Peer Reviewed Monday – Re-Thinking Information Literacy

The article that starts off this post is this 2004 article from the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, but it’s behind a paywall, so I’m just going to talk about it briefly and focus instead on this 2007 paper which reports on, and updates, the same research.

So I was motivated to read these because they fit well into some larger questions I’ve been having about the way we think about what we know in libraries – and about the intersections of theory and practice. I didn’t think the 2004 piece really lived up to the promise in the abstract, though it did spark some new thoughts. The 2007 update I liked better – perhaps just because its focus is different. The earlier piece is un-focused, arguing for a new definition or understanding of the concept of information literacy without ever getting very specific (or maybe just without being very convincing about the specifics) about what that might mean for practice. The later piece is clearer about what it might mean for a particular form of practice — research.

Quick summary – librarians need to expand their understanding of what information literacy is and what it means to be “information literate.” She argues that teachers and librarians understand information literacy in a particular context, that of formal education, and that that skews their understanding of what should be a much broader concept. Particularly in the 2004 paper, she spends time building a case that librarians look at information literacy as a set of master-able, measurable skills, that they believe those skills are generic and can be translated into entirely different contexts without any specialized understanding of those contexts. Most importantly, she argues that the skill sets that make up librarian-style IL are way too focused on text – on finding texts, accessing texts, understanding texts, and showing one’s understanding of texts by producing texts.

some rights reserved by xymox (flickr)
some rights reserved by xymox (flickr)

Lloyd uses constructionist grounded theory methodology in her research, looking not at students but at people engaged in work. Her first study examined the information literacy practices of 14 firefighters and the second did the same with 15 ambulance workers. In both, she finds that:

  • information literacy is context-specific, that it cannot be understood without understanding the discourse and the discursive practice of different communities of practice
  • there are different information modalities related to different kinds of knowing and learning: epistemic, corporeal and social. I’ll talk about this a bit more below, but the basic idea is this – that text-based information is important for workers at the training level, when they are learning how to act. That gives way quickly to more experiential forms of information and knowing – as the novice learns, in part by acting, to be a practitioner.
  • we need to remember power

She argues that we need to understand how we connect with information holistically, not just with text and not just as individuals. She argues that a holistic understanding of information literacy will make all of those connections we talk about between information literacy and lifelong learning meaningful.

I have some issues with the earlier article – on the one level, I agree with a lot of what she says about how we conceptualize, and particularly assess, information literaccy in higher education. But then she goes on to assert that “many librarians” believe that “library skills sessions, computer literacy and referencing sessions constitute the whole information literacy concept.” I’m sure there are some libarians who think that, but I don’t know them. Or at least, I don’t know them well.

And back to that question of assessment. That was one of the things I really wanted to get out of this article. I have been thinking a lot lately about how we know what we know in libraries, particularly when it comes to what we teach when we teach – what we should be teaching and what our students need to learn. I’ve been wondering if we don’t let other disciplines define what we know too much, and specifically if we don’t let the discourse about assessment, outcomes and standards define what we know way too much. So I was interested to read something connecting these ideas here. But at the end of the day, too much of the Lloyd’s criticism here seems to reduce to the idea that our understanding of information literacy in libraries focused too much on text.

Especially when the main call to action at the end of the article seems to be this –

We need to develop ways of exploring information literacy which will enable the development of a broader concept of information literacy which addresses the learning concerns of education, workplace and community and to construct a generic framework of skills (relating to textual, social and body learning) and competencies. These may then be taught across these settings and facilitate the development for skills and competencies which will enable and enrich learning throughout life.

I’m not seeing this – I’m not sure why the answer is to do this deeply contextualized research and then stick with the same old generic, skills-and-competency focused approach to information literacy.

But I did find some good things to think about in this article, most of which are continued in the later piece. First, I think the idea that novices learn to act using some information modalities and that they learn to be practitioners using others is very interesting, and connects to the idea Caleb and I were discussing the other day about communities of scholars and existing online communities of scholars.

Lloyd argues that novices learn policies, procedures in an objective, abstract, ideal way when they are first becoming part of a community of practice. They mostly connect and learn from texts at this point, and in the process of learning they develop a subjective understanding of themselves in relation to the officially sanctioned practicies and defined policies of the institution or community.

When they actually start doing the job, actually begin to act as practitioners, the abstract or ideal knowing from texts comes up against the knowing they develop by doing. Sometimes the two mesh, sometimes they conflict. Here they are beginning to learn how to be a practitioner by doing, and they are building up a body of knowing they can share with the group. This type of learning is very context-dependent. They begin to connect to the community of practice at this point.

There’s one more kind of learning/knowing to add to what they learn by doing themselves. As they become a practitioner and part of the community of practice, they learn where they can go within the community for that tacit, contextualized, social knowledge that the community holds.

There’s an interesting tension here when it comes to the kind of information literacy people need and learn in school, I think. Lloyd argues that in the academic context, textual knowledge is valued above other forms of knowledge so that is what librarians and educators focus on. So on one level, you could argue that we are helping students learn to act, as scholars but more than that, helping them learn to act in their fields of study. The future teacher accesses texts about sanctioned classroom practice.

On the other hand, scholars themselves access more forms of knowledge than just the textual. There’s a lot of research out there suggesting that scholars prefer informal information sources — accessing social networks of experts and resources and that they develop these networks and the skills to access them over time. There’s research saying that senior scholars access those informal networks more often, while junior scholars use search-based methods of inquiry more frequently.

This all has some fascinating implications for what we do when we teach information literacy. It suggests that just saying “peer review = better” is not good enough. Not that we ever thought it was, but it suggests a different twist on why it’s not good enough. It suggests that we aren’t teaching a set of skills, but instead teaching students to identify the information sources and types that are accepted and valued in a discourse community. So just like senior firefighter telling junior firefighter, “this is the information that real firefighters trust,” we help students understand how to connect to the information that real scholars trust.” Pretending that the peer review thing has inherent value beyond the value that scholars and researchers afford it isn’t good enough.

Which pushes the focus away from the peer review and towards the scholarship. If we are trying to convince students of anything it shouldn’t be that double-blind peer review is the gold standard or objectively awesome. It should be that scholarly inquiry and the research that inquiry produces has value. And value beyond school. Helping students develop the skills and understanding they need to be able to connect those scholarly sources to their out-of-school information needs – that’s kind of exciting to think about.

Lloyd’s research suggests why it’s not automatic, why people don’t go “this peer reviewed study helped me get an A, clearly it will help me in this entirely different context over here.” It also suggests that my intial question – understanding how instruction librarians know what we know – has value as well. At least, it does if I want to be an information literate information literacy librarian.

A. Lloyd (2005). Information literacy: Different contexts, different concepts, different truths? Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 37 (2), 82-88 DOI: 10.1177/0961000605055355

Lloyd, A. (2007). “Recasting information literacy as sociocultural practice: Implications for library and information science researchers” Information Research, 12(4) paper colis34. [Available at

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