Are you ‘information literate’?

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

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.”[note color="#f1f9fc" position="left" width=300 margin=10]

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?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.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.”Satish Munnolli

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.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?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.[note color="#f1f9fc" position="left" width=800 margin=10]

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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5 Archived Comments

Shivappa Sangam October 31, 2012 at 4:31 am

Best Library is measured by its usefulness not mear by beautiful building and its infrastructure.Now every library is procuring E-Resources but do'nt use maximum extent, if librarian and his staff are "information literate" library will be best exploited. In short information literate means having knowledge of ITC.

Kavita Rao October 31, 2012 at 8:04 am

Information literacy (IL) competencies are defined as “the ability to locate, evaluate, and use information effectively” (ALA, 1989) definition is precise, Today’s challenge to the library and information professionals is how competent and capable they are in making their patrons information literate through appropriate information literacy instructions and training that are designed with the objective of meeting the specific information needs of the patrons irrespective of the type of the library-whether public, specialized or academic.

Kira Cooper, on behalf of Library Connect October 31, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Thanks to both Shivappa and Kavita for your comments. The skills needed by today's information professionals do, indeed, intersect with those of many IT professionals -- but the basics of helping patrons find what they need is still as relevant today as it was in 1989 when the American Library Association defined information literacy. The next issue of the Library Connect Newsletter addresses the theme of information literacy, and here's a link to a preview article for more on the subject:

William Badke November 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm

As several of the librarians above noted, information literacy is a lot more than just knowing how to use databases well. It deals with the whole process of handling information to solve problems and advance knowledge. One aspect we do need to consider, however, is that information exists within information cultures which define what information is valued, what the goals of that culture are, and what methodology is preferred in using information well. Those cultures may be subject disciplines or even workplaces where information handling is required. Until students learn how to navigate in information cultures, they lack a context for information handling.

Dr.V.J.Suseela November 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm

It is true that the role of librarian or LIS professionals is crucial. They have to acquire Information literacy (IL) competencies to make their users information literate by adapting various ways apart from continuing with the traditional practises and services. Most of the libraries whether academic, public,or special they are attached to parent organizations. So librarians are striving to make their organizations and approving or funding authorities aware of these new requirements and make them agree for creating new learning environment. These IL practises though conceptually appreciated by everybody, are not uniformly implemented and taking its own time in developing countries.