Information literacy skills: wherefore art thou?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In the time since I started writing about the contextual nature of research and research as a subject of study, I’ve noticed that I have a habit of using the phrases “information literacy skills” and “research skills” more or less interchangeably. But really IL and research aren’t one and the same. So I’ve started wondering lately where exactly the line is between them and wanted to spend some time thinking through this issue.

First, information literacy as a concept has gone through a lot of iterations. It started off as something closer to what we would now call computer literacy in the 1970s. Then librarians decided to marry information literacy with bibliographic instruction, which had always been about library skills. The ACRL Standards reflected this by describing an information literate individual as someone who could carry out a series of steps characteristic of library-based academic research.

So for a long time information literacy skills pretty much were research skills. They were those six steps outlined in the Standards, which start with identifying a gap in knowledge and ended with the ethical use of information. The purpose of IL instruction was to teach those skills. Basically, to teach learners how to do research. An instruction session was considered successful if, afterward, students could demonstrate the search and evaluation skills they had been taught.

Somewhere along the way, though, “information literacy” and “information literacy skills” became two different things. Information literacy itself is a habit of mind, an ability to think critically about the information you use (as well as the information you create, if you subscribe to the metaliteracy view of things). It’s also an ability to adapt those habits of mind as the information landscape continues to change and evolve around you.

The ACRL Framework has “knowledge practices” to go along with each of its threshold concepts but it doesn’t define information literacy in terms of skills the way the ACRL Standards did. In fact, threshold concepts themselves are much less about what you can do than they are about how you think and how close you are to crossing that threshold of understanding.

Because of this, it’s fallen out of fashion in some crowds to talk about information literacy in terms of information literacy skills. Information literacy, some would argue, is not about skills and to portray it otherwise is to contribute to the common misconception that information literacy is basic or even remedial.

I don’t completely disagree with this and yet I think research skills are still a part of information literacy as a whole. And not just because “searching as strategic exploration” is still a thing as far as the Framework is concerned.

Consider writing.

Okay, I know I go here a lot, but hear me out. There are certain skills associated with writing: spelling, grammar, punctuation, and mechanics. But writing itself is about more than these skills. It’s about understanding the rhetorical situation and using that understanding to make decisions about things like tone, voice, and style.

Most of the writing books I’ve read frontload the information on grammar and mechanics. Stephen King refers to these as a “writer’s toolbox,” without which you would be hard-pressed to make yourself understood, much less write a story or other composition. That King would place such emphasis on mechanics makes sense given that he started out as a high school English teacher during a time when high school English was pretty much focused on teaching writing skills rather than larger concepts about rhetoric and voice. The same was probably true of a lot of first year college composition courses at the time too.

But it’s not anymore. From what I’ve read, there seems to be a lot of debate in the writing field about this but overall the writing-as-product approach, which was very skills-based, seems to have been largely replaced by both the writing-as-process approach (which is more concept-based and treats writing as an act of self-discovery) and the writing-as-system approach (which considers the ways in which one’s writing can affect the larger world around them).(1)

With information literacy, we have the information literacy-as-skills approach, which was reflected in the Standards, fighting with the information literacy-as-habits of mind approach, reflected in the Framework. Also there’s the information literacy-as-social action approach which is where you get the information creation angle of IL.(2)

It’s possible to teach writing skills without teaching any of the larger concepts about writing but writing instructors decided that doing it this way turned writing instruction into a meaningless exercise from the student point of view. It was only when they started to weave in larger concepts that made it clear that writing was about more than a basic skills that writing instruction really began to mean something. Which is to say, the skills are still a part of it but now they’re being given more context.

With IL, we’re not quite there yet, mostly because our platforms are still pretty limited. We don’t have an entire Information Literacy 101 curriculum to work with. We’re lucky if we get an hour, much less a whole course, to teach what we know.

So I guess what I’m getting at is that teaching information literacy skills rather than “big picture” information literacy is not the problem. Those skills are still a part of information literacy and it’s good to start out with that kind of foundational knowledge, though it’s important to recognize that that knowledge doesn’t mean much without context.

The problem is that we’re often teaching IL in circumstances that don’t allow us to teach it as anything more than set of skills, even if we want to. I actually don’t think there are very many IL instructors out there who stick to skills-based IL because they believe that’s all there is to IL. They stick to it because that’s literally all they have time for.

We’ve changed our thinking about information literacy but we haven’t changed our models of instruction to reflect that thinking. This is something that’s easier said than done but if we really want people to understand that there’s more to information literacy than a set of basic research skills, there’s no way to do that without taking this step.


(1) I recently read about these three approaches to college composition here: Lindemann, Erika. “Three Views of English 101.” College English 57 (1995): 287-302.

(2) As discussed in the following: Sample, Angela. “Historical Development of Definitions of Information Literacy: A Literature Review of Selected Resources.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 46, no. 2, Elsevier Inc, Mar. 2020, doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2020.102116.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s