INFORMATION LITERACY" is today's hot topic in academic libraries-and other types of libraries as well. It seems as if everyone is hopping on this bandwagon, implementing standards for minimum information-literacy skills that students should have acquired by the time they are turned loose upon graduation. Schools at all levels are churning out required coursework, workbooks, and measures of where students should be at graduation. Wouldn't it be more useful to librarians and to instructors, as well as the students, to deal with information-literacy skill levels of students new to an institution, just beginning their academic careers, rather than checking them off at the end?
Approaching the situation with an eye toward the broader scope of "critical media literacy" opens the discussion beyond a skills inventory to the broader range of intellectual activity--a wider umbrella of concepts, theory, and practice. This is an important time in the life of an undergraduate because the skills that students begin to build in their first days at university can determine that they will grow with them and help them take their place as lifelong learners. The university experience may well be the last formal chance the student will have to do so.
College students frequently are reluctant library patrons, thereby reducing their potential exposure to information skills concepts. Intimidated by university libraries that are much larger and more complex than the high school and community libraries they are familiar with, undergrads often prefer to conduct research online from the comfort and safety of their dorm rooms. As long as they are successful in finding online information relating to their research projects, students can avoid actually entering library buildings.
Because many of today's students are adept at using computers, they are confident that they already possess information-literacy skills. When they do set foot in a university library; it is usually to seek help with the quantity of information available. They ask such questions as, "I'm writing a paper on global warming, but there is so much material available! How can I narrow my topic?" Or they'll ask, "Can you help me find material on urban sprawl? I'm supposed to find resources supporting both sides of the issue, but there is nothing on the pro side." Then, there is the "life-on-the-edge" student who baldly states that he has a paper due in 36 minutes and needs information fast, preferably in full-text electronic format.
DESPARATELY SEEKING GOOD SOURCES
Although the instructors who assign these research papers sometimes specify a minimum number of entries to be on the works cited list, their concerns go beyond the mere quantity of the students' resources. Instructors want students to know where to look for good sources, how to evaluate those sources, how and when to cite them, and how to use information from a variety of books, journals, newspapers, and Web sites to build strong arguments. Untrained undergraduates conducting online research from dorm rooms will not be able to accomplish these goals. Like the students, instructors turn to librarians for help.
University librarians try to meet the needs of both groups, directing students to the specific sources needed to gather raw material for a current research project and supporting the instructors in their goal of helping students develop the basic research skills needed for college and career. Universities have implemented several methods of giving students answers to their immediate research goals while also teaching them basic skills applicable to a variety of research situations. In addition to courses, many universities have library Web sites, tours of library facilities, and tutorials. No one knows how effective any or all of these methods may be.
LITERATE, E-LITERATE, OR A-LITERATE?
As a group of four librarians and instructors at The Pennsylvania State University, we discussed the best way to meet the needs of our population. …