Alison Head: Investigating Information Literacy (Part Two)

Alison J. Head

Alison J. Head, Ph.D., is the executive director of Project Information Literacy (PIL), a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Harvard Library’s Innovation Lab. Her research interests include information-seeking behaviors of early adults, information literacy and lifelong learning, Web adoption and diffusion, and usage of social media for collaborative learning. She spoke at OLA Super Conference 2013 on “What Is It Like to be a College Student in the Digital Age?” and graciously agreed to answer the following questions for InsideOCULA. The resulting interview is presented in two parts; read part one here.

Q: Does “information literacy” mean the same thing now that it did 10 years ago, or that it will in 10 years?

A: Early models about information literacy, such as the Big6™ by Bob Berkowitz and Mike Eisenberg (1988) and Christine Bruce’s Seven Faces of Information Literacy (1997), have endured for decades and can still teach us a lot. What has changed is what information literacy means in the digital age.

We have moved from living in a world of information scarcity to living in one of information abundance. Today, unless you have scads and scads of time, it is next to impossible to find everything about a topic. So much so that most of us don’t even try to conduct exhaustive searches about anything. Without information literacy know-how, searchers are lost in a thicket of information overload.

Here’s an example: I just did a search on Google for “chicken cacciatore.” My search returned 698,000 results. Now what? Say, I only have a chicken, a few spices, and a can of tomato paste. The ability to narrow my search and then evaluate what I’ve found – two key ACRL information literacy standards – are going to help me find a recipe that I need.

This example shows that in the last decade information literacy has become a necessary and essential competency for everything we do. Countless situations will arise throughout a lifetime where exchanging, seeking, retrieving, applying, and evaluating information are needed. These information-seeking strategies – these lifelong information literacy competencies – will determine whether or not these efforts will be successful in a world where information will continue to exponentially multiply.

Q: What do you see as the future of the reference desk – is it ready to die or go through a metamorphosis?

A: I loved the reference desk when I was in college. I didn’t mind how long I had to wait in line; it was worth it. I marveled at how the librarian could magically open up the treasures of campus library system.

But that was a long time ago – when librarians had a corner on the market. Besides the rows and rows of card catalogues, librarians were the only way to find information. Now, students have lots of ways to find the information they need for assignments in and beyond the library’s collection – the library’s portal, discovery tools like Summon, “Ask a Librarian,” a class Facebook page, posts from other students, texting to ask for guidance, Google, Wikipedia, WorldCat, and many other avenues.

These growing numbers of alternatives have put questions about reference into high relief. How can reference librarians be most useful at the point of need in the digital age? How do students say librarians help them most? Is sitting behind a desk the best model for delivering the services students need?

In our 2009 survey, we conducted a logistic regression in order to study how students used librarians during the research process. We found our respondents were one and half times more likely to consult librarians about “language context” – the meaning of words and terms – more so than background, information-gathering, or situational contexts.

This finding is revealing. It provides data about how librarians are helpful to students their point of need. We know from our research students we have studied struggle with figuring out keywords and formulating search statements – and most importantly, getting started, defining a topic, and narrowing it down.

These findings have led us to question how reference is provided today. Do “triage models” help students? By triage, I mean when librarians set up shop beyond the reference desk and go wherever students congregate to offer hands-on help as needs occur. What could we learn from a reference re-envisioned, a “librarians without borders” approach, in dorms, writing centers, and cafes? So, yes, reference matters, but it’s an exciting time to re-imagine what else it could be, too.

Q: Should libraries venture more into providing digital literacies? Or should we just stick to information literacy?

A: We think the tenets of information literacy are overarching, whether students are concerned with media literacy, news literacy, digital literacy, or other literacies. So it works well for us to think of information literacy as an umbrella concept.

We don’t get too caught up in whether we like the term “information literacy” or not, or whether it should be something sexier. Instead, we use the phrase information literacy and we define it as the competencies – both skills and strategies – for finding, evaluating, using, and creating information that are incredibly useful for working with information in a variety of formats.

This definition has kept information literacy useful for me as a researcher, and flexible, whether I’m thinking back to my interviews about how farm workers used radio broadcasts to find information in the 1980s or today when I’m interviewing college students about finding information in the digital age.

Carey Toane is the InsideOCULA deputy editor.