Separate but Equal: Librarians, Academics and Information Literacy

By Asher, Curt | Australian Academic & Research Libraries, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Separate but Equal: Librarians, Academics and Information Literacy


Asher, Curt, Australian Academic & Research Libraries


Efforts to fit librarians into subject disciplines as teachers have been a destructive trend in library science. Lifelong learning was the aim of bibliographic instruction long before the term `information literacy' was coined. Librarians and academics provide separate, interdependent instruction, both of which have intrinsic value. Merging the two professions weakens both.

In a June 2002 article in Australian Academic & Research Libraries, Lupton (1) argues that successful information literacy programs require a dramatic shift in librarian self-image. Librarians must, she argues, view themselves as teachers first and librarians second. This essay argues that any trend that moves librarians away from libraries and into academic classroom settings is accomplished at the expense of students and ultimately weakens, rather than strengthens, the role librarians can play at a university.

One of the most destructive trends in library science in the past decade has been the floundering effort to fit librarians into subject disciplines as teachers. Information retrieval skills cross disciplinary bounds, and a researcher who has mastered these skills can become capable of locating information in nearly any subject area. While librarians are trained in information retrieval as part of their graduate education, the idea that this knowledge qualifies them to intrude into classrooms and share teaching duties in literature or biology or mathematics or any other subject discipline is simply illogical.

If, as Lupton argues, `neat operational boundaries [can no longer] be delineated as in the case of library skills or information skills,' then the role of librarians has not just shifted, it's been dissolved. The librarian's value is in separateness from the professoriate. He or she has a sum of skills that allow access to and acquisition of information. The academics' skills are different. While they may have highly polished information retrieval skills, their value to an educational institution has far more to do with their ability to analyse and apply information in a subject discipline. There are distinct operational boundaries that separate these two professions and it is their independence and interdependence, not their merging, which best serves students.

The term information literacy has replaced the term bibliographic instruction in library circles because the `biblio' element of library science is steadily being displaced by digitised images. But the concept is the same. Lupton argues that `an understanding and set of abilities enabling individuals to recognise when information is needed and have the capacity to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information' is a definition that does not clearly delineate the difference between information literacy and bibliographic instruction. The reason is that there really is no difference, other than format and semantics.

If students were well-schooled in bibliographic instruction and had learned to wend their way through the maze of paper indexes and vertical files and card catalogues held by past academic libraries, they would have found themselves capable of lifelong learning. If they learned to utilise the content of the print materials by means of either self-guided or formal education, they could certainly have gained knowledge and wisdom. If the aim of information literacy is a `holistic educational outcome, involving all formats, includes evaluation, analysis and synthesis, is learner centred and involves the learner in all aspects of their lives,' as Lupton argues, how does it differ from the aim of bibliographic instruction? It doesn't. The highly information literate student and the student well-schooled in bibliographic instruction are walking the same road. The only difference is that one sits in front of a computer screen and the other lugged heavy books to the index table.

An academic librarian's job in 2002, like the librarian's job in 1902, is to ensure that learners have access to useful sources of information.

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Separate but Equal: Librarians, Academics and Information Literacy
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