Literacy 101 for the Digital Age

By Stoffle, Carla J. | American Libraries, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Literacy 101 for the Digital Age


Stoffle, Carla J., American Libraries


AS NEW TECHNOLOGIES RAISE THE INFORMATION LITERACY BAR, ACADEMIC LIBRARIANS MUST RETHINK THEIR ROLES

Success in the next century - personal, professional, civic, and economic - will depend on the ability to participate intellectually in the emerging knowledge-based society. The knowledge explosion and economic changes brought about by the rapidly expanding information and telecommunication technologies require individuals to be skilled independent learners.

Futurists expect this information explosion, along with the transformation of the economy from a manufacturing and raw-materials base, to have a dramatic impact on the workplace. For example, the average 21st-century worker may need the skills to cope with as many as seven major employment changes in his or her lifetime.

The quality of daily life and full civic functioning will be similarly affected. For instance, individuals will need the ability to decipher a bombardment of messages in a number of media and styles, ranging from advertising to political debates, statistical reports, and public policy choices.

In the past, the basic ability to read and write, coupled with physical access to print-based resources, sufficed in securing reasonable employment and full civic participation. People also knew that they would probably fare even better with better-than-basic reading and writing skills (e.g., earned their college degree).

Libraries have always considered it their mission to provide and protect physical access to information for all, regardless of socio-economic status, age, or educational attainment. In yesterday's print-based environment, some libraries (especially public, school, and community college libraries) moved beyond shouldering responsibility for ensuring simple physical access to providing basic literacy programs - rudimentary reading and writing - to ensure people intellectual access to library resources. And participating libraries were generally successful.

Academic libraries have traditionally interpreted their educational role as teaching students the basic skills necessary to find, evaluate, and use the information and information retrieval tools they need to complete course assignments and build lifelong learning skills. In 1989, ALA's Presidential Committee on Information Literacy dubbed such skills "information literacy," defining it as: "able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.... Ultimately information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand."

Other writers, most notably Hannilore Rader and William Coons ("Information Literacy: One Response to the New Decades," The Evolving Educational Mission of the Library, edited by Betsy Baker and M. E. Litzinger, Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 1992) and Lawrence McCrank ("Academic Programs for Information Literacy: Theory and Structure," RQ, Summer 1992), expanded the list of skills information-literate people must possess to include the ability

to:

* acquire and store one's own information (e.g., skills with databases, spreadsheets, and word processing);

* recognize and articulate public policy issues relating to information (e.g., copyright, privacy, and privatization of government information);

* engage an information professional in a collaborative fashion as a resource as much as any impersonal tool.

With the rapid expansion of the Internet and electronic information sources in the last 10 years, Coalition for Networked Information Executive Director Clifford Lynch has identified in an internal CNI document a new concept, "information technology literacy," as: "an understanding of the technology infrastructure that underpins much of today's life; an understanding of the tools technology provides and their interaction with this infrastructure; and an understanding of the legal, social, economic, and public policy issues that shape the development of the infrastructure and the applications and use of the technologies. …

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