Chapter 3: Information literacy in the workplace and the employability agenda – Information Literacy


Information literacy in the workplace and the employability agenda

John Crawford and Christine Irving


This chapter challenges the traditional view of information literacy as being centred on education, particularly higher education, and focuses on information literacy in a range of non-academic environments, such as collective decision making in the workplace and information literacy as part of the workplace learning process. Information ‘outside the academy’ has to be much more broadly defined than the traditional view of print and web sources. The role of information literacy in employability skills development is discussed and the problems of promoting it as part of the skills agenda, the emphasis on IT at the expense of information literacy, problems with terminology such as media and digital literacy, and the lack of an explicitly recognised locus for information literacy in workplace learning. There is a concise discussion on information policy making issues. Organisational issues are discussed including the differing problems and needs of large and small organisations (SMEs). Existing practices in the workplace, sources used, training needs and the lack of training materials are discussed. Low pre-existing skill levels are identified in the workplace. Training issues are reviewed: who should provide it and how it should be targeted together with examples of good practice. Information skills training programmes in public libraries are concisely described with examples of good practice.

Key words

information literacy



skills agenda

information policy

information usage

A background of issues

Although studies of information literacy in the workplace and employability are of relatively recent origin, awareness of information needs in the community of work has been around for over a hundred years. Before World War One (WW1) some large provincial public libraries built up collections relevant to local economic activity on such subjects as mining and textile manufacturing and during and immediately after WW1 industrial towns in the North of England created business information bureaux in local public libraries often in conjunction with local chambers of commerce. Significantly these services were aimed at local small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Due to the information needs created by WW1, technical and commercial libraries were set up in large towns like Glasgow and Birmingham (Black, 2007) to meet information demands from large organisations. After WW1 there was little further development until much later in the century.

In the 1980s academic researchers began to challenge the idea that the ‘academy’ is the only place where learning can take place. This led to an interest in the social dimension of learning which goes beyond the formal curriculum and is primarily linked with the work of Lave and Wenger (2002) who argue that the curriculum is the daily round of tasks that has to be undertaken to sustain the community. In this analysis learning in the workplace is viewed as a form of social interaction and much of the learning comes from colleagues. Although information literacy issues are recognised through such topics as self-education, problem solving, reading books and manuals and using the Internet, information literacy is nowhere recognised as a discrete concept (Crawford and Irving, 2009). There is also recognition that a skilled and educated workforce is essential to an advanced economy as evidenced by such statements as the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy:

The importance of learning and skills as a fundamental driver of growth is firmly established as a critical element in the creation of a knowledge-based economy that is responsive and adaptable to rapid global change and the establishment of a wealthier Scotland. A smarter Scotland needs young people who are ready to contribute effectively in the community and the world of work and go on to develop their skills through lifelong learning. Further, it needs improved skill levels across the entire population and a better match of supply and demand. (Scottish Government, 2007a)

The strategy also links economic development with a fairer, safer, healthier and greener Scotland.

Even such a brief background review highlights key issues: the SME and the larger organisations and their differing characteristics; the need to recognise the characteristics of learning in the workplace and its emphasis on social learning, rather than ‘librarianly’ knowledge acquisition; the role of learning and the skills agenda in economic development; and the relationship of learning and skills acquisition to wider social issues.

Information literacy in the workplace and employability defined?

The term ‘information literacy’ was coined in the 1970s by Paul Zurkowski, the founding president of the US Information Industry Association, a trade and industry association (Pinto et al., 2010), although much of the roots of information literacy activity lie in higher education where it developed from traditional bibliographic instruction. This is exemplified in such documents as the Association of College & Research Libraries’ [US] (2000) Information Literacy Competence Standards in Higher Education report which enshrines the principle of ‘laddering’ by identifying a hierarchy of information literacy skill levels appropriate to university students. The idea that information skills can be organised in a recognisable hierarchy represents a real challenge to the anarchic world of the workplace. However, earlier, in 1989, the American Library Association’s Presidential Committee on Information Literacy (ALA, 1989) had addressed the problems of the ‘information age’ in relation to the importance of information literacy to individuals, business and citizenship, widening the concept of information literacy to reflect the different functions of information in people’s lives. Australia also saw information literacy in this light contributing to: ‘learning for life; the creation of new knowledge; acquisition of skills; personal, vocational, corporate and organisational empowerment; social inclusion; participative citizenship; and innovation and enterprise’ (Australian Library and Information Association, 2006).

In the UK The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP, 2004) saw a need to define the term in a way that was applicable in all contexts and understandable by all information-using communities in the UK: ‘Information literacy is knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner.’ The writers have used this definition in a variety of contexts including workplace and employability contexts. Where interviewees are presented with this definition, they understand it immediately and begin to reinterpret it in the contexts of their own education, qualifications, work experience, personal and professional contacts and life experiences. Others working in this field have had similar experiences, most notably Annemaree Lloyd in Australia leading her to question whether information literacy is a ‘generic’ skill which can be learned away from the context of practice and whether the educational concept of information literacy as a ‘literacy’ centralised around print and computer literacy can be transferred to the workplace (Lloyd, 2009). In her study she found practitioners to be a critical source of information. She considers that information literacy should be extended to include bodily experiences like touch and smell. For her, information literacy should be viewed as ‘the catalyst for learning about work and professional practice’. This challenges the view of information literacy in a higher educational context which usually interprets information sources conservatively, i.e. books, journals, technical manuals, passworded bibliographic databases and Internet sources. It seems that attempts to impose a structure on information literacy outside the ‘academy’ are a subject for negotiation rather than something definable. One only has to look at early years’ education in nursery and primary schools to see information sources in a wide range of media that engage all the senses.

In the workplace specifically, information must also address its relationship to another information ideology, knowledge management. To what extent the two ideologies intersect is still a subject for debate although traditionally interpreted they are very different as the following definition shows.

Knowledge management comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organizational processes or practice.

KM efforts typically focus on organizational objectives such as improved performance, competitive advantage, innovation, the sharing of lessons learned, integration and continuous improvement of the organization. (Wikipedia, 2010)

The use of information is only one factor among many. Information literacy, seen from a higher educational perspective, fosters the development of individual learners through the use of published and explicit sources of information. Knowledge management, on the other hand, is concerned with an individual’s knowledge, much of which is tacit knowledge residing in people’s heads. Ferguson (2009) notes that while the sites of information may be broader in a workplace context than they are in a higher educational institution, the focus remains on individual learning. Although it should be noted that the lessons from workplace information literacy studies show that while the learning itself is individual, information literacy workplace activity is generally collaborative. With knowledge management the focus is on the organisation’s capacity to learn, not the individual’s. However, as indicated above, traditional concepts of information literacy cannot be sustained in the work environment.

While information literacy and knowledge management have separate roots they increasingly have issues in common. As Lloyd (2009) highlights, information literacy ‘pursues the same goals as knowledge management … which is to develop and nurture the knowledge sharing practices and information literate workforce that are necessary if organisations are to be adaptive, innovative and robust’.

Employability defined

In 2007 the Scottish Government in their Skills for Scotland; A Lifelong Skills Strategy (2007b) defined the term employability as ‘the combination of factors and processes which enable people to progress towards or get into employment, to stay in employment and move on in the workplace’ and employability skills as: ‘a term that refers to skills, behaviours, attitudes and personal attributes that are necessary for an individual to seek, gain and sustain employment and function effectively in the workplace and are transferable to a variety of contexts. Employability skills prepare individuals for work rather than for a specific occupation.’ Increasingly, universities have become interested in employability skills for their graduates and establishing links with businesses. While some universities have recognised the needs of the knowledge economy and ‘employers placing a greater emphasis on information handling skills, as a key competitive advantage’ (Milne, 2004: 10) embedding information literacy across the universities’ learning outcomes, Jackson (2010) however asks a pertinent question of universities: ‘How well do we equip students for life in the information-rich world of employment? In celebrating our successes in making significant contributions to learning through information skills programmes, are we missing the point – are the information skills we teach appropriate to the workplace?’ Emerging research within the workplace increasingly suggests that they are not wholly appropriate.

Information literacy and the skills agenda

Policy documents on skills development have been appearing since about 2005. The British Government’s report, Skills, Getting On In Business, Getting On At Work (Department for Education and Skills 2005, vol. 1, p. 1) emphasised the need for a skilled workforce, and although only ICT skills are specifically mentioned there is a clear need for information literacy skills to be promoted within this context. The report notes:

Skills are fundamental to achieving our ambitions, as individuals, for our families and for our communities. They help businesses create wealth, and they help people realise their potential. So they serve the twin goals of social justice and economic success.

Recent reports suggest that the situation is not changing much. The Skills For Life document (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2009: 14) notes that ‘ICT has a major role to play in helping to deliver our ambition to become a world leader in skills … it provides a route into learning for people to improve their literacy and numeracy skills …’ but there is no mention of information literacy. Here information literacy has yet to be specifically referred to and is rolled up with ICT skills. The terms digital literacy and media literacy are however creeping in. The Digital Britain interim report (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2009: 63 – 64) states that digital life skills are needed by all – ‘education and training for digital technologies … underpins everything we do in the 21st Century’; digital work skills are needed by most and digital economy skills are needed by some. The Report of the Digital Britain Media Literacy Working Group (Ofcom, 2009: 29) goes further describing it as an entitlement: ‘In order to participate fully in a Digital Britain, people should have the opportunity to develop and improve their digital skills, confidences, competencies and knowledge.’ It specifically recommends that digital engagement should be aligned with ‘workforce employment and promotion strategies’ and organisations should be encouraged to address the media literacy needs of employees. The terms digital and media literacy seem almost interchangeable.

In the world of workplace learning studies, higher skills development thinking recognises skills which are recognisably information literacy: keeping up to date, accessing relevant knowledge and experience, use of evidence and argument, research-based practice and using knowledge resources (human, paper-based, electronic) (Eraut, 2007). The systematic exploitation of the web is also mentioned. Again, information literacy is not recognised as a concept and the use of the above terms seem to be the nearest we get to information literacy. Terminology suggestive of knowledge management also appears, but again it is not specifically referred to (Brown, 2009).

Organisations and information

While there is no doubt that information literacy is a major issue it is doubtful if it is generally well understood. A recent survey, commissioned by Microsoft, of 500 top UK decision makers found that by 2017 ICT and information literacy will be viewed as second only to team working and interpersonal skills as the most important success factor for business. Indeed, around a quarter of those surveyed ranked it as the number one skill set for future success (Microsoft Research, 2008: 11). However, action suffers from a lack of overarching policy making as Oppenheim (cited in Orna, 2008) suggests. This is because governments find it difficult to define information, as it is dynamic and innovative and has social and economic implications. Information policy making has been largely left to market forces and there is no UK Cabinet minister with overall information responsibilities. Since the potential of IT for handling and manipulating information became clear it has influenced government thinking about information policy which relegates actual information to a subordinate role. There is virtually no input from information professionals into Government policy making. Nor is the picture much better in the workplace. A survey of nearly 1000 chief executives in 1996 in the UK showed that, while 60 per cent claimed that their company had an information policy, only 20 per cent were aware of the company having an information budget, half had no formal information provision and the majority did not know who was responsible for the information resource. In 2005 the situation seemed little better. A survey of 119 information management and IT professionals showed that 44 per cent of respondents did not have a document and information management strategy (Orna, 2008).

The ‘subject’ area which the organisation covers also appears to be a factor. Crawford (2006) found that conceptions of and commitment to information literacy are heavily influenced by subject with staff working in health and social care areas having a high commitment to information usage while this was less marked in areas broadly defined as business and science and technology. Crawford and Irving (2009) also found that the public sector with its emphasis on skills, qualifications and continuing professional development (CPD) is an environment which appreciates the value of information even if implementation can be defective. Ahlgren’s (2007) study found the public sector to be a more positive training environment and that the private sector focused only on efficiency and techniques.

There is a something of a divide between the large organisation and the SME. The large organisation may have a library or someone charged with information responsibilities. It may have an Electronic Resource Data Management (eRDM) system or intranet which staff can refer to. There will be members of staff with academic and professional qualifications who will be to some extent information aware, at least at their own operational level. Large organisations have training and CPD programmes into which information skills training programmes can be introduced. No such assumption can be made about the SME. Ahlgren (2007), in a study of a manufacturing SME, found that the emphasis was on technique acquisition and that workplace learning focused on short-term training for immediate work-related payback. Long-term skill acquisition was not considered important, an environment unconducive to the development of information literacy training. Information skills development and utilisation in the SME is a major issue. The focus is on the ability to use computers and standard software applications but not on how to structure, find, evaluate and use the information accessed via a computer. SME employees use the Internet as their primary source of information for business-related matters and spend an hour a day on average looking for information on the Internet. An estimated 6.4 hours per employee are spent looking for information in the workplace each week in the UK, but 37 per cent of the searches prove unsuccessful. In financial terms, an estimated £3.7 billion is spent on time wasted looking for information that cannot be found, but little attention has been paid to helping SMEs with navigating the Internet as a source of valuable business information (De Saulles, 2007).

Inside the organisation

Within the organisation there is a lack of systematic structured thought about how information literacy should be used and managed. Should the initiative for information policy be led by senior management or should top management entrust subordinate groups with responsibility for new developments? One of the world’s leading environmental consulting services, Environmental Resources Management, led by senior managers, has embarked on a knowledge sharing programme to support the organisation’s business growth. This resulted in information literacy training being embedded in the organisation’s intranet (Cheuk, 2008). Many organisations in practice have an information policy which is implicit, rather than explicit and has no formal management recognition. Each organisation has an implicit policy but it is usually founded on its staff, internal sources such as intranets and eRDMs and the Internet and a small range of printed sources and contacts, both within and outside the organisation (Crawford and Irving, 2009). In relation to staff information literacy skills, Irving (2006, 2007a, 2007b) in an interview-based, pilot study found that people generally think they have the skills and competencies they need for their information-related activities and that although generally employers are not explicitly looking for information literacy skills and competencies by name, they are assuming that employees will come with these skills – particularly for professional positions. Scottish Government Information Service staff are tackling these issues through inclusion in staff induction, evaluating their information literacy skills training and developing an explicit information literacy strategy which has already had some success, but its authors recognise that the support of senior management is essential to move into the delivery phase (Foreman and Thomson, 2009).

The unstructured nature of information-seeking behaviour in the workplace is also a challenge. Information problems found in the workplace are viewed as messy and ‘open-ended’. Employees often have to define their own tasks or create their own interpretation constructs to solve an information problem (Kirkton and Barham, 2005). It is all very different from the structured world of higher education with ‘laddered frameworks’ which attribute specific information literacy skills to successive higher education levels. A substitute perhaps can be found in the skill levels and qualifications required for particular posts. Qualifications and skills appropriate to particular posts affect the nature of information-related activities and the level at which they are framed, as do training needs and the search for higher level qualifications which encourages learning, either CPD based, or independent learning based. Existing CPD training programmes may offer pointers to the future. Adult literacy programmes which include computer and Internet training also offer an opportunity for more extensive training.

There is also the question of whether all or designated categories of worker should be involved, which often comes down to computer access, something which manual level staff may not have. Cooke and Greenwood (2008) found that job function is the most critical factor in determining whether employees will have reasonable workplace access to ICT. While manual staff are keen to learn, the attitude of line managers is crucial if skill levels are to progress beyond basic IT competency. The danger of a digital divide was one of the authors’ main conclusions.

Information needs and sources used

De Saulles (2007) found that information seekers tend to be confident about their information-seeking skills and can use search engines such as Google at a basic level, but are not aware how to refine searches or where to find information that Google does not point to, such as paid-for company information sources. Keenan and McDonald (2009), in an extremely practical study based on a training programme, found that workplace attendees on an information literacy training course were unaware of advanced Internet searching; Boolean operators were seen as interchangeable and the concept was difficult to explain; people overestimate their searching skills and underestimate the skills of information professionals. Crawford and Irving (2009) found that people are the principal source of information used in the workplace and that the traditional ‘library’ view of information as deriving from electronic and printed sources only is invalid in the workplace and must include people as sources of information. Advanced Internet searching was not understood but advanced Internet training (the use of a search engine’s advance search facility and or Boolean terms) can greatly extend employees’ information horizons. Most people interviewed in the study used only a limited range of sources which, apart from colleagues, consisted of an intranet or eRDM, a limited range of Internet sources and a few printed sources. eRDMs and intranets themselves were a limiting rather than an extending factor as people tend to rely on them rather than using a wider range of searching tools. Indexing of items added to eRDMs also tends to be extremely poor as staff assigning the indexing terms of items scanned in know nothing about indexing and use terms which are vague or too general. Cheuk (2008: 138) lists some points which reinforce the above findings:

 The use of outdated information because it is convenient to do so.

 Not aware of existing resources within the organisation which can address a business issue.

 Do not know how to use the tools and make the best use of information services to access the information required.

 Assume Google is the best search engine to look for information.

 Unable to manage personal e-mail boxes resulting in e-mail overload.

 Do not want to share information for fear that information shared will be misused or abused by others.

The overall picture is one of low skill levels and a need for training.

Training issues

Clearly there are training issues to be addressed which raises the question of who should deliver them. Chambers of Commerce and employers’ organisations such as the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) are possibles but in practice show little interest in offering information literacy training. Part of the problem is that employers themselves are unsure about their employees’ training and learning needs. Robert Gordon University Business School obtained EU funding to develop training programmes for SMEs in the Aberdeen area but found that local businesses are unsure of their training needs (Scottish Information Literacy Project, 2009). Trade unions are another possibility and trade union learning representatives are very willing to engage with the information literacy training agenda but are hampered by lack of funds at a time when trade unions have other priorities. A promising area is public library training programmes which, while not providing workplace training, do sometimes offer employability training in which information literacy skills training can find a part.

Inverclyde Libraries in the West of Scotland has run employability training courses funded by the Fairer Scotland Fund. The courses are aimed at people with poor employability and ICT skills. Basic computing skills are taught and an identifiable Internet skills component included to help learners to meet their health, finance and employability needs. The course content was designed by the tutors and the Community Learning and Development Team and based round a relatively brief document which, after introducing the learners to the essentials of Windows, Microsoft Word and e-mail, offers an introduction to the Internet which then leads onto health literacy and financial literacy with a list of useful websites (Crawford and Irving, 2010, Crawford and Irving, 2012.

Caerphilly Library Services has offered the Gateways to Learning programme; 56 libraries participated and 2000 people took part in taster sessions. Information literacy training was delivered on a one to one basis with a focus on areas of interest that the learner selected. The training community learning programme has also been adapted for use in a comprehensive school and an ‘Information and computer skills for later life’ course aimed at the over 50s. A key finding of the project was that courses had to be framed around subjects of genuine interest (Evans, 2009) which corroborates a key finding of Crawford and Irving (2009). Courses must be highly focused on the target audience and tailored to meet their needs. Generic courses which do not directly engage with learner needs are unlikely to be successful. A course aimed at SMEs which contain convincing examples of how information has benefited a company’s performance is more likely to impress than one which does not. Parallel work on the schools sector shows the benefit of using case studies/exemplars of good practice (Irving, 2009).

There is a considerable dearth of suitable training materials and building up ‘stocks’ should be a priority. Most information literacy training materials have been produced by and for higher education and are unsuitable for the workplace and employability training environments as they tend to focus on more formal and traditional information sources. Crawford and Irving (2012) found that community learning tutors were entirely unaware of the materials librarians produce while librarians were equally ignorant of the good work being produced by community learning tutors. Some collaboration would be mutually beneficial.

There is also the question of who does the training and how the trainers themselves should be trained. Both Inverclyde and Caerphilly have used a combination of community tutors and library trainers and while some library assistants will be keen to participate, others will see training as an additional burden for which they are neither properly trained nor rewarded.

Examples of good practice

There is relatively little literature describing actual examples of good practice. Keenan and McDonald (2009) have described an information literacy course they ran for an Australian company earlier in the decade. It consisted of:


History of the Internet and World Wide Web

How the Internet works

Accessing and navigating the Internet

Web browsers

Internet Explorer layout

URLs and accessing a website

Adding Favourites

Preparing your search

Analysing the questions

Identifying search terms

Identifying synonyms and truncation

Connecting search terms

Searching tips and hints

Using search engines

What are search engines

Searching with Google

Advanced search on Google

Searching on Vivisimo and Dogpile

Advanced searching on these and other examples

Searching on pass worded databases was also included. This is a useful format and addresses some of the issues discussed above such as advanced Internet searching.

The learning objectives of the course for attendees to focus on were:

 Consider what they are really looking for – how do you know they have found ‘it’ when you don’t know what you are looking for?

 Be focused and disciplined with their time.

 Get an understanding of the breadth of the information resources available to them and how to use them.

 Understand the difference between Internet based/non refereed sources of information and Internet based refereed sources of information.

The course was highly customised to meet the practical needs of attendees, again a recurring theme in other work. A particularly useful feature is a checklist of questions which attendees found extremely helpful:

 What is the question?

 What is the level of information?

 What type of information and amount?

 When do I need the information by?

 Where have I already looked?

The course worked because it was highly personalised and customised, people could see results of searching on different search engines and they had access to information professionals who could discuss other resources and search strategies. Although the course was successful within the organisation, attempts to sell it to other organisations including Government departments were not successful for reasons mainly to do with hardware issues.

Cheuk (2008) also discusses a company programme for an organisation with over 3000 staff in 40 countries. This is an intranet based resource called Minerva which defines information literacy in the workplace as allowing employees to experience information literacy in seven ways or ‘Faces’ (informed by Christine Bruce’s seven faces of information literacy) which can be compared with Keenan and McDonald. While it is a more sophisticated model there are points in common:

 Face 1: using information/knowledge management systems, ICT tools, e-mails.

 Face 2: knowing the existence of and ability to use specific sources (e.g. experts, databases, intranet, journal subscriptions, website).

 Face 3: awareness of a process to find and use information (e.g. to understand customers’ needs, to evaluate a business problem).

 Face 4: organising and controlling information so it can be retrievable (e.g. design database structure, design intranet sites, manage folders in the local file server, manage personal e-mail boxes).

 Face 5: learning or gaining new knowledge through interacting with information.

 Face 6: gaining new insights and thinking about an issue in a new or different perspective.

 Face 7: using information wisely for the benefit of the organisation and society.

These dimensions are in turn linked to the organisations’ programme of cultural change. It is interesting that people are identified as an information source and that academic models lie at the back of this. To roll out the programme, 50 knowledge champions were recruited and 3000 staff received 60 minutes training. The involvement and support of senior managers has been a key theme.

More recently the Open University has been piloting generic learning materials called iKnow – Information and Knowledge at work, offering bite-sized learning materials which can be done ‘in just a few minutes at your desk or on the move’ to help ‘save time in finding, using and organising information at work’ (Open University, 2010). The small pilot study revealed that the ‘bitesize’ and ‘mobile’ nature of the materials allowed greater flexibility in the training process, and would be quite easy for staff to schedule into their working day. There was a consensus that they would ‘definitely’ want to see a greater availability of workplace learning materials in these formats. There were several suggested improvements which will be addressed including self-assessment and PDP tools to enable the learner to check their learning and a review of the content as it was felt to be ‘still quite academic’ (Parker, 2010).

This brief review of the literature and issues shows what an important area this is and how little practical developmental activity has taken place. Much of the literature is still academic in style, reviewing the ideas of other academics. There is still a dearth of reporting of actual practical programmes of information literacy training in the workplace and employability environments from which new systematic theories and further programmes could be developed. Exemplars of good practice which might impress employers are particularly lacking.


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