Chapter 1: Introduction – Information Literacy



Alison Pope and Geoff Walton


What are the challenges facing academics, librarians and information professionals in the second decade of the 21st century and how, if at all, do they differ from those faced in the immediately preceding decade? Will information literacy be perceived as an essential item that cannot be cut, or rather as an expensive luxury commodity? Can HE institutions afford to ignore the need for information literacy? Faced with the rigours of economic recession, can we send students out into the job market with a less than an excellent knowledge of how to find, evaluate and use information? What will be the UK Coalition Government’s line on this? In the US, Barack Obama has highlighted the need for educational institutions to contribute to the development of a society which can use and understand the information all around it.As academics, librarians and information professionals we are all aware that tough times are ahead and this chapter highlights a number of issues for debate. Even the most committed of us recognises that if essentials like social security support are under review, what chance might there be for something as ephemeral as information literacy? This is not only an economic question but a question of professional status in the academic arena. In response to this uncertainty and tight budgets, departments make changes: at the stroke of a word-processing key previously well-attended and successful embedded information literacy teaching sessions may be removed or reallocated to other colleagues. Priorities shift and curricula are reviewed. How can we be ready for these tough times? How can we ensure that we continue to provide the kind of added value which our students need on the employability market?

Key words

information literacy


economic recession

curriculum design

political agenda

Welcome to this collection of papers from Staffordshire University Information Literacy Community of Practice (SUILCoP) which reflects the illustrious history and ongoing endeavours of this seminar series from July 2006 to present (August 2010) (please see Appendix 1). We hope you find these papers as stimulating and enjoyable to read as we did. Much food for thought is included within these covers, some controversy and, of course, many practical tips on the subject of information literacy and related topics. Just to whet your appetite, Keith Puttick gives a scholarly overview of a research-informed teaching project underpinned by precepts of information literacy and run in the context of an undergraduate law module, Nancy Graham surveys the current literature and thinking on re-usable learning objects, Gareth Johnson explains how to make use of an audio visual approach to information literacy and John Crawford and Christine Irving most pertinently look at IL issues in relation to employability. Elsewhere Drew Whitworth examines the idea of information obesity; Ben Scoble looks at the coffee house culture of 17th and 18th century Britain and its uncanny parallels with the social media aspects of the present day Internet; Chris Wakeman examines enquiry based learning including problem-based approaches, webquests, dialectic approaches to delivery and facilitation and their influence on student information literacy; and Katharine Reedy and Kirsty Baker from the Open University (OU) look at how the OU Library has responded to the need for consistent and coherent embedding of information literacy skills in the undergraduate curriculum by developing an Information Literacy Levels Framework. We hope there is something for everyone and that this volume will give you a flavour of what it has been like to take part in the Staffordshire University Information Literacy Community of Practice between 2006 and 2010.

Before you go on to digest the material within the chapters themselves, in this short introduction we aim to give a broad overview of SUILCoP itself; the context, its history and a brief outline of the community of practice, i.e. those who attended the seminars. Finally, we issue a ‘call to arms’ and ask some challenging questions regarding the future of, not just IL, but the profession librarianship itself as we face an uncertain future.

In order to properly understand how this collection of work on the subject of information literacy in HE institutions in the very early 21st century came to be, it is perhaps necessary to give a little background. Very late in 2004 our line manager, David Parkes, Associate Director Information Services, sent out an e-mail exhorting all the library and information professionals within his team to try for one of the new University Learning and Teaching Fellowships. The scheme had recently been re-vamped and the institution was keen to encourage staff members from outside the traditional academic sphere to apply for these two-year honorary positions. Briefly, the Fellowships were designed to identify and celebrate those individuals within Staffordshire University who had demonstrated an excellent contribution to students’ teaching and learning. If successful, each Fellow would need to carry out a project that would be of benefit to the university as a whole. We both applied completely independently and were delighted to be chosen after a rigorous selection procedure in which we had to outline the details of the projects we had in mind. It turned out that both our projects were to concentrate on information literacy; Geoff’s revolved around analysing the use of VLEs (especially discussion boards) in order to construct a blended information literacy teaching and learning programme, and Alison’s focused on attempting to get the university to take a strategic approach to information literacy.

Since the two of us had been appointed from the same university department it transpired that the selection panel had decided that we were to be given an additional task: to put Staffordshire University ‘on the map’ in our chosen area of research, namely information literacy. No small task and especially within the two-year time frame with a small budget which was also to be used to fund our respective projects. Despite maintaining our independent research projects we began to address this issue. What could we do that would quickly achieve this end result?

It was rapidly decided that hosting a conference at which national, if not international, experts would speak on the topic of information literacy would be the easiest way to do this. If you have read our collection of papers ‘Information literacy: recognising the need’ (Walton and Pope 2006) you will know that the one-day conference which we hosted in May 2006 certainly managed this. While the warm glow of post-conference euphoria was still upon us we were very susceptible to a suggestion from the Fellowship co-ordinators that maybe we could continue this success via the development of some sort of Community of Practice. In just a couple of meetings involving some scribbles on scraps of paper the idea and framework for Staffordshire University Information Literacy Community of Practice (SUILCoP) was born.

We would hold three afternoon seminars or workshops each academic year, one each term. Each year would have an overarching information literacy theme and at each session we would host an external expert and also provide the opportunity for speakers from Staffordshire to present. Funding for the seminars would come from our very small Fellowship budget. We hoped to attract interested academics, information professionals and librarians. We could provide light refreshments and travel expenses for external speakers. We advertised the sessions on the web, in the professional press and by contacting people who had attended the 2006 conference and requested to be kept on our mailing list. Very soon we had the first session booked and a series of forthcoming dates identified.

In 2006/7 our theme was ‘Collaboration, curriculum and courses’, in 2007/8 ‘Space, strategy and support’, in 2008/9 ‘Development, dialogue and design’ and, most recently in 2009/10 ‘Obesity, overload and opportunity’. The speakers and their topics can be seen in the Appendix to this collection of papers.

The choice of theme was driven by what seemed to us to be topical at the time and also, to be frank, by the speakers we could secure. This collection of papers is a record of the contributions of some of those speakers. Although it is retrospective, the ideas which are discussed here are just as relevant now as they were then and they give us the opportunity to think more widely about where information literacy is now and its potential direction in the immediate and long-term future.

But who were the community of practice?

Of course we cannot name names here but what we will do is give you an overview of those involved.

Some 51 different organisations have been represented at SUILCoP events. In all, 70 per cent of delegates were drawn from HE (new universities, red brick and research universities across the UK), 23 per cent from FE (both local partner colleges and some from as far afield as Scotland) and 6 per cent from other institutions (British Council, NHS and information-related companies). The vast majority of delegates were information professionals, but we are pleased to say that a diverse range of academic staff attended from time to time. In the main, delegates were external to Staffordshire University. Many of the delegates came back to SUILCoP on more than one occasion, which most definitely enabled the seminars to develop a community atmosphere of mutual support and ideas sharing.

However, since those halcyon days pre-Coalition Government a chill wind, in the spectral form of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), has begun to blow through the public sector, including HE, and it is to this anxiously awaited future that we now turn.

Change of key: change of outlook

What are the challenges facing academics, librarians and information professionals in the second decade of the 21st century and how, if at all, do they differ from those faced in the immediately preceding decade? At the time of writing (August 2010) the ‘Browne Report’ has not yet been published but HE institutions are almost holding their collective breath in anticipation of its suggestions. Will information literacy be perceived as an essential item which cannot be cut or rather as an expensive luxury commodity? Can HE institutions afford to ignore the need for information literacy or will it be swept aside as something less attractive (and therefore perhaps less worth investing in) to potential students than swish accommodation or state of the art catering facilities? Alternatively, IL might well still be recognised as a pedagogical necessity but as one delivered by academic staff who are in the self-same process of retrenchment as we are, and see it as a means for enhancing their own teaching portfolio at the expense of ours.

When institutions are faced with challenging choices to make about how budgets are allocated, how far up the pecking order will we find information literacy? How can HE institutions, understanding the rigours of economic recession, send students out into the job market with less than an excellent knowledge of how to find, evaluate and use information? What will be the Coalition Government’s line on this? In the United States, Barack Obama (2009) has highlighted the need for educational institutions to contribute to the development of a society which can use and understand the information all around it. This imperative echoes the UN’s statements in Prague (USNCLIS, 2003) Alexandria (UNESCO, 2005) and in the UNESCO sponsored IFLA guidelines (Lau, 2006). What will the UK’s response be? The UK already has a strong foundation in the CSG Information Literacy sub-group (already in the process of becoming a CILIP group in its own right) and the final welcome realisation in CILIP that IL is important. The ongoing success that is LILAC is a testament to the energy and endeavours of this group and it is now clear that the field is maturing, for example, from the plenary address that Ralph Catts gave at LILAC in Limerick 2010, SCONUL have taken up his challenge and have begun to form a research group to measure the impact of IL in UK HE.

As academics, librarians and information professionals we are all aware that tough times are ahead. Even the most committed of us recognises that if essentials like social security support are under review what chance might there be for something which might be regarded as ephemeral as information literacy? The reality is that in response to uncertainty and to tight budgets, departments make changes: at the stroke of a word-processing key previously well-attended and successful embedded teaching sessions can be removed or re-allocated. Priorities shift and curricula are reviewed. How can we be ready for these tough times? How can we ensure that we continue to provide the kind of added value which our academic colleagues will clearly recognise and which students so obviously need to succeed on the employability market? How can we make sure that the inroads which the first years of the 21st century saw us making into the student curriculum are not all swept away and forgotten in the new perhaps utilitarian regime?

Our call to arms …

In 2006, in our conference proceedings which turned out to be a very good seller, we said that,

[…] information literacy is part of a bigger picture; part of a jigsaw puzzle which includes other literacies (including for example, academic, media and digital), new ways of approaching learning through critical thinking, reflective practice collaborative learning and the keyskills agenda all of which contribute to independent learning. (Pope and Walton, 2006: 7)

Clearly an instrumental view but nonetheless one wedded to the HE agenda of the time.

In 2009, as our own views of IL have matured we said,

It is our assertion that information literacy extends beyond the educational and economic to encompass the social. Information and other literacies such as digital and media are the tools which enable active participation in a democratic society […] It is not the role of information literacy programmes in higher education to create mini-librarians who are good at doing research or even employable economic units but rather to foster critical thinkers who can navigate their way through the information terrain and make their own informed judgements regarding which information to use for whatever purpose. (Pope and Walton, 2009: 4)

In other words it is no longer about skills but much more than that: it is about participation in society as well as gaining the skills to be a productive part of it. As Whitworth (2007) has argued, information literacy’s field of interest extends to encompass the social as well as the personal.

Recently Geoff (in a co-authored work with Mark Hepworth) reaches much further than these ideas and argues that information literacy can actually empower individuals – not just give them skills:

Empowerment is underpinned by information literacy. Being able to learn effectively and independently and use the knowledge, data and information […] around them is likely to result in people having more choice. When people have choice, they are usually better informed about their situation and can see alternatives in a critical light, and then may be able to choose from or create a range of solutions or strategies. This can lead to people having more options when deciding how to participate and interact socially, and how to use and contribute to the resources and services available. (Hepworth and Walton, 2009: 3)

Their view of information literacy is far more than simply acquiring a set of skills or even consuming information but actually becoming fully participating individuals empowered to contribute to and change the world around them. From this they have developed a new, more radical view of IL as:

a complex set of abilities which enable individuals to: engage critically with and make sense of the world, its knowledge and participate effectively in learning to make use of the information landscape as well as contributing to it. (Hepworth and Walton, 2009: 10)

Finally, in his own doctoral research, Geoff has shown that by using pedagogically sophisticated methods of delivery a demonstrable increase in students’ information literacy abilities can be achieved (Walton, 2009; Walton and Hepworth, 2011(in press)). In short, information literacy is about deep learning, participation and making a real contribution leading to an enriched and empowered population.

All good stuff, but therein lies an identity crisis aptly identified by Thornton (2010) who sees a real disconnect between how we (the librarian and information professional) see IL and how the rest of the world perceives it. Sadly, we suspect many outside those ‘in the know’ still regard IL as, ‘a few dull lessons taken by a librarian as part of a – probably rather dull – research skills module, rather than a vehicle of empowerment and political liberation’ (Thornton, 2010: 8).

To disabuse our colleagues of this view and build upon our ideas and findings, however, we librarians and information professionals have a real role to play as teachers or enablers and facilitators of learning here – because by our very nature we tend to approach our pedagogical interventions from a ‘learning by doing’ perspective rather than a traditional content driven mode. These new approaches fit in well with the new and fashionable drivers towards inquiry (enquiry)-based learning, research-informed teaching and other constructivist approaches.

These ideas are not necessarily new in theoretical or policy terms. As far back as Dearing (NCIHE, 1997) and QAA (2000a and b) the ongoing change of emphasis within higher education towards a student-centred approach was apparent – and it is now that these approaches are becoming more fashionable because of the need to engage a widely diverse student intake.

We must, therefore, become equal and involved. Involved in constructing learning outcomes, planning interventions and assessment: this is not only about saving our jobs and our future profession (it would be disingenuous not to recognise that we do have vested interest here) but it is, and we should shout this from the roof tops, much more about actually contributing to the fabric of a democratically aware and enriched society which will contain engaged citizens who will not be so duped by the misinformation which led us to the economic gloom and wealth-at-any-cost capitalism of the 20th century.

It is time to stop wondering whether we are librarians or teachers, it is time to shape our amorphous ‘all things to all people’ role to our own advantage and redefine our profession in our own terms before it is too late. What is it that academic librarians in the second decade of the 21st century do? What is it that makes them invaluable to the whole process of tertiary education? What is it that they can uniquely bring to the business of educating employable graduates and fostering a real sense of economic and political engagement?

There are already promising developments, the UC&R/ CDG event at Warwick in May 2010 being one case in point. The focus of this session was on librarians as educators – we need more of these. Again, LILAC offers a great focus for these endeavours and to share best practice.

It can be seen that because of the skills needs requirements in evidence-based practice the NHS hold IL in greater esteem and see it as a positive force for good within their domain. Is this a model we can adapt or at least use as a means for convincing others of the worth of IL?

These initiatives and ventures show that it is not all doom and gloom. We must not, in this recession, be trapped in the doldrums and become becalmed and lose the professional will to live. We need to keep focused, is IL the infra-red vision equipment that lets us see the true image of the terrain of important information clearly?

We need to avoid becoming reactive in this retreat which is imposed by the CSR. Our outlook must be both practical and idealistic in equal measure. We cannot predict the future but we believe that defining the 21st century librarian is about being a teacher and educator not a custodian and keeper of the tomes; it is about, through teaching, turning information into knowledge. Gandhi taught that in order to achieve change you should be the change you wish to see in the world. It is about bringing the process to life and making people see it is not a dry search for stuff. What we must help people realise, and we agree with Duncan Grey here, is that IL (and perhaps the role of librarian itself) is not about giving the right answers, it is about giving people the right tools to ask and answer the questions themselves. By doing this they, our learners, are in a position to find the answer to every question for themselves (Grey, 2008: xii).

The old Chinese proverb has much to teach librarians, information professionals and educators of the 21st century:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

We forget it at our peril.


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