Questions from ACRL: Information literacy or research?

Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

This is a new post in an ongoing series where I’m answering questions that came up during my ACRL presentation “Research is Not a Basic Skill.” Previous posts discussed student proficiency versus student confidence and models for teaching the contextual nature of research.

Here, I’m going to address a question about why I’d chosen the term “research” rather than “information literacy” to frame my discussion.

To answer this, let me begin with a story.


Recently, I joined a local Toastmasters group and gave my first speech. The first speech in Toastmasters is called the icebreaker speech, where you share something about yourself to help your fellow members get to know you. My speech was about my experience teaching information literacy. Having seen some of the feedback others had gotten before me, I knew it was important to those who would be evaluating my speech to define my terms. So, keeping in mind that I’m the only librarian in the group (that I know of), I gave the simple definition of information literacy that I always do when speaking to non-librarians. I told them that it is the ability to find, evaluate, and use information effectively and ethically. In essence, I added, I teach students how to do research.

I really hate describing information literacy this way.

The reason I hate it is because I think it oversimplifies what information literacy is and what we teach when we teach information literacy. To be fair, this kind of oversimplification is necessary for any specialist who gets the chance to talk about what they do with someone outside of their field, whether in a social or professional situation. A short speech given in front of a group of very smart professionals who happen not to be librarians isn’t really the right place to get into the nuances of information literacy.

Because information literacy is nuanced. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have needed to replace the Standards with the Framework.

If information literacy gets conflated with (basic) (academic) (library-based) research skills, it’s probably because for a long time the Standards pretty much defined information literacy as a set of (basic) (academic) (library-based) research skills. So much so that our teaching was shaped around these skills. Even early versions of the credit-bearing course I teach were organized around teaching students how to identify different formats of information and then use library tools to find those formats of information that they could then cite for their research papers.

But if I had time, I would also fit in larger topics like open access, copyright, critical information literacy, filter bubbles, and more, taught through an information literacy lens. This at least showed students that information literacy was much bigger than learning how to use the library to do research. In fact, information literacy is bigger than research period.

This was something I kind of knew but hadn’t really thought about until I started writing (and rewriting) “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study.” Research is really just one component of information literacy. Or maybe it’s the foundation of information literacy. Or maybe information literacy is a lens through which we view the research process. I’m not sure yet. Consider, though, that when it comes to studying research, there are a lot of people out there who study research but not information literacy. And there may be some people out there who study information literacy but not the research process.

My own study of the study of research (yeah…I know) is definitely something that I’m doing through an information literacy lens. I’ve really come to believe that an information literate person is, at least in part, someone who can engage with research in a variety of contexts and that we need to teach information literacy that way. So, in my view, research and information literacy are intertwined but not interchangeable.

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