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Are you ‘information literate’?

See how librarians define the term and challenges – and post your own definition.

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The term “information literacy” was first penned in a 1974 report by Paul G Zurkowski for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. He used it to define “the techniques and skills for utilizing the wide range of information tools as well as primary sources in moulding information solutions to their problems.”

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How do you define information literacy?

We invite you to leave your ideas and definitions in the comment section.

Zurkowski also had a term to define the people who applied these skills to their work: the “information literate.”

Over the last four decades, trouser legs and shirt collars have narrowed, and the meaning of “information literacy” has evolved with the advent of the internet and the speed at which information is delivered. Today, information literacy is at the top of the pyramid of other forms of literacy: traditional literacy, computer literary, digital literacy, library skills, and critical thinking skills according to librarians interviewed by Elsevier.

In 2009, on the prompting of the National Forum on Literacy, President Barack Obama proclaimed October National Information Literacy Month. This year, my colleagues and I at Elsevier asked 150 librarians in our online advice community Innovation Explorers to define the term “information literacy.” With their permission, we are posting a few of their responses here:

What is information literacy?

[caption id="attachment_13127" align="alignright" width="150"]Beth Schuck

Beth Schuck


“Information Literacy is a skill set that allows for fluency with information in our diverse large world,” explained Beth Schuck, Associate University Librarian at Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library. “Many factors influence this including experience with various types of information; location as different cultures use and re-use information in different ways; type of information need also affects Information Literacy skills.

[caption id="attachment_13121" align="alignleft" width="210"]Stephen Marvin

Stephen Marvin


“Being able to locate and appropriately use information according to the individual’s needs is my notion of Information Literacy,” she concludes.

In the words of Stephen Marvin, a Librarian at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, USA, the term now encompasses “reading, understanding, progression, building, assessment, reach, accomplishment, implementation, achievement, knowledge, communication, evaluating, collaborating.”

[caption id="attachment_13124" align="alignright" width="138"]Satish Munnolli

Satish Munnolli

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Satish Munnolli, a librarian at the Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer in Mumbai, India, defines it in terms of how many librarians see their role: “Educating others on how to identify and use the online sources for the authentic and appropriate information in the flood of information.”

Challenges of imparting literacy

As the definition continues to evolve with technology, ensuring library patrons are information literate has its own challenges. Although there are information literacy programs in place at some universities, many others face barriers that limit the level of information literacy available.

Challenges identified by librarians in Innovation Explorers ranged from the lack of faculty understanding of the concept, limited time in the curriculum to implement and promote a strategy, and the shortage of qualified information literacy instructors at a university.

 [caption id="attachment_13129" align="alignleft" width="100"]Mark Puterbaugh

Mark Puterbaugh


“The biggest problem is that people feel they can find everything on Google and don’t search elsewhere, missing a lot of important information,” said Mark Puterbaugh, an Information Services Librarian at Eastern University in Pennsylvania.Realistically, using just one search engine or database for research doesn’t make you information literate. The majority of today’s students are adept at using iPhones, tablets, smart phones and laptops or juggling several social media networks sites to find information, but are they as proficient at finding and using a campus’s resources?

[caption id="attachment_13125" align="alignright" width="145"]Mary Heinzman

Mary Heinzman


Mary Heinzman, Executive Director of Information Resources at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, USA, summed up the issue by writing:  “Information literacy is realizing the need for information and (having) the ability to find, critically evaluate, and appropriately and ethically use information of all kinds in all formats.”

Getting library patrons to recognize their need for literacy training is just the first step. And the more we agree on definitions and benefits, the closer we are to developing a fully literate population.

So while October may be Information Literacy Month, information literacy needs to be applied daily.

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Elizabeth Zwaaf

The Author

Elizabeth Zwaaf is a Marketing Communications Specialist at Elsevier. In this role she helps to promote the work of the Innovation Explorers community to a wider audience at Elsevier and in the research community. She is currently heading up an internal campaign that focuses on where Elsevier gets customer feedback and how it’s used.


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