, it is desirable for the College as a whole to discuss the ways in which these impact teaching, learning, and student research at St. Olaf. Integral to this is having information literacy/developmental research skills viewed as a cross-campus enterprise that extends beyond the Libraries and across disciplines. To achieve this we recommend that:

  • Campus-wide interdisciplinary conversations and/or colloquia on information literacy/developmental research skills be initiated.
  • Departmental reviews include an examination of the ways a department's curriculum incorporates developmental research skills.
  • St. Olaf Libraries actively collaborate with the Academic Computing Center and other appropriate campus units in implementing an information literacy program.
  • Hands-on workshops be offered for faculty to explore the pedagogical impact of electronic resources. The workshops' goals would be to (1) examine the challenges students face: understanding basic research methodologies; framing questions appropriate to the discipline they're studying; understanding the flow of knowledge; evaluating sources, etc. (2) support faculty curriculum development with a focus on the creation of assignments that facilitate effective research in the changing environment. (3) enhance faculty scholarship.
  • Departments identify, in collaboration with the Libraries, a sequence of developmental research/information literacy skills embedded in their curriculum and layered in complexity from Level I-III courses. These discussions would not only focus on sequential research and assignments that support these skills, but would also identify resources key to the discipline and students' disciplinary knowledge. Such discussions could also lead to a revision of the 3-tiered approach to bibliographic instruction developed in the early 1990s.
  • Research, development, & implementation of assessment of student research skills be initiated within a disciplinary context.
  • Every first year student have least one opportunity per term for course-integrated library instruction linked with a research assignment. Note: In the 1980s the College made a commitment for each first year student to have bibliographic instruction in their required English and Religion courses.
  • The Libraries' web page be re designed to provide web-based enhancement of bibliographic instruction and curriculum support.



1 This document is a distillation of some of the ideas in the St. Olaf Libraries', Information Literacy: An Action Plan for Re-Visioning, March 2000.

2 ACRL Task Force on Information Literacy Competency Standards. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. (Chicago: American Library Association, 2000), 1.

3 St. Olaf College Task Force on Innovation in the Liberal Arts. The Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts: A Proposal. 4 June 1999, 1.

4 St. Olaf's bibliographic instruction program was initiated this year with grants from the NEH and Council on Library Resources.

5 Brief timeline on information literacy is derived from M.J. Petrowski's "A Short History of Information Literacy and the Evolving Education Mission of Academic Libraries," delivered at the Institute for Information Literacy, 25 July, 1999.

6 ACRL Task Force on Information Literacy Competency Standards.

7 National Research Council. Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications. Committee on Information Technology Literacy, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. Being Fluent with Information Technology. Publication. (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999) cited in ACRL Task Force on Information Literacy Competency Standards, 1.

8 ACRL Task Force on Information Literacy Competency Standards, 1.