Information Literacy and the Qualities of an Information Literate

On December 26, 2004, a huge tsunami hit the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and ten other countries. It is estimated that around 230,000-280,000 people were killed. Among the survivors was Tilly Smith, a young girl who was vacationing with her family in Thailand. She had studied tsunamis with her Geography teacher shortly before going on that ill-fated trip. Minutes before the disaster, when she noticed the natural warning signs indicating that a tsunami was approaching, she warned her family, the hotel staff, and the other beachgoers, and ended up saving hundreds of lives. Her story was heralded during the High-Level Colloquium on Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning held in the city of Alexandria, Egypt on November 2005. Smith’s story is an example of how information literacy can empower even the youngest of learners.

The importance of information literacy is, now more than ever, evident in today’s society where information is abundant and has become a currency of power. To emphasize its use in students’ lives, the United Nations has adopted the Alexandria Proclamation which defines information literacy as a basic human right, a means to “empower people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use, and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational, and educational goals.” The Proclamation adds that information literacy is the path to “development, prosperity, and freedom,” as well as “social inclusion in all nations.”

In 2009, former US President Barack Obama declared October the National Information Literacy Awareness Month. He said this about the importance of information literacy:

“Rather than merely possessing data, we must also learn the skills necessary to acquire, collate, and evaluate information for any situation… Though we may know how to find the information we need, we must also know how to evaluate it. Over the past decade, we have seen a crisis of authenticity emerge. We now live in a world where anyone can publish an opinion or perspective, whether true or not, and have that opinion amplified within the information marketplace… At the same time, Americans have unprecedented access to the diverse and independent sources of information, as well as institutions such as libraries and universities, that can help separate truth from fiction and signal from noise.”

This crisis of authenticity is not exclusive to the US. Because the Internet connects people from around the globe, everyone is affected by the surge of fake information and other emerging information-related crises. Learning to combat such problems as well as finding empowerment in the  Information Age are some of the purposes of information literacy.

Information Literacy, Media Literacy, and Technology Literacy

Information literacy, media literacy, and technology literacy are closely linked. Information literacy refers to the ability to know when there is a need for more information and the ability to locate, evaluate, and use the right information according to that need. Media literacy deals more with a person’s ability to critically consume, understand, analyze, evaluate, and produce any type of media. However, as was emphasized in the previous lessons, all media are sources of information. In many cases then, media literacy overlaps with information literacy. Technology literacy also incorporates information literacy but focuses more on a person’s ability  to effectively use technology tools. A perfect example of this is how one can use a smartphone or a laptop to access, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate information.

Technology literacy has become increasingly relevant because of the quickening pace of technological advancements in today’s society.

In a way then, information literacy is at the core of  both media  literacy and technology literacy. It brings together critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, and ethics, and teaches us the value of information and communication. Studying information literacy in a more in- depth manner will help you gain  the foundation needed in becoming a more responsible participant in society.

Importance of Information Literacy

As early as 1974,  the  idea  that  people  need  information  literacy  skills  in preparation for an emerging information society has already been proposed by Paul Zurkowski, former President of the U.S. Information Industry Association. Now that we are actually in the Information Age, learning about finding, evaluating, and using information has become the most essential survival skill that we need, the same way our ancestors had to learn how to hunt, cultivate crops, or wield weapons in order to survive.

In today’s society, independent and lifelong learning is as important as learning in school. This aspect of information literacy is incorporated in the first two categories outlined in 1998 by the American Association for School Librarians (AASL) and the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) in the publication, Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning:

The third most important aspect of information literacy highlights the social responsibilities of individuals. Independent and lifelong learning benefits you as an individual, but to be completely information literate, you must use what you have learned to make a positive contribution to your community and to society.

To summarize, your social responsibilities as an information literate are: to recognize the importance of information in a democratic society, to practice ethical behavior with regard to information and information technology, and to participate effectively in groups to pursue and generate information.

In the beginning of Module 2, you’ve learned why the right to information is important in a democracy. Knowing this, as an information literate, you must protect information, especially when it is being withheld or distorted to undermine the public’s ability to make intelligent decisions. In the same way that you are critical of the information provided by others, you must also be critical of the information that you share or create. You will learn more about this in the coming lessons.

The New Framework for Information Literacy

Media and Information Literacy (MIL) is a developing field of study. One of the most recent frameworks put forth for information literacy is the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education of the Association of College and Research Libraries (part of the American Library Association). This identifies six vital concepts (listed alphabetically because there is no one recommended approach for the order in which they can be learned/taught) that capture the whole of information literacy:

Authority is Constructed and Contextual.

This means that the information literate individual can evaluate the legitimacy and credibility behind a piece of information. This also encapsulates the ability to recognize that authority (in terms of being a source of information) is not absolute; it is influenced by culture, as well as by social and political relations. This concept also emphasizes the ability to recognize that the authority of a source changes depending on the kind of information needed and the context in which such information will be presented.

Information Creation as a Process.

This means that the information literate individual can evaluate not only the content of the information but also the process involved in creating this content. This concept emphasizes that all information undergoes processes of researching, creating, revising, and disseminating; processes which influence the content and quality of the information relayed.

Information Has Value.

This means that the information literate realizes that even though information can be accessed for free, it has many forms of value. There are instances when information is bought and sold, but when information has value, it can educate and influence. The value of information is determined by cultural and societal factors— factors which also affect how information is produced, packaged, and disseminated.

Consumer data is a type of information that has commodity value. Social media apps and search engines gather people’s public information like their age and location, as well as some seemingly personal ones like the products and services they search for online. This is how they personalize people’s social media page, for example, so that the advertisements shown are for products that might appeal to the people. Advertisers pay for this kind of information, giving rise to concerns regarding privacy in online data gathering.

Research as Inquiry.

This means that the information literate respects and applies the research process. Their curiosity to learn guides them in seeking information and in expanding their knowledge by continually asking new, more difficult questions.

A perfect example of this is how an information literate would look for budget trips to a tourist destination. Price-comparing websites like Skyscanner would prove useful in looking for the cheapest flight. An information literate would go beyond this and, depending on their need, may choose to find out more by finding out if well-known airlines are offering promos. They would also find it necessary to consult news articles, consumer reviews, or travel blogs so that they can plan their trip in a more informed manner.

Scholarship as Conversation.

This concept emphasizes the social component of information literacy. This means that the information literate aims to actively and responsibly contribute to the worldwide exchange of ideas by sharing and learning. They must be open to different ideas and different cultural perspectives, for a meaningful conversation to happen. This is how new insights and discoveries are formed and tested in a continuous cycle.

For example, in interacting with people worldwide through social media like Facebook or Twitter, the information literate would employ the principle of conversation to gain more knowledge, not to prove that their existing knowledge is the one that is “correct.”

Searching as Strategic Exploration.

This refers to the ability of the information literate to devise various multi-step processes in acquiring information. The information literate understands that there is no one method of looking for information, because the process of finding and evaluating information also depends on a diverse set of factors. Hence, the information literate must exhibit a kind of flexibility when it comes to looking for information, always seeking new and alternative avenues to find the information that best fits the need.