Building on Bibliographic Instruction: Our Strong BI Foundation Supports a Promising IL Future

By Grassian, Esther | American Libraries, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Building on Bibliographic Instruction: Our Strong BI Foundation Supports a Promising IL Future


Grassian, Esther, American Libraries


These days, many passionate proponents define information literacy (IL) as a brand-new, much-superior approach to library instruction, in stark contrast to the well-meaning but misguided and extremely limited methods and goals of bibliographic instruction (BI). Librarians are urged to judge how well they are doing by measuring how far they have moved away from their old BI habits and toward the new and completely different IL.

Is IL really different from what we've been doing in academic libraries for at least 30 years--what we've called library instruction, library skills, or BI?

I am an enthusiastic information literacy advocate. I talk to faculty, administrators, colleagues, students--almost anyone I meet--about the value of IL and its key elements, including critical thinking and the ethical use of information. I am thrilled at the growing receptivity to IL on college and university campuses and elsewhere. But I am also a BI advocate and instructor, and have been since 1970.

If your career has overlapped with mine, at least since the early 1990s, some of this discussion may be familiar. If you are new to librarianship or otherwise new to IL instruction, read on--you may be surprised to discover that the BI/IL dichotomy in the table above is overdrawn and inaccurate.

At a May 2003 ACRL Southern California Instruction Librarians program titled "Moving from Traditional BI to an Integrated Information Literacy Program," several librarians thanked me for my comments on this topic; one even said, "I'm glad you had the courage to say what you did."

What did I say that was so radical? California State University's venerable Ilene Rockman had just completed an informative keynote address focused on recent developments in IL. When she finished, I simply said, "With all due respect, I may be expressing a minority view here, but I see information literacy not as a wholly new and different approach, but as an umbrella that encompasses and expands on the BI efforts we've all been engaged in for many years."

Rockman agreed with my point, and said she thought everyone attending the program did too. Unfortunately, I knew this was not the case, as I had been hearing increasingly assertive statements about the major differences between the "new" IL and the "old, outmoded" BI. However, I did not know that many experienced instruction librarians were afraid to voice this same opinion.

A brief history of BI

Is IL completely different from BI? Actually, "bibliographic instruction" was a misnomer, since BI did not focus only on the mechanics of locating and using bibliographic items, but also included critical thinking, active learning, and the teaching of concepts.

Of necessity, BI concentrated on what a physical library owned, as that was all users could refer to during instruction. In the 1970s, librarians taught specific tools like the card catalog and print reference sources available in their libraries as models for information tools available in many locations. At the same time, librarians taught search strategies and the importance of picking information tools to meet specific needs.

In the 1980s, as information tools proliferated and librarians became more confident of the significance of their teaching role, they focused more on teaching concepts like controlled vocabularies, the flow of information, and the differences in information research among various disciplines.

Leaders in the field published notable books, like Cerise Oberman and Katina Strauch's Theories of Bibliographic Education (Bowker, 1982), Mary Reichel and Mary Ann Ramey's Conceptual Frameworks for Bibliographic Instruction (Libraries Unlimited, 1987), and Marilla Svinicki and Barbara Schwartz's Designing Instruction for Library Users (Dekker, 1988).

The goal was always this: Meet basic needs and at the same time teach skills that users can transfer to new situations, new information tools, and new environments to help them learn how to learn. …

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Building on Bibliographic Instruction: Our Strong BI Foundation Supports a Promising IL Future
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