In defense of “finding and evaluating information”

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

It used to be that if I found myself in a situation where I had the opportunity to give an elevator speech about information literacy to a non-expert, I would start by telling them that information literacy basically meant teaching people how to find, evaluate, and use information. It was a convenient sound byte that succinctly summed up how the ACRL Standards described information literacy. It was also easy for someone who had never heard of information literacy before to understand.

But I felt dirty saying it. Information literacy, I knew in my heart of hearts, was far more interesting and valuable and important than this overly simplified description made it sound. Describing information literacy in this way only perpetuated the misconception that it was a basic or even remedial skill. Something you only need an hour or so to effectively teach.

Then the Framework came along and offered me a new definition of information literacy. That new definition captured the nuances of information literacy much better than the one reflected in the Standards. It was also a paragraph long and not easy to condense into a concise little speech. At least, not in a way that would adequately convey what it meant to someone who was new to the topic.

So I continued to hold my nose and use the same old description. Information literacy, I told people, is about finding, evaluating, and using information.


Or so I thought.

Recently,  I found myself sitting in a meeting with two colleagues, whom I respect very much, and a non-library faculty member who had long been an important advocate of our IL program. We were brainstorming a list of information literacy resources the faculty member could bring to her department but we needed a way to describe what the resource was about that these other faculty members, who were very smart people but less familiar with information literacy, could easily understand. One that was free of library jargon.

The words “finding, evaluating, and using information” came out of my mouth. My librarian colleagues quickly shot me down because this description, as I myself had argued many times, oversimplified information literacy.

Strangely, I found myself defending it.


My main argument was that while information literacy is certainly more complex than this description captures, finding, evaluating, and using information are still an important and fundamental part of information literacy. And these fundamental elements were going to be especially relevant to the faculty we were creating the resource for because the students they work with are in their first year of college. They need to know the basics. For information literacy, these are the basics.

Thinking about it later, I realized that I actually have no problem with “finding, evaluating, and using information” as a way of describing information literacy. My problem is with the implication that information literacy is only about finding, evaluating, and using information in an academic environment. Or, to be more accurate, in a library.

Because finding, evaluating, and using information isn’t basic at all. Not when you think about how many contexts there are in which we find, evaluate, and use information and all of the decisions we have to make about where to look and how to judge what we find. Decisions that will depend heavily on the goals and motivations of our research as well as the conventions and expectations of the context in which we’re conducting it.

So a week or so after this meeting, I found myself calling the support center for my cell carrier. My cell carrier is a company called Ting and they are known for their excellent customer service. The guy I was on the phone with (Andrew) was trying to help me figure out why my cell phone was not receiving cell service.(1) We tried everything we could think of and, after about an hour and a half, we decided it was time for the last resort: the factory reset.

While we were waiting the twenty minutes or so it took for my phone to reset, we had time to talk. Andrew asked me what I do. I told him I’m a librarian who teaches information literacy.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Information literacy is about how we find, evaluate, and use information,” I told him. Then added, “in different contexts. So, it’s about teaching students how to do research for college but it’s also about helping people recognize fake news.”

Now, I’m not a huge fan of how the fake news conversation has taken over the information literacy discussion but I knew that this was an aspect of information literacy that would resonate with a non-librarian.

And it worked.

In all likelihood, it helped that Andrew probably didn’t have the preconceived notions that a lot of non-library faculty do about how librarians are there to teach databases and give library tours and nothing else, so he wasn’t as primed to be as dismissive as some members of that particular audience. But he seemed to get it, especially when I told him that I was aware that at some point he had started using Google to try to find more solutions for my phone problem and I said that, as an information literacy person, I’d been wondering how he was evaluating the information he was finding and deciding which ideas were worth suggesting.

In the end, we were not able to fix my phone problems.(2) But it was maybe the first time I felt like I had managed to effectively convey something about what I do to someone who had probably never heard of information literacy before. And I did it by using the old “finding, evaluating, and using information” saw but making it clear that there was some complexity hidden in those basic skills.

Unfortunately, my “finding, evaluating, and using information” phrase didn’t make the final cut on our new IL resource even though our non-library faculty colleague liked it. Mostly this was because we were severely limited by the LibGuide platform in how long the description could be but also I was frankly outvoted. Fair enough.

So I understand the objections to using the same old description of IL, especially since it doesn’t really reflect what’s in the Framework. But I think the people who don’t like it are maybe objecting to it for the wrong reasons. Like I said, finding, evaluating, and using information are still part of information literacy. It’s just that we’re not talking only about the library anymore.


(1) Not that it matters, but this was my iPhone 8 Plus–my very first grownup smart phone, which I’d only had for a little over a year and which an Apple Store associate later described as being in “pristine condition.” If this is a story about how great Ting is, it is unfortunately not a story about how great iPhones are.

(2) Some internal issue with the logic board that apparently couldn’t be fixed. The Apple Store associates who worked with me (…for three full hours on a busy Saturday afternoon) were great but afterward I felt the need to post the following tweet:

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