Information literacy and the role of public libraries

‘Informationskompetence’, – the Danish term for information literacy was introduced in Denmark in 1998 by American-born Elisabeth Arkin, former Head of Library Services at Aalborg University Library, at a conference on the marketing and evaluation of library services. Development of competencies was a buzzword in those days, and the term was immediately accepted by the library world as an appropriate term that covered a broad concept of user education and library instruction emphasising student learning and the pedagogical role of the librarian.

Although the term has been used in the library discourse for a number of years, it is an open question if we speak of the same phenomenon. Discourse analysis reveals that ‘informationskompetence’ is a ‘floating signifier,’ a term open to interpretation, and one that means different things to different people (Eld, 2001). Recently, there has been a tendency especially in the public library sector to view almost all library activities, traditional or virtual as hosted under the information literacy umbrella; user education, library orientation, user-librarian negotiation, digital services etc. now seem to form a part of an all-inclusive concept of information literacy. On the other hand, many librarians perceive teaching information literacy in a narrow sense as synonymous with teaching information searching skills. Perhaps the concept is being trivialised and watered down by these uses of the term?

It is important, however, that librarians reach a common understanding of the concept when speaking to each other, and when discussing information literacy with other stakeholders such as teachers, IT-staff and school leaders. It might be useful to take a look at the various attempts to define and describe information literacy in order to reach common ground. It must be emphasised, though, that information literacy should be viewed as a context-dependent concept, where the individual’s situation and purpose play an important role. The definitions may serve as an inspiration for discussions among librarians and other stakeholders on how to define information literacy in their particular context.

In her book Seven faces of information literacy (1997) Christine Bruce identifies seven categories of IL as experienced by Australian educators in two universities:

  1. Information technology conception – using information technology for information retrieval and communication
  2. Information sources conception – finding information
  3. Information process conception – executing a process
  4. Information control conception – controlling information
  5. Knowledge construction conception – building up a personal knowledge base in a new area of interest
  6. Knowledge extension conception – working with knowledge and personal perspectives adopted in such a way that novel insights are gained
  7. Wisdom conception – using information wisely for the benefit of others.

As a phenomenon, information literacy includes the full range of experience, and students need to be enabled to experience information literacy in these ways. They also need to reflect on the variations in experience which they encounter and understand which forms of information literacy are relevant to different situations. Learning to be information literate could be seen as coming to experience using information in these ways, to expand various repertoires of relating to information, and to become conscious that information underpins wise decision-making.

The most recent national standard or framework is The Australian and New Zealand information literacy framework (2004). The Framework provides the principles, standards and practice that can support information literacy education in all educational sectors. It is based on four overarching principles:

These are, that information literate people

  • engage in independent learning through constructing new meaning, understanding and knowledge
  • derive satisfaction and personal fulfilment from using information wisely
  • individually and collectively search for and use information for decision- making and problem-solving in order to address personal, professional and societal issues
  • demonstrate social responsibility through a commitment to lifelong learning and community participation.

The principles frame six core standards, which underpin information literacy acquisition, understanding and application by an individual. These standards identify that the information literate person

  • recognises the need for information and determines the nature and extent of the information needed
  • finds needed information effectively and efficiently
  • critically evaluates information and the information seeking process
  • manages information collected or generated
  • applies prior and new information to construct new concepts or create new understandings
  • uses information with understanding and acknowledges cultural, ethical, economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information.

The standards are supplied with learning outcomes and examples that consist of the characteristics, attributes, processes, knowledge, skills, attitudes, beliefs and aspirations associated with the information literate person. They consist of a mixed bag of lower order thinking skills and higher order thinking skills, ranging from using Boolean operators to comparing and integrating new understandings with prior knowledge to determine the value added, contradictions, or other unique characteristics of the information.

In USA, the American Association of School Libraries has formulated The nine information literacy standards for student learning (AASL, 2003) focusing on efficient and effective access to information, critical and competent evaluation of information, accurate and creative use of information, independent learning and social responsibility.

It is important to note that these definitions and descriptions of information literacy, and the attributes of an information literate person emphasise the use of information: critical thinking, reflection, analysis, interpretation, synthesis, integration of new information with previous knowledge, i.e. they perceive the information seeking process as an integral part of the learning process, in which the individual engages in a constructive process of finding meaning. In essence, the information literate person is a person who has learned how to learn.

This emphasis on the use of information and information seeking as integral with the learning process makes it clear why the majority of literature written on information literacy deal with the concept in relation to formal education. It is in the educational system, from kindergarten and onwards that the foundation for information literacy and lifelong learning should be laid. As it is, too much energy and time are being used in institutions of higher education teaching students skills and attitudes they should have learned at an earlier stage. There is plenty of research evidence that the information seeking behaviour of school children is lacking in many respects (Limberg et al., 2002; Kryger & Høgh Mogensen, 2004). They regard the information seeking process as an information gathering task looking for the ‘right’ answer in a single source, they cut and paste, they have difficulties in extracting meaning from texts, they can’t formulate research questions, they don’t evaluate the quality of the information found, they can’t navigate in longer texts, they have difficulties in finding proper search terms, and they display a minimalist behaviour: thinking is not work, it’s just waste of time.

These findings illustrate that reality is very far from the ideal picture of the information literate student. Some librarians fall into the fallacy that once information has been gathered, the rest of the assignment almost writes itself; it is not so. Retrieving useful information is a prerequisite for informed reasoning, it is not mission completed. Teaching students to become information literate is not done solely by teaching information searching, it requires a painstaking effort to teach critical thinking, formulation of research questions, analysis and evaluation of information. It is formal education’s business to impart these competencies to students, and the responsibility lies with the teachers being the main stakeholders in student learning.

From this viewpoint, the most pertinent role of the public library is a supporting one. If the concept of information literacy is taken to its fullest extent, the challenge of the public library is to get involved in the knowledge construction process of school children in collaboration with schoolteachers and school librarians. In Denmark, a number of public libraries have ventured upon joint projects with the formal education system; in Tranbjerg near Århus (project: ‘På samme hammel’/ ‘Pulling together’), the library and the local school have developed a shared and common set of values regarding learning processes and project work. The tangible result of the cooperation is a guide to project work, targeting students in lower secondary education (9th grade), and moreover, all teachers have been offered a course in information searching. The more intangible results are an increased knowledge of how the library can support new teaching methods and assist students in their learning process, and a shared understanding of the concept of information literacy (Århus, 2002).

‘The reflective learning environment’ is a joint venture between Otterup public library and Nordfyns Gymnasium (general upper secondary level). The aim of the project is to create a reflective learning environment in order to strengthen students’ study competencies, and to integrate the public library in the day-to-day teaching. A public librarian works 27 hours a week in the school, planning modules of project work with teachers, taking part in classroom activities, teaching information searching to both students and staff, and developing a gateway to electronic resources including tools to assist the research process such as mindmapping techniques. The project emphasises the reflective element: students are encouraged to reflect on their own learning and their information seeking behaviour, and the teachers and the librarian reflect together on the best ways to enhance the learning experience. The public library provides access to a large number of databases, and a shared IT platform between the library and the gymnasium has been developed (Refleksive, 2004) Other joint projects between the public library and the primary and secondary educational system are in the pipeline. At Herning County Library a project targeting 9 to 16 year-old students is being developed; the aim of the project is to start from the students’ own interests and cultural experiences with the internet and experiment with new forms of dissemination of knowledge about the Net in order to develop the students’ information competence. In cooperation with local schools, a number of activities are being planned such as thematic courses in searching and evaluating internet resources in relation to both leisure interests and project work, an internet driving license for students in their 5th and 7th grade, feature days of downloading music, computer games etc, and class arrangements in the library for students and their parents focusing on children’s use of the internet. Cooperation is not easy; it requires mutual respect for the involved parties’ professional competencies, understanding of different cultures and conditions, a shared vision, and an open mind; however, if the public library wishes to pursue a significant role in laying the foundation for information literacy and lifelong learning, this is a most fruitful route to follow.

The ANZIIL Framework emphasises that the information literate person demonstrate social responsibility through a commitment to lifelong learning and community participation. To support these objectives, the public library has an important role to play in creating a learning environment for adult learning in all its forms, formal as well as informal; this environment may take the shape of learning centre facilities, support by study librarians and career advisors, access to study materials, and courses provided in cooperation with other stakeholders in adult learning. However, providing physical access to resources with the latest in IT, and a technician to keep it all working is not the most adequate approach to boosting adult learning. A room stuffed with computers is not an arena for learning per se; just as writing skills are not enhanced by using new ballpoint pens, providing access to computers and elearning programmes does not automatically lead to learning and information literacy.

The challenge for the public library is to consider how to provide intellectual access and actively support the construction of knowledge of its target groups. An increased awareness of the ‘zone of intervention’: the point at which an information seeker can proceed more effectively with assistance than without, and guiding not simply on the sources, but also acting as counsellor on the overall information seeking process, through a continuing interaction with the user is one useful approach to follow (Kuhlthau, 2004). Many people wishing to pursue adult learning lack study competencies; offering courses on personal knowledge management skills, i.e. mind- and knowledge mapping techniques, and information organising and filing skills besides information searching may be another path to tread.

The public library is one type of library in a continuum of libraries concerned with information literacy and lifelong learning. It has a major part to play, if it decides not only to provide readymade answers and access to resources, but takes on an educational role being actively involved in the knowledge construction processes of its target groups in collaboration with other stakeholders.

List of references

American Association of School Libraries (2003).
The nine information literacy standards for student learning. Available at
Australian and New Zealand Institute for Information Literacy (2004).
Australian and New Zealand information literacy framework: Principles, standards and practice. 2nd ed. Adelaide: ANZIIL. Available at
Bruce, C. (1997).
Seven Faces of Information Literacy. Adelaide: AUSLIB Press
Eld, C. (2001).
Meningen med informationskompetens: En undersökning av begreppet informationskompetens i en svensk biblioteksdiskurs. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, Institutionen för ABM, estetik och kulturstudier. (In Swedish).
Kryger, N., & Høgh Mogensen, M. (2004).
Skolen på nettet: Læringens veje og vildveje. København: Danmarks Pædagogiske Universitets Forlag. (In Danish).
Kuhlthau, C.C. (2004).
Seeking Meaning: A Process approach to Library and Information Services. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Limberg, L., Hultgren, F., & Jarneving, B. (2002).
Informationssökning och lärande: En forskningsöversikt. Stockholm: Skolverket. Available at, (In Swedish).
Det refleksive læringsmiljø (2004).
Available at, (In Danish)
Århus kommunes biblioteker (2002).
På samme hammel i Tranbjerg 2000 – 2002. Available at, (In Danish).

Associate professor, Royal School of Library and Information Science.