Information literacy– old wine on new bottles or a new field for librarians?

Readers of international LIS-journals will have noticed quite a number of articles on ‘information literacy’ in recent years. Some colleagues venture the opinion that this is a new buzz word for the kind of user education that they themselves have performed for the last 30 years. In a way they are right. Information literacy does require and is a kind of user education. Yet I think they are also wrong as the programmes being developed today are far more sophisticated than before – and to me the point is that we should aim at a much more differentiated programme for information literacy, reaching from schoolchildren to PhD-level. You may say that ‘information literacy’ indicates a new level in the methodological development of user education with a more systematic approach that is highly desirable.What is happening is a global change in education. For instance there is a marked increase in distance learning activities and generally speaking information collection and processing are becoming integrated parts of education and learning activities.

The real challenge
A good definition of information literacy has been given by the Association of College and Research Libraries in America stating that “information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognise when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” The Association of College and Research Libraries has been working with standards for various programmes in an inspiring way to reach that ability.

The real challenge is to integrate programmes on information literacy run by libraries into the educational system in a formal way. I am not proud to admit it, but I believe it is true: it is still possible to achieve a master’s degree from a Nordic university without knowing how to use the library, neither the virtual nor the real. This situation is becoming more critical as the ability to cope with information is becoming a crucial competence in a growing number of fields. And this in spite of the fact that in Nordic libraries there has been a strong tradition for user education. Decades ago there would be a standard programme to introduce new students to the library, but today university libraries spend more and more time on a variety of topics on different levels. In consequence the Nordic Council on Scientific Information has decided to focus on the development of new methods to cope with user education in college and university libraries. However, public libraries do not think this is sufficient. Many public libraries have a tradition for quite sophisticated introductions to information searching at secondary school level, and the need for guidance in searching information to support schoolchildren’s homework at a still earlier stage is widely recognised in Scandinavia. Likewise the fast growth in Internet use in the Nordic countries created a need in the general public for basic computer and information literacy skills that public libraries immediately faced. Today in Denmark it is a core activity in public libraries to give introductory courses in information search on the Internet, and in larger libraries you will find a variety of learning offers directed at different groups. The conclusion is that the learning library is becoming a part of nearly all libraries, and those librarians that chose their profession because they did not want to teach, may have made a bad decision.

New initiative in Nordic county libraries
In January 2003 Nordic county librarians had their biannual meeting in Stavanger in Norway and decided that information literacy is not old wine on new bottles, but a field that demands more and more from staff and a field that has a high priority everywhere. At the meeting it was agreed that we face the same challenges when developing programmes built on identified needs in various age groups, because the recognised success factor is to hit a central information need in the target group. Consequently it was decided to form a working party to co-operate on developing models and methods for creating this more systematic approach where there is a defined number of competence levels coping with the educational system and various needs among citizens. Public libraries should of course co-operate and share the market with college and university libraries. Their programmes should anticipate what undergraduates will meet at the colleges and universities, but they should also be aware that there is a general need in the public for lifelong learning – and that information literacy is an integrated part of it.

Jens Thorhauge Thorhauge Consulting, independent advisor