Librarians, Educators Issue Plea for ‘Information Literacy’

By Robert Rothman — January 18, 1989 4 min read

Washington--The massive volume and growing impact of data in the electronic age should make the development of students’ “information literacy” a high priority for schools, a panel of educators and librarians argues in a new report.

But attempts to develop such literacy have suffered, they say, because school-reform efforts have thus far ignored or undervalued the importance of the topic.

The report asserts that the ability to find, organize, and use data will be increasingly vital to Americans in their roles as consumers, business leaders, and voters.

But even as the pace of the “information age” rapidly accelerates, the report notes, too few youths or adults have developed such abilities.

“Because we have been hit by a tidal wave of information,” it says, “what used to suffice as literacy no longer suffices; what used to count as effective knowledge no longer meets our needs; and what used to pass as a good education no longer is adequate.”

“Now,” it adds, “knowledge--not minerals or agricultural products or manufactured goods--is this country’s most precious commodity, and people who are information-literate--who know how to acquire knowledge and use it--are America’s most valuable resource.”

The report, released here last week at the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association, calls for greater attention to the subject in current reform efforts.

Information literacy is, it maintains, “an integral part of current efforts at cultural literacy, the development of critical-thinking abilities, and school restructuring.”

The panel urges school administrators to encourage instruction in information literacy throughout school curricula. In addition, they say, teacher educators should revamp their programs to include information skills.

But such efforts can only succeed, the report states, if the public is aware of the problems caused by deficiencies in using information. To promote such awareness, the panel recommended the creation of a coalition to conduct research and highlight effective information-literacy efforts.

‘Drowning’ in a Flood

The president of the ala appointed the 13-member committee in 1987. It was created, panelists said, in response to a growing realization that Americans are unable to deal with the sheer volume of information that computers and video technologies have made widely available.

“We take for granted,” said Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and a panel member, “that, with so much information around, students and adults know how to use it.”

“Yet we find too often,” he said, “that they simply do not have the capacity to sift out sources, or dig out information necessary to solve problems.”

Even highly educated adults who have used research techniques in college lack the ability to use information well in their everyday lives, said Patricia Senn Breivik, the panel’s chairman.

And without such skills, the report warns, Americans risk “drowning in the abundance of information that floods their lives.”

“On a daily basis, problems are more difficult to solve when people lack meaningful information vital to good decisionmaking,” it states.8"Many people are vulnerable to poorly informed people or opportunists when selecting nursing care for a parent or facing a major expense such as purchasing, financing, or insuring a new home or car.”

Similarly, it says, business executives and other citizens in a democracy are ill-served by a lack of information or by misleading information.

‘Part of the Fabric’

To help students acquire the skills to become information-literate, the report urges school officials to encourage the use of public libraries, which have traditionally provided access to a broad range of information sources.

And, it proposes, schools should restructure “the learning process” to ensure that students develop information skills.

Echoing previous school-reform proposals, the report states that “textbooks, workbooks, and lectures must yield to a learning process based on the information resources available for learning and problem solving throughout people’s lifetimes.”

Such changes should be incorporated throughout the curriculum, rather than added to it, panelists said.

Information literacy “really isn’t something that stands apart from other things, it’s part of the fabric,” said Ms. Breivik, who is director of the Auraria Library at the University of Colorado at Denver.

In order to effect such changes, added Mr. Ambach, all teachers and administrators must commit themselves to them.

“We want to make sure this is a topic on everybody’s agenda,” he said. “As they are thinking about their school program, they should be thinking about what aspect developing information-literacy skills is in the curriculum.”

“If it is not there,” he added, “how do we get it there?”

Further information about the report can be obtained by writing to the American Association of School Librarians (for K-12) or the Association of College and Research Libraries (for higher education) in care of the ala, 50 East Huron St., Chicago, Ill. 60611.

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as Librarians, Educators Issue Plea for ‘Information Literacy’