Information Literacy or Information Arrongance? Wrong Defintions

For class this week I read three articles dealing with my hopefully future subset of the library universe: data and business librarianship. I read three articles: “Graduate Business Students and Business Information Literacy: A Novel Approach” from the Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship by Carl Simon; “Interdisciplinary Synergy: A Partnership Between Business and Library Faculty and Its Effect on Students’ Information Literacy” also from the Journal Business and Finance Librarianship by Bowers et all and “Information Literacy for GIS Curricula: An Instructional Model for Faculty” from Journal of Map & Geography Libraries” by Jon Jablonski.

Having been in library school for nearly two years, I understand there is a bit of vagueness around the term “information literacy”. It seems to mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of different people. During a job phone interview, they even asked me for my definition of information literacy. Everyone gets their own unique snowflake definition. I can’t imagine anyone ever asking me for my definition of “book”, “collection development” or “research”.

I dislike when the term “information literacy” is used to defend old guard, database focused librarianship. There are thousands of “Librarian is better than Google” stories, many of them honest truth. Undergraduate business school students come into academia with no experience of the large propietary world of databases that librarians live. They exist in it, and then four years later, they graduate from it back into the world of ignorant bliss.

The librarians in “Interdisciplinary Synergy: A Partnership Between Business and Library Faculty and Its Effect on Students” seem to have forgotten this in their assessment of information literacy among students. I say this because one of the questions they asked their students was

Without asking the librarian, the professor, or a friend, how capable would you feel in executing the following task (1- very capable, 5 = not capable). Access electronic information clearinghouses, such a Proquest.

Firstly, electronic information clearinghouses. I didn’t even know what that meant until they said Proquest. Secondly, databases like Proquest are proprietary and of course students have not been in a world where skills searching them was needed.

When librarians claim that students have little or no information literacy skills, and they measure information literacy in terms of proprietary skills which they will not use before or after academic schooling, can they really say they are teaching students any sort of necessary skill? It’s a well known fact that these students will graduate into a world without Proquest, without Hoovers Online, and without Boolean search terms.

It seems incredibly arrogant to claim firstly that students have no information literacy skills and then also claim that they have given it to them when you have completely ignored their lives post- academia. More than any other major, undergraduate business students and MBAs graduate into real world information situations. They make decisions which change out economic lives.

There are many definitions of Information Literacy, but let’s get something straight: Information Literacy does not give librarians the right to teach student irrelevant things from a mantle of so called information power. It doesn’t give them to right to penalize students for lack of knowledge of information sources only libraries have. And it doesn’t give them the right to enforce a world of arcane jargon.

I should get off my soap box now and say that all the articles showed evidence of great partnership for the sake of information literacy. Librarians and faculty were identifying problems and solving them through real solutions such as information literacy classes online or in person. I especially enjoyed the GIS article I read. Although it was written by a geographer and not a librarian, I thought it was incredibly useful to librarians like myself that are trying to create GIS and geospatial literacy support in the coming future.

Works cited:

  • Jon Jablonski (2004): Information Literacy for GIS Curricula, Journal of Map & Geography Libraries: Advances in Geospatial Information, Collections & Archives, 1:1, 41-58
  • Cecilia V. McInnis Bowers, Byron Chew, Michael R. Bowers, Charlotte E. Ford,
    Caroline Smith & Christopher Herrington (2009): Interdisciplinary Synergy: A Partnership Between Business and Library Faculty and Its Effects on Students’ Information Literacy, Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship, 14:2, 110-127
  • Carol Simon (2009): Graduate Business Students and Business Information
    Literacy: A Novel Approach, Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship, 14:3, 248-267

About Ilana the Librarian

I am an aspiring librarian at the University of Michigan.
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6 Responses to Information Literacy or Information Arrongance? Wrong Defintions

  1. JJ says:

    I’m not sure that info lit is about teaching the students to use databases, though there certainly is an element of that. I think that more along the lines it is about teaching the students how to search smarter so that when they use Google in their real lives, they actually get what they want rather than becoming frustrated with not being able to find what they need. In my experience, the info lit/bib sessions that I take my own students too are of two patterns, A. teach only the database or B. teach the database and searching skills. Students who get B, and if they are paying attention, tend to do better on their papers. In short, don’t damn info lit so much. The system says that students need to know databases so librarians teach them that. I think better librarians also teach students skills that are transferable to the world outside of academia.

    • I wasn’t damning it at all. There are many definitions and I’m a big fan of it generally. I just think that people who define information literacy as “knows the term ‘information clearinghouse’ and “can find articles in one obscure database” sort of are missing the point of the whole exercise.
      In the business librarianship world, information costs money. Students always do better when they use proprietary information than the ones who don’t. Good grades equal happier faculty. But I think that librarians, like business school faculty themselves, often have to look beyond the classroom.

      • JJ says:

        Wait, you mean faculty don’t think outside of the classroom?! Shock! The Horror! The Horror! …just kidding.

        Seriously though, I hear you. I wish there were more ways to incorporate the real world into academia but there seems to be a hardcore split between the two, even in info lit. I chose UMSI in part because it was more of a professional program than an academic one. I’ve done the academic route. It didn’t get me anywhere other than living with mom and dad for nearly 10 years and working myself into the ground at two jobs. That said, maybe an interesting and needed thought is how can we make info lit more like the real world, especially for business school where there seems to be a very serious disconnect? What does that new info lit look like? Is it just about searching better and smarter or is it also teaching students how to filter better so they aren’t overloaded, using social media tools, heck building their own social media tools, etc.

  2. mbuchner47 says:

    Well, now I’m terrified of being asked to define “information literacy” in a job interview. Yikes!

    I also totally agree with most of what you’ve said about librarians assuming that patrons know NOTHING of information. Obviously, we are the gatekeepers of information, and they can’t get to information except through us, right? RIGHT?!


    I think library systems are generally going in the right direction, at least at high-ranking academic institutions. The libraries offer tech classes to anyone who wants them, and if students don’t take advantage of these classes, that’s their problem. Also, any professor worth her/his salt should be able to tell if a student did horrible research or not, and if a student can find great resources using Google Scholar or just plain Google, then good for them!

    If anything, librarians SHOULD be teaching more real-world (i.e. outside of the expensive database subscription-having bubble of universities) search methods, since, when most people graduate, they won’t have access to the “good” databases they’ve been using while in school. Of course, students should still learn to use and love these databases, but options should always be noted.

  3. Laura B says:

    As I noted in my reflections on class 3 post, I totally agree that just learning the mechanics of a database is not really enough. Real information literacy would include showing that the underlying skills of searching are essentially transferable from one database to another, as JJ, above, also points out. Maybe not every student who comes to the reference desk wants to learn the concepts underlying searching–thinking about the facets of your search, how you want to combine them–and the various types of search strategies they can follow. But those students who are open to digging deeper will get more bang for the buck through their increased understanding of searching.

  4. siglib says:

    Hi there
    I totally agree with you on this issue. It is a problem.
    I’m a teaching librarian of 10 years now at Norwegian School of Business. It’s a challenge in any given subject to find sources that are freely available that will equal the proprietary ones that the Library has to offer. It’s almost impossible some times.
    Although I find it’s easiest in courses in Market analysis and in Finance, because there you can use the free version of and such like, and some freely available statistical sources. It’s certainly something to have in mind when we develop our lib.sessions in the future. Certainly a challenge.
    Hopefully Google will solve the problem in the future. But as they say, the best information is actually the one you will have to pay money for. And what is most important is perhaps to teach the students that information may take some time and effort to dig up, and that you have to assemble it from many different sources.

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