Libraries and Learning

The Boundaries of ‘Information’ in Information Literacy

June 1, 2017

Academic libraries spend a lot of time and energy thinking about student learning. A 2016 Ithaka survey of library deans and directors indicate that they perceive the most important role for the library is “helping undergraduate students develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills,” with “supporting and facilitating faculty teaching activities” coming in as a close second. A recent round up of projects in the Assessment in Action projects that are intended to demonstrate the value of libraries do so almost exclusively in terms of student learning (or, to use the new buzz phrase, “student success” which isn’t exactly the same, but seems to please administrators more). Countless hours are being spent on interpreting and implementing the new Framework for Information Literacy which has some ambitious ideas about what students should learn. As I work at a teaching-oriented four-year liberal arts college, none of this is particularly novel. My library’s reason for being has always been student learning, and we’ve never stopped trying to figure out better ways to support it. But I keep wondering what the post-graduation value of this learning is and whether what we include in the definition of “information literacy” is enough these days.

Students need to learn how to use academic libraries to do academic work. But not all information is academic, and students will need to know something about the wider landscape of information to function in a world that’s highly driven by networked and powerful information systems. As I browsed through things I’ve recently bookmarked to read, it struck me how influential some of these information issues are in our daily lives and how little we talk about them when we talk about information literacy. They’re complicated. They aren’t immediately applicable to the courses and assignments students are working on, so there’s no clear relevance. They’re new and slippery and hard to convey. But still, they seem important. Here are few examples of what I mean.

  • Surveillance has become the dominant business model of the internet and, by extension, news media. This has huge implications for intellectual freedom and for society at large.
  • Privacy is more important than ever, but surveillance is the default setting. There are things we can do, but most people don’t know about them. (If they did, it could threaten the business model of the internet and news media.)
  • Aggregated data, much of it gathered through companies that build wealth through surveillance, is being used to determine who gets jobs, who gets arrested, who gets mortgages, and who gets elected – or at least what highly-tailored messages we see that nudge us to vote for one candidate over another. Our lives are increasingly governed by big data locked in big black boxes, combined and sold in the dark.
  • Big Data has the capacity to do many wonderful things, but we need some social agreement on how it can be used ethically.
  • The systems we rely on are increasingly important but extraordinarily vulnerable because so many of them depend on networked software that isn’t secure. It doesn’t take much to take out internet service in large parts of the world, to set off a city’s warning sirens, or to take over computers in businesses and hospitals worldwide. It doesn’t help that governments are more interested in exploiting software vulnerabilities than in securing us from attack.

As important as it is for libraries to help students learn while they’re in college, I’m really curious about what it all means for life after college. Should we consider these kinds of issues part of information literacy? If so, does anyone have ideas for how to include knowledge of present-day information systems in our information literacy efforts? Or are the concepts they learn as they navigate academic information tasks sufficient preparation for understanding information systems they encounter beyond college?


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.