Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 21, No. 6 July 2001


Information Literacy: 
New Buzzword or New Library Service?

by Thomas G. Kirk, Jr.

Jeff, a sophomore at State University taking a course in African American literature, has to prepare an annotated bibliography on Alice Walker. The afternoon before the assignment is due, which he figures is plenty of time, Jeff fires up Netscape and searches Google. To his dismay the search resulted in over 325,000 hits. Nevertheless, he thinks he can run through the first twenty-five or so and have a good bibliography—after all, would not the best sources be cited first? After a couple hours of work Jeff realizes he is not making much progress. His efforts result in lots of dead ends and broken links with most of the sites providing only brief biographical sketches of Alice Walker’s life and general criticism of her works. The same information keeps appearing over and over again. One site appears to have been written by an eighth grade class; another site seems to “borrow” its information largely from an encyclopedia. Several sites listed what looked like good sources but he does not find the full-text of the books and journal articles cited.

In desperation Jeff jumps in his car and makes a trip to the campus library. A quick check of the catalog leads Jeff to the Alice Walker section of the collection. After browsing the shelves he finds only a few of the recent books on Walker on the shelves; he realizes that the rest must be checked out to others in the class of 100 students.

Late that night Jeff finally finishes the annotated bibliography. He uses a few reference books he had found at the library, some of the web sites he found after several more hours surfing the web, and a bit of creative imagination—which he hopes his instructor will not examine too closely.

 Fran, a junior at State University, also in the African American Literature course, develops her bibliography on Maya Angelou. When Fran took Introduction to American Literature in her sophomore year, she had several sessions as part of the course in which a librarian and faculty member illustrated reference sources to use in the study of American literature. After each session Fran had to complete an exercise using the reference sources demonstrated in the class. At the end of the semester she had to write a short paper using a variety of sources from books, journal articles and web resources. So in completing her assignment in African American Literature Fran goes first to the library and checks standard print sources such as Contemporary Authors, Modern Literary Criticism, and the electronic full-text journals sources such as those available through Project Muse. She also consults the online catalog using sophisticated search techniques she learned from her earlier class. Fran finds a wealth of information in reference sources, periodicals, and several chapters in books found in the general African-American literature section of the library—some shelves apart from the books on specific authors which were mostly checked out. Through efficient searching, Fran has ample time to analyze carefully the sources and to proofread her assignment before handing it in.

David, a first-year graduate student in biology, is given an assignment to critique a five-year-old article published in Science and to be prepared to discuss it in class the next day. David remembers that as an undergraduate he had been taught how to find articles that cited a particular article by using the Web of Science. So using WOS David discovers that his graduate professor had just published a review article in which he had critiqued the assigned article. He also discovers several other authors had reviewed the article; apparently the assigned article is an important contribution in the field, receiving considerable attention. While all his classmates struggle with preparing for the class discussion, David breezed through it.

 Sheila graduated from college in May and in August started her first job as an office worker for the Chamber of Commerce in her hometown. After a couple of months getting settled into the job, Sheila is asked by her boss to find the names of some advertising agencies that had worked for other chambers of commerce. Her boss was contemplating hiring a firm to conduct an advertising campaign to increase the membership of the Chamber. Sheila starts by calling some of the larger local Chambers in her state but finds most had not used an advertising agency. Sheila then recalls the numerous business and management resources she used in her college business courses. These courses included one on business research in which she learned how to frame a business research question and how to use traditional library resources, on-line resources and the World Wide Web to assemble the needed information. Sheila knew that many of the sources she had used in college were proprietary databases and therefore she would not have access to them unless she visited the library. Sheila also knew the public library in this medium-sized city had a pretty strong business collection so she went to it. Based on her previous experiences in her college business courses, Sheila quickly takes advantage of the library’s resources and discovers numerous articles on how to market the Chamber of Commerce. The information she shows her boss goes far beyond his original question and provides him with considerable useful information on how he might market the local Chamber.

Fran, David and Sheila all demonstrate attributes of being information literate, Jeff unfortunately does not. Those who are information literate do not just absorb the knowledge and skills needed; they learn them as part of their undergraduate education. They take courses that include assignments and accompanying instruction to teach them these skills. Their professors recognize that knowing about information resources, how to use them effectively, and how to evaluate information resources, are important skills for citizens of the information age. Beginning as an undergraduate, as Fran did, she will be able to use her information literacy skills as a graduate student, as David did, and as a productive member of society and employee, as Sheila did.

Importance of Information Literacy
Information literacy is neither a new buzzword nor an entirely new library service. It is but the latest term in a long line of terms—library orientation, library instruction, and bibliographic instruction—that have been used to describe librarians’ education activities in anticipating and responding to students information resources needs. These needs can relate to immediate course assignments or as part of the development of skills for life-long learning.

Many librarians and others involved in higher education now view the development of information literacy skills as an essential element of a liberal arts education. They recognize that accessing and using information are critical skills in an information society.

Furthermore, the emergence of outcomes assessment challenges academic librarians to demonstrate the effectiveness of information literacy programs. This can be done by looking at the skills and attitudes of the graduates of our academic programs. Thus, the assessment of liberal arts program effectiveness also becomes an assessment of the library’s impact on the educational program. This in turn can be used by college campus administrators who must be ready to demonstrate their impact to state legislators or accreditation committees.

A Behavioral Definition
The most detailed and precise current definition of information literacy is that provided implicitly by the ACRL’s “Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.” Completed in 2000, it is now widely used as a basis for planning information literacy programs and for assessing the outcomes of such programs. The Standards state that the information literate student

Each of these five standards in the ACRL document is elaborated by a series of statements of behaviors that can be observed and measured. By implication the sum of those behaviors is information literacy. Behaviorist objectives are not the only way to define information literacy.

Holistic Definition
Information literacy can also be defined in terms of a broader holistic view such as articulated by Shapiro and Hughes. For them information literacy is:  

A new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself, its technical infrastructure, and its social, cultural and even philosophical context and impact—as essential to the mental framework of the educated information-age citizen as the trivium of basic liberal arts (grammar, logic and rhetoric) was to the educated person in medieval society.2


Defining information literacy broadly integrates the concept more deeply into the fabric of liberal or general education. However, it also obscures the fact that the library is—or should be—the primary campus organization responsible for developing the instructional program.

Librarians should see the opportunities offered by information literacy in its broader definition. They can work with faculty in developing an information literacy program, often extending and expanding the library’s traditional bibliographic instruction. While the program will probably emanate from the library, its success depends upon ownership by the classroom faculty. In this milieu the library faces a distinct and major challenge. Without this broad-based buy-in by the classroom faculty to the program, information literacy will not achieve its rightful place as a central goal of undergraduate education.

This holistic definition clearly provides an opportunity to broaden librarians’ involvement in the curriculum. At the same time, it provides a definition of the outcomes of information literacy that bridges the gap between technical skills and broader concepts.

Outcomes Assessment and Information Literacy
The concept of outcomes assessment as a measure of institutional effectiveness has developed as an important element of a liberal arts education. The convergence of the two concepts, information literacy and outcomes assessment, is evident in the way the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, discussed above, are couched. Outcomes assessment has also been adopted by accrediting agencies as a way to articulate their standards, such as those of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. The current version of their standards includes the following:

Outcomes assessment involves gathering and evaluating both quantitative and qualitative data, which demonstrate congruence between the institution’s, mission, goals, and objectives and the actual outcomes of its educational programs and activities. The ultimate goal of outcomes assessment is the improvement of teaching and learning.3  

A concerted effort, however, is needed to demonstrate the importance of an information literacy program and the willingness and ability of the library to participate in such a program. For example, regional accrediting agencies have identified the quality of the impact of information literacy programs as an important element of the general education program. Perhaps the most notable is the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s draft standards which state that “collaboration between professional library staff and faculty in teaching and fostering information literacy skills relevant to the curriculum and to faculty research “is a fundamental element of Standard X: Educational Programs. Furthermore under Standard XI, General Education, “general education requirements that assure that, upon degree completion, students are proficient in oral and written or performance communication, scientific and quantitative reasoning, technological competency, and information literacy, which includes critical analysis and reasoning” is a listed as fundamental.4


“Bibliographic instruction programs often depended on a few cooperative faculty. However an information literacy program, if it is to be part of the undergraduate program of the institution, must be more broadly integrated into the curriculum…”


Implementation: Essential Steps
As we enter the 21st century, academic libraries and those responsible for managing them have before them a new challenge: the convergence of information literacy and outcomes measurement of institutional effectiveness. The leadership responsibilities of academic libraries require careful attention to the library’s involvement in such a program.

1. Acknowledgement of Importance. The first essential step is acknowledgment of the importance of information literacy as a part of the academic program. If there is doubt of its importance one need only turn to such past and present commentators on undergraduate education as Harvie Branscomb, Ernest Boyer, Paul Zurkowski, Jeremy Shapiro and Shelley Hughes.5 Information literacy has been misidentified as computer literacy6 and at times has been diluted in its definition to encompass almost all aspects of critical thinking, reading and writing. Now, however, there is a central concept which has been clearly defined by academic librarians and teaching faculty in the ACRL Standards.7 Furthermore, the concept with the impetus of technology, has emerged to a point of prominence from a tradition of thought on the “teaching library.”8 

2. The Library’s Role. The second essential step is acceptance of the library’s important role in developing an information literacy program. Librarians have the professional expertise needed to develop an effective program. While individual faculty may have the inclination and expertise to develop such a program, the faculty as a whole has not and probably will not. As with writing and other basic skills, some segment of the academic community must take a leadership role in developing the program. For information literacy, that segment is the librarians. Therefore, each academic library needs to establish staff responsibility for such a program and build that responsibility into a job description.

The challenge for decision-makers is to understand the relationship between an information literacy program and the goals of the library. It is relatively easy to understand and demonstrate the relationship between a larger budget and the ability to deliver more material to library users. It is more challenging to balance increases in the materials budget and requests for staffing in information literacy. To make that choice means determining the relative impact of larger collections and an information literacy program on the quality of undergraduate education and the academic achievement of students. 

3. Building Relationships. A third essential step is building relationships with faculty and academic administrators. While library programs have always been most successful when carried out in collaboration with the rest of the academic community, for information literacy it is essential. Bibliographic instruction programs often depended on a few cooperative faculty. However an information literacy program, if it is to be part of the undergraduate program of the institution, must be more broadly integrated into the curriculum and ownership shared by the faculty and library. This broad integration is essential to making information literacy a part of every student’s college experience along with other skills deemed critical to a liberal education.  

4. Unique Service. A fourth essential step is librarians’ recognition that an information literacy program, along with reference service, is uniquely provided among academic library services. Some outsiders and academic administrators may naively see library functions such as developing collections and providing study space as being replaced. In their view the World Wide Web and commercial enterprises such as netLibrary or Questia, which can be used any place the users want to study, undermines the need for large physical spaces with print collections. In reality technology has increased the need for space; it’s just that the space is used differently. Among academic library services for undergraduates, however instructional and reference services are distinctive and singularly provided by libraries. There is no alternative. This uniqueness provides academic libraries with an opportunity to serve the educational needs of undergraduates and counteract the notion that libraries are just space and collections.  

5. Assessment Efforts. A fifth essential step is the library’s involvement in campus assessment efforts. Since outcomes assessment is both a major perspective of the ACRL Standards and regional accrediting agency standards, the library must be connected to the institution’s efforts and be supportive of achieving institutional goals. As an information literacy program becomes a key part of the library’s efforts, the outcomes assessment of information literacy programming becomes a critical element of library assessment. Even if information literacy is incorporated into a general assessment of the effectiveness of general education, the library should be involved in that assessment. 

Best Practices

These five essential steps are part of a larger statement on best practices in information literacy programming which the Best Practices Team of the ACRL Institute for Information Literacy is now developing.9 Libraries can and should provide leadership in the development of an institutional information literacy program. The program is essential to a quality undergraduate education that prepares students to live in the 21st century information age.

—Thomas G. Kirk, Jr. is Library Director and Coordinator of Information Services, Earlham College, Richmond, IN


Examples of Information Literacy Programs.
The following are web pages that exemplify various information literacy programs across the United States. These where gleaned from ACRL Institute for Information Literacy’s web site. (URL: ) and Drew Smith’s “Directory of Online Resources for Information Literacy (URL:

Arizona: University of Arizona, The Information Literacy Project (URL:

California: California State University San Marcos (URL:

California: University of California—Berkeley (URL:

Florida: Florida International University (URL:

Indiana: Earlham College (URL:

Kentucky: University of Louisville, Lifelong Learning Through the Libraries (URL:

Minnesota: Gustavus Adolphus College (URL:

Minnesota: St. Olaf College (URL:

Rhode Island: University of Rhode Island (URL:

Washington: University of Washington, UWired Program (URL:

Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin -- Parkside (URL:



1Association of College and Research Libraries. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2000. [Accessed 23 March 2001].

2Jeremy J. Shapiro & Shelley K. Hughes “Information Literacy as a Liberal Art: Enlightenment Proposals for a New Curriculum.” Educom Review 31(2) (March/April 1996). [Accessed 19 March 2001.]

3Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education: Standards for Accreditation. Philadelphia, 1994; Framework for Outcomes Assessment. Philadelphia,1996. [Accessed 19 March 2001].

4Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Characteristics of Excellence: Standards for Accreditation: Draft for Discussion. Philadelphia: Middle States Commission on Higher Education, February 14, 2001, pages 30, 34.  

5Bennett Harvie Branscomb, Teaching With Books; a Study of College Libraries. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1940; Ernest Boyer, College: the Undergraduate Experience in America. Princeton, N.J.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1997; Paul Zurkowski, The Information Service Environment Relationship and Priorities. U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Washington, D.C., GPO, 2001; Shapiro and Hughes, ibid.  

6In a very recent article in the higher education literature Peter Lyman narrowly defined information literacy as an understanding of the nature and organization of digital information and excludes all of the other aspects included in the ACRL Standards. Peter Lyman, “ Information Literacy.” Liberal Education 87 (Winter 2001): 28- 37.  

7Association of College and Research Libraries, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Ibid.

8Alan Guskin, Carla Stoffle, and Joseph Boisse, “The Academic Library as a Teaching Library: A Role for the 1980s.” Library Trends 28 (Fall 1979): 281-89

9Association of College and Research Libraries. Institute for Information Literacy, Best Practices in Information Literacy Programming. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2001. http://www.ala.orrg/nili/criteria.html[Accessed 1 June 2001].  

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last modified: July 2001

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