Friday, March 11, 2011

Information Literacy and Public Libraries

The public library's essential role in helping people develop their ability to find and use information.
@2005, Michele A. Leininger

The term "information literacy" can be overwhelming for most public librarians. Although the term has been used by the school and academic library world for a number of years, public libraries are just beginning to move into this arena. Back when most of us were in school, we had "library skills" class with the school librarian and then maybe had some "bibliographic instruction" when we went to high school or college. However, the internet and information revolution, as well as the Gates Foundation computers, have brought more and more non-library users into our buildings with the expectation that we will be the ones to take them through the waves of information that are inundating them. Those skills we learned during "library class" just aren't enough anymore.

First, let's define what "information literacy" really is and then look at why public libraries are situated perfectly to take on this essential service. In January 1989, the ALA Presidential Committee on Information Literacy released its final report. In the report, the Committee defined the term this way: "To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." It really is as simple as that. Everyone needs to be able to know when they need to find information and then act on that need - locating, evaluating and using the correct information.

Although this is a very simple, straight-forward idea, it should not be forgotten that information literacy is a learned skill. We are not born with innate information-seeking skills, but instead these skills are taught to us throughout our educational life. For those of us who received all (if not most) of our formative education before the advent of the internet, most of us had all the skills we needed when we graduated from high school. But the skill set has changed along side new and emerging technology and if history is an example, we have just started seeing the changes we will all need to learn and manage in our lifetime. So, a more in-depth way to define the term is that "information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand."

Like all acquired skills, someone needs to teach you how these new skills work and then you need to practice the skills until they become honed and second-nature. Many students are getting this from teachers and school librarians. However, as is the case in Iowa, more and more school districts do not have a district-wide certified teacher-librarian overseeing the district's school library program; and of those that do have a district-wide professional school library administrator, the vast majority do not have a professional in all the district's school libraries . So, as these skills become more and more important in our jobs as well as our daily lives, our students have less and less of an opportunity to learn these skills that will be so essential when they enter the workforce and need vital information to make life-changing decisions.

The ALA Presidential Report makes a special plea to public libraries to help fill the gap between the information-literate and information-illiterate:

"Libraries, which provide a significant public access point to such information and usually at no cost, must play a key role in preparing people for the demands of today's information society. Just as public libraries were once a means of education and a better life for many of the over 20 million immigrants of the late 1800s and early 1900s, they remain today as the potentially strongest and most far-reaching community resource for life-long learners. Public libraries not only provide access to information, but they also remain crucial to providing people with the knowledge necessary to make meaningful use of existing resources."

What would surprise most public librarians is that they have already taken on the role of "information literacy educators." Most public librarians do not see themselves in the role of "educators," yet they perform in this role on a daily basis and do it quite well. Most of these exchanges with the public are a one-on-one basis when a "teachable moment" arises with a patron: an adult has just returned to school in a distance education program and needs journal articles for the first paper she has written in twenty years; a young man comes in disgusted with his last car purchase and wants to do some research before buying his next car; a set of grandparents come in to set up a new email account so they can receive pictures of the grandkids who live overseas; a son comes in looking for information on a disease that his elderly mother has just been diagnosed with. These are all information literacy exchanges in which the public librarian has not only helped the person get the information he/she is looking for, but the librarian has also had an opportunity to show the person how he/she can find, evaluate and use this information for themselves the next time a need arises.

Public libraries are perfectly situated and capable to handle the ever-changing world of information literacy, but if we don't step up and provide this service, who will? Currently, no other entity - government or private - is as ready to take on this growing need, has the skill-set necessary and can do it as inexpensively as the public library. It is a short step from taking our one-on-one exchanges with the public and creating a more formal learning environment for our patrons. Teaching an introduction to the internet or advanced web searching, providing good library web sites as portals to the internet for our customers and offering access a variety of databases are just a few areas in which libraries are already showing the public how to navigate the information jungle. We need to capitalize on and expand these ideas in order to strengthen the bond that librarians are creating between the public and access to the information they need.

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