Information literacy

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In July 2017, ACRL will replace the former IL standards with the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, April 2018


See also Dis-information and 'fake news' in a post-truth world | Information needs of users | Media literacy | Research Portal for Academic Librarians | Transliteracy for librarians

"...An information literate individual is anyone who has learned to use a wide range of information sources in order to solve problems at work and in his or her daily life." — Zurkowski, 1974.

Information literacy is defined as "...a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information". ALA's Presidential Committee on IL says that "information literacy is an important survival skill in the information age" and forms the basis of lifelong learning. Information literacy is common to all scholarly disciplines and levels of education as it enables learners to master information skills required of the digital age and to be more self-directed in the acquisition of these skills. Self-direction skills involve understanding where to find information, how to search for it and other "core skills" needed to assess it. Being information-fluent requires knowing how to define research topics, select words that express those topics fully and ask certain questions that might be answered by locating relevant information. Framing search strategies that account for sources of information and the ways information is organized is also important (ALA 1989). Some librarians have criticized the ALA infolit standards as they reflect the print era and not the emerging digital era of social media and open search. Some IL experts such as Jacobson and Gibson have said that information literacy in the digital context is "a family of literacies" while others say that IL is not equivalent to computer literacy (which requires knowledge of hardware, software and networks) or "library literacy" (which requires knowledge of library catalogues, collections and services) or numeracy (knowledge of numbers and statistics). It should be said, in any case, that there are overlapping elements among concepts. (See literacy wheel).

Information literacy was first mentioned in 1974 in a report by Paul Zurkowski which was written on behalf of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Zurkowski used the term information literacy to refer to and describe the "techniques and skills" necessary to utilize the range of information tools, and primary sources, in devising information solutions. Burchinal's 1976 speech to the Texas A & M Library Bicentennial conference entitled "The Communications Revolution: America's Third Century Challenge" included the phrase information literacy, and was elucidated in later reviews by Behrens in 1994. Almost 40 years later, in an era of web 2.0, IL requires the building of social media skills online. In 2013, the American Library Association published a report entitled Intersections of Scholarly Communication and Information Literacy which discusses the overlapping roles for academic librarians in an age of multiple literacies. LILAC is a conference devoted to discussing issues of important for librarians and information professionals who teach information literacy skills.

ANCIL Curriculum

  • See A New Curriculum for Information Literacy (ANCIL): transitional, transferable, transformational from 2012; it defines information literacy as a "...continuum of skills, behaviours, approaches and values that [are] so deeply entwined with the uses of information as to be a fundamental element of learning, scholarship and research...[information literacy] is the defining characteristic of the discerning scholar, the informed and judicious citizen, and the autonomous learner..." This research positions IL as a vital, holistic and institution-wide element in academic teaching and learning. Rather than taking a competency-based approach, ANCIL is founded on the view of IL as a continuum of skills, competencies and behaviours. It offers a micro- and macro-level view of IL support offered by institutions. With its emphasis on active, reflective and transferable elements, ANCIL lends itself well to practical course design and lesson planning. By reviewing the structure and content of individual sessions through the ANCIL lens, it is possible to enhance information literacy teaching significantly even where provision is restricted to one-shot or front-loaded training sessions.

LILAC 2014 from Paul Zurkowski

Paul G. Zurkowski is the originator of the term "information literacy". He first used it in 1974 in a proposal to the US National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. At the time he coined IL he was president of the Information Industry Association, a position he occupied from 1969 to 1989. A lawyer by profession, he graduated from University of Wisconsin Law School in 1957, with interests in intellectual property and copyright. Zurkowski observed that a small portion of the population really understood emerging new information access routes and how they would have a definitive impact on their economic and social lives. His call for the creation of a major national universal information literacy program by 1984 went unheeded. His vision for information literacy skills was not library centric, but advocates for a universal approach in its delivery across all trades, occupations and professions. For Zurkowski, the essence of information literacy is the ability to know how to handle information so that it can be used effectively to solve problems. He views information literacy skills as a critical stepping stone in the creation of wealth, a key element for national economic development.



ACRL, JISC & ERIAL documents

  • A 2010 JISC report summarized 12 user behavior studies sponsored by RIN, JISC, and OCLC in the UK and the US between 2005-2010
  • In 2007, ACRL published a report on the University of Rochester’s "Studying Students" project (see: This project employed a team of librarians and anthropologists in an attempt to discern how undergraduate students gathered information while preparing research papers. Here’s one of the more interesting findings of this project:
  • "...library staff undertook a reference desk survey to understand changing patterns at the reference desk and followed that up with a set of brief interviews in the student union...The survey and interviews revealed that few students understand what reference librarians do and how reference librarians can help them, nor do they consider asking for the help reference librarians are trained to provide. Rather, students tend to feel that they are good at finding their own resources and answering their own questions. If they need expert advice, they turn either to their instructors or, surprisingly, to their families, whom they contact by phone or e-mail."
  • A group of Illinois academic libraries, inspired by the Rochester project, did a study of undergraduate information-seeking behaviours (see: It employed a team of librarians and anthropologists. Their May 2010 report found that:
  • "While the majority of students we interviewed struggled with one or more aspects of academic research, very few students sought help from a librarian. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the ERIAL study was the near-invisibility of librarians within the academic worldview of students."

ACRL Standards for Information Literacy

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of ALA, released the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education in 2001, which will finally be rescinded in July 2017 and replaced by the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

The following five (5) standards are linked to performance indicators (considered best practice) for institutions of higher learning:

  1. Standard I – The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
  2. Standard II – The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.
  3. Standard III – The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates information into his or her knowledge base and value system.
  4. Standard IV – The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information to accomplish a specific purpose.
  5. Standard V – The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.

The ACRL standards are meant to cover the simple to more complicated, or in Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives from "lower order" to "higher order" objectives. Lower order skills involve using online catalogues to find books in academic libraries. Higher order skills involve evaluating and synthesizing information from multiple sources into coherent interpretations and arguments.

Health disciplines & information literacy

The ACRL says that information literacy is the ability to locate, evaluate and use information effectively. Its principles are widely encouraged in academic libraries in North America so that librarians can design effective programs for users. Academic libraries make commitments to these principles through the design of websites, programs and strategic planning processes. However, it must be said that many of the IL standards reflect the print era and do not account for specific skills needed for the digital age. In 2003, the MLA - Medical Library Association (U.S.) initiated its own information literacy taskforce but many of its findings need to be recontextualized for a markedly different information landscape of 2010.

Broadly speaking, health librarians strive to support clinical and research activities in health organizations and provide assistance to academic communities (ie. how to find books, connect to online resources); as needed, health libraries provide library support to programs and faculties (ie. how to find/use/evaluate information to support learning and research). Some health librarians are also involved in teaching medical informatics skills to medical students.

Students in health learn information skills from professional librarians at reference desks and via librarian-led workshops. Certain library skills are also self-taught through self-pacing web-based tutorials. Faculty partnering in the academic health environment is essential so that students can develop critical thinking and evidence-based skills. As needed, health librarians provide assistance to students in medical, nursing and pharmacy programs (as well as students in other health disciplines) during library workshops, at reference desks and by using web 2.0 technologies. In consultation with users and faculties, health librarians determine the type of library workshop needed to support programs using various quantitative and qualitative methods and curriculum analysis. (See curriculum mapping)

Key websites

  • a study at UW Information School re: how college students conduct research for course-related research

Canadian context

In the digital age, it is uncommon for librarians not to know about the importance of information literacy and the necessity of teaching users how to access the library in-house and online. With that said, most structured IL programs in Canadian health libraries are focused on teaching health professionals how to use health databases, such as PubMed and the Cochrane Library, within the context of evidence-based health care. Some emergent skills that are needed might fall into the area of social web and media literacies. For information about data literacy-related initiatives, see data curation and read up on data literacy. "Data literacy must also include the ability to do something with raw information - to process it in some way. In an era where spreadsheets help us to make the grandest of decisions, we must have basic statistical literacy and fluency in the tools that allow us to make sense out of numerical data, not just words and ideas." ~ Johnson, "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption"


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