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Reconsidering information literacy.


The delineated information explosion inevitably prompted moves---via the information literacy concept---to help survive the ensuing problematic information deluge through effective retrieval, evaluation, and efficient use. However, there are insistent calls for conceptual reconsideration because of the emerged negative connotation of "literacy" in this teaching-learning concept.


The much-heralded information explosion provided the opportunity for society to consider ways of instituting beneficial survival techniques for effective access, evaluation, and use of the ensuing information deluge. One of the seminal occurrences in this control-for-access move was the astute observation by Paul Zurkowski whose call for the conscious grooming of "information literates" (Behrens 1994, 310) duly heralded the information literacy (IL) concept (see Lee n.d.). A most likely profession--library and information science--unsurprisingly adopted this concept. From this perspective numerous writers have covered both prevailing and emerging issues (e.g., Breivik 1998; Breivik & Gee 1989; Bruce & Lampson 2002). In sum, this concept is aptly encapsulated in Behren's (1994, 310) conceptual and historical overview in which she highlights the "efficient and effective information location and utilization" essence of IL. The functional literacy aspect of IL has also been discussed by many a writer (e.g., Kuhlthau 1987). Unsurprisingly, a logical extension of the lifelong learning attribute of IL is the movement for lifelong access. [1] However, the pertinent literature attests to the divided opinions on this concept.

Inevitably, an information society has been created in which ready access to information has become crucial (see entries in Harrod's Librarians' Glossary, 1995; Lievrouw's entry in Encyclopedia of Communication and Information, 2002). A helpfully pertinent entry in the Dictionary of Library and Information Science (2004) provides both an illuminating definition and a conceptual framework for another look at this dominant concept:
 Skill in finding the information one needs, including an
 understanding of how libraries are organized, familiarity with the
 resources they provide ... and knowledge of commonly used research
 techniques. The concept also includes the skills required to
 critically evaluate information content and employ it effectively,
 as well as an understanding of the technological infrastructure on
 which information transmission is based, including its social,
 political, and cultural context and impact. Synonymous with
 information skills. Compare with computer literacy (italics in the

This concept is now international (Ford 1994) thereby demonstrating the inexorable global march from traditional literacy---the 3Rs---to the burgeoning movement of change-reflective multiliteracies or multiple literacies. Although discussing the global learning concept, Ploman (1986, xxv) duly highlighted the changing realities and the current inadequacy of traditional literacy and observes how that "is now complemented by the expressed need for new, modern forms of literacy."

Delivery Approaches, Assessment and Standards

How do we fill the gap in the knowledge base of those identified as in need of information literacy? There is abundant literature on how to address this through the teaching-learning enterprise. For example, Shinew and Waiter's (2003) edited compilation of pertinent contributions on IL instruction for educators and another notable edited compilation--by Jacobson and Gatti (2001)--all highlight the delivery of IL; but a delineated persistent problem is the teaching of the cut-and-paste "Net generation" (Geck 2006; Roth 1999). Problematic in that that instant gratification generation is showing lack of the requisite discriminating and critical evaluation of the disparate sources of information and the need to appreciate the ethical issues of copyright and citing.

To promote ongoing assessment and ensure acceptable standards, some writers and institutions have proffered guidelines (e.g., Association of College & Research Libraries 2000; Maughan 2001; Meade & Dugger 2005). Should the delivery method be a stand-alone approach or across-curriculum integration? This central pedagogical question is prevalent in the literature with Breivik and Gee's (1989) "integrated learning" approach clearly dominating. Others have endorsed this integration approach as one of the "best practices" (e.g., Labelle & Nicholson 2005; Marcum 2002). [2]

Technology and its Aftermath

It is well documented that the technology-driven information explosion inevitably led to the quest for a "new literacy" (Breivik 1998, 1)--a need to address the emerging complex nature of information. The literature also attests to some inadvertent problems traceable to technology; for example, the emerged technostress (Brod 1984; Kupersmith 1992; Van Fleet & Wallace 2003; Wallace & Van Fleet 2001) and the newly delineated technocomplacency phenomenon (Doku 2006)--the former manifesting the stress and ensuing anxiety, and the latter technology-engendered smugness. The ensuing dominance of technology is also prevalent in the literature (e.g., Monke 2006; Swiss & Herman 2000; Taylor 2004; Wagner & Kozma 2003). Toffler's (1980, xxiii) metaphor of "colliding waves of change" creating a "new civilization" (p. xx) amply heralds this new era.

Inevitably, rapid technological advances have produced unforeseen circumstances, with regard to the change-and-anxiety phenomenon. Since Mellon's (1986) seminal library anxiety theory (see Brown, Weingart, Johnson, & Dance 2004) many writers have highlighted how the unprecedented pace of technological change is generating anxiety in the general populace (Atlas 2005; Gold 2005; Gross 2005; Jiao & Onwuegbuzie 2004; Labelle & Nicholson 2005; Shoham & Mirachi 2001; Tenopir 1990; Van Scoyoc 2003; Wagner 2006). Kaplan (2000, 208) aptly observes that the discourse is "saturated with familiar anxieties, and the vague forebodings of loss that so frequently accompany technological change." Therefore, for an effective IL process this emerged "negative affective" state (Jiao & Onwuegbuzie 2004, 138) demands serious consideration in the bid to alleviate anxiety.

Pejorative Misgivings and Rethinking Agitation

The prevailing intellectual dominance of IL does not necessarily imply ringing endorsement. This apparent anomaly has much to do with the l-word in information literacy. Who is information literate and, conversely, who is information illiterate?

Golden's encyclopedia entry (International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 1968), which highlights the inevitable context-dependence of literacy, opined that: "If literacy is used in a historical or modern comparative context, then the implied contrast is with illiteracy. Literacy thus refers to the degree of dissemination among a society's population of the dual skills of reading and writing" (italics in the original).

Unsurprisingly, this circumscribed definition of traditional literacy is also highlighted in Olson's literacy discussion of the concept of "literate competence" in the International Encyclopedia of Education (1994) where he discusses the persistent unease with this definition: 'People who could not read or write came to be regarded as rude, ignorant, and "illiterate."' In essence, 'the appellation "illiterate" has pejorative connotations implying serious human failing.' However, as is evident in the literature, context-dependent literacy has changed with the times--manifested in an expanding reconceptualization. Zwaan and Dijkstra's literacy contribution in the Encyclopedia of Education (2003) aptly reiterate this trend of "the role of diverse media and new technologies in broadening conceptions of literacy: multiliteracies, information literacies" (italics in the original). It is this highlighted pejorative connotation, with regard to the implied contrasting illiteracy traceable to the circumscribed definition of traditional literacy, which is causing predictable ripples in some quarters. Inevitably, some have called for a rethinking and, trenchantly, for the outright jettisoning of IL. As indicated, this emerged negative factor is a persistent subject of intense debate.

Langford (2000, 18) aptly sums up the prevailing dichotomous mood of "grappl[ing] with semantics." In this regard, some have expressed misgivings with the IL concept and, thus, called for new definitions (e.g., Foster 1993; Gorman 1998; Marcum 2002). For example, Snavely and Cooper (1997) highlight the resulting debate regarding the "ambiguity" surrounding the IL "fad." Foster (1993, l) also discusses the prevailing "near-missionary zeal" portrayal by IL adherents in the literature. McCrank's (1991) scathing condemnation of IL as a "bogus bandwagon," "hoopla," and outright sloganeering further highlights the critics' perspectives. While acknowledging the prevailing reality of multiliteracies, Marcum (2002) also calls for a rethinking of IL. In acknowledging the definitional controversy surrounding IL Owusu-Ansah (2003) nevertheless calls for accommodation. Is "fluency"--as in "information fluency" and "technological fluency"--a more acceptable word? Some critics of the negative connotation of "literacy" have advanced such a shift (e.g., Mani 2004; Marcum 2002; Rader 2002). Yes, the debate is joined but there is no resolution in sight.


The teaching-learning IL concept entails relatively new functional literacy competencies in the information society era; an age that heralded inevitable Tofflerian change-cum-anxiety. In a technology-driven world of rapid change traditional literacy is deemed inadequate. The need for effective retrieval, evaluation, and use of information is the core of IL. The lifelong learning aspect of IL is indisputable but this ideal, as highlighted, should be based on lifelong ready access to information. Here, the laudable initiatives of the lifelong access movement should be broadened across the general population--from its aged focus--as a necessary support for lifelong learning.

However, the IL concept has not won a ringing endorsement. Some vociferous detractors have taken issue with the delineated negative connotations of "literacy" in IL. Since the literature attests to the shifting definition of literacy, from traditional to multiliteracies, these detractors have duly called for a radical reconceptualization. Some have advanced new definitions, thus reinforcing Foster's (1993, 344) summative contention that "Information literacy is indeed a phrase in quest of a meaning" and, generally, redefinition. Should it be "information fluency" or other reflective terms? Yes, it is established that IL entails effective retrieval, evaluation, and use of information. If that is the case, could we consider more acceptable terms such as information retrieval, evaluation and use (IREU) or selective information retrieval, evaluation and use (SIREU)? In calling for a radical rethinking we should not lose sight of the lingering problem with the literacy-illiteracy dichotomy and its implied negativity.


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[1] For information on the lifelong access concept check the following sites:

a) and

b) (accessed January 8, 2007).

[2] The integration of IL into the curriculum is considered one of the "best practices" attributes of this concept. For details see: American Library Association/Association of College & Research Libraries. Characteristics of Programs of Information Literacy that Illustrate Best Practices: A Guideline, 2004, (accessed July 22, 2006).

Ishmael Doku, Clarion University of Pennsylvania

Doku, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor of Library Science
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Author:Doku, Ismael
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Date:Mar 22, 2007
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