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Information Literacy Concepts : Introduction

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What is information literacy?

What is information literacy and what does it mean to be information literate?  The American Library Association defines information literacy as a set of abilities empowering individuals to recognize when information is needed and to be able to locate it, evaluate it, and use it effectively.  While information literacy is often talked about on college campuses in terms of doing library research for papers and annotated bibliographies and other sorts of classroom assignments, we use and need information in every aspect of our lives.

Think about all of the informal research we do each day.  We look up movie and book reviews, how-to videos on YouTube, product reviews, and strategies for parenting.  We Google how to fill out some field on our tax forms, we look up job ads and tips on job interviews, how to spell or define some unfamiliar word or acronym.  We all have in-formation needs, and being able to effectively identify and meet those needs is at the core information literacy.  Being able to differentiate quality information from questionable information is also critical.  Is that shocking article your sister posted on social media actually true?  What about health advice offered by a friend?  What about some surprising statistic you heard cited by a politician or political candidate?

The American Library Association asks to think about information literacy in six ways.

Authority Is Constructed and Contextual

When you use information, or choose one source of in-formation over another, you presume a certain amount of expertise on the part of the information’s author on the topic they are writing about.  What gives the author that authority? What makes some information more authoritative than other information?  What makes a piece of information authoritative can vary from discipline to discipline and be based on context.  So for example, an author may be an authority on a given topic because of extensive experience, or because of extensive education.  Even without deep experience or education, an author may bring authority to their writing based on their having witnessed or participated in some major event.  In both cases, their authority is contextual.  A physics professor may have authority when writing within their field, but be considered far less authoritative when writing in an unrelated field.

Information Creation as a Process

Information appears in a variety of forms.  Depending on whether it is in the form of a newspaper article, a scholarly book, or a formatted report, the creation of information requires a process.  Understanding how and why authors publish in a particular format, what those formats require in terms of fact checking, or sourcing, or expertise, what editorial oversight exists, the role of publishers—all these considerations may play into your thinking about the relevance of a particular information source to your research question.

Information Has Value

Information has value, and this fact has very real implications to researchers and information consumers in both how information is produced and how it is disseminated.  It has economic value as a commodity, for example, as evidenced by intellectual property rights and other legal considerations, and by the considerable role of the publishing industry.  Information also has educational and social value, with its ability to inform, educate, and persuade.

Research as Inquiry

One can think of research as an inquiry.  A researcher asks a question, or identifies some gap in our current under-standing of a topic, and in the process of filling that gap, new questions and new avenues for further research emerge.

Scholarship as Conversation

Scholarship on a given topic will grow and evolve over time.  New theories, new interpretations, new experiments, new facts are always being discovered and debated.  As the references or citations of any scholarly article demonstrate, every researcher is building on the work of many other re-searchers.  Conscientious scholars will always go to great effort to indicate what previous work has informed their own work.  College students are expected to adopt this practice as well, citing the work that informs their own work and situating their ideas and theories within the larger conversation taking place in their respective discipline.

Searching as Strategic Exploration

Over time, as you gain experience and your research needs grow more complex, you will likely develop sophisticated strategies for locating relevant information.  Searching for information is rarely as simple as just plugging a keyword into a search engine or library database and getting all the books and articles you need.  You’ll likely try different ways of searching for information, and in different places.  You may want to brainstorm, or talk to a librarian. 

The five chapters in this text each look at a different aspect of information literacy but will collectively provide you with an overview of those concepts most critical to navigating today’s information environment.  After each chapter you will have the opportunity to test your understanding with a brief reflection.  We begin by looking at the research process.