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Relevance and perceptions of information literacy

The final theme I want to reflect on from LILAC is the ways in which information literacy (IL) is perceived and understood, not just by librarians but in the wider community.

Karen Kaufmann’s talk on factors influencing the relevance of IL to students in higher education was fascinating. Through her doctoral research, Karen has identified a number of factors, but the one overarching “uber factor” is students’ existing knowledge. She also found that most students agreed that IL is relevant to them, but only once they knew what it was! Most don’t have the language to describe this, so providing a definition, along with some real-world examples, can help students to see the relevance of what we teach.

This theme continued in two sessions, scheduled back-to-back (I don’t know if this was deliberate, but it helped!). The first was from Charles Inskip, Alison Hicks, Pam McKinney and Geoff Walton, all members of the Forum on Information Literacy (FOIL), who discussed how IL concepts and research were used across other disciplines. They found that several disciplines, such as management, discuss what are clearly IL concepts in their literature, but do not use this terminology or cite the LIS literature. IL is most adopted within professional disciplines such as nursing and education. It has strong links with evidence based practice for nursing in particular, and some nursing research does cite LIS literature and use IL terminology.

This session led neatly on to Karen Kaufmann’s second presentation, which was on “Information Literacy: Elements of a maturing discipline”. Karen actually cited the paper currently in press from the previous session! She talked about what makes a discipline, and argued for the status of IL as a “maturing” discipline. We had a lively discussion about the impact on our practice of considering IL as a discipline in itself. We discussed the impact it would have on our professional and academic credibility, as well as how it might inform our teaching practice. 

The question of relevance and perceptions of IL came up in some practitioner research sessions as well. Anne-Lise Harding, in her talk about information literacy in the House of Commons, noted that she has called her IL course for select committee researchers “information scrutiny”, as this mirrors the language used by Parliament rather than introducing a term that her audience may be unfamiliar with. 

In one of the most interesting sessions I attended, Ed Wilkinson and Christa McCartney discussed “Pestalozzian principles in post-covid praxis”. Not having any idea what “Pestalozzian principles” were, I didn’t know what to expect from this session! Pestalozzi was a Swiss educational theorist, 1745-1827, who founded schools based on a holistic approach to teaching. His approach was based on engaging the Heart, Ear, Mind and Hand (or feeling, listening, thinking and doing): all four work together and are necessary for transformative learning.

Ed and Christa linked these principles to the concept of critical literacy. They also discussed Kondratiev waves, cycles in history and economics that are prompted by crises, and/or when the availability or type of information changes (e.g. the industrial revolution). They noted that critical pedagogy also comes in waves, it rises and falls. As it becomes widespread it loses its criticality and becomes establishment. The same principles are then rediscovered in the next cycle! E.g. John Dewey used the same principles as Pestalozzi’s Heart/Ear/Mind/Hand, but used different terminology. 

All of this made my brain buzz, and I think I need to sit with it a little longer to make sense of it! Overall, these sessions all combined in my head to make me think about how we discuss IL, and what it means to others not in our field. The question of whether IL is a discipline is an interesting one: I’d always assumed that it is, but that view wasn’t shared by everyone in the session. A comment came up in the FOIL discussion about the use of IL in other disciplines that I think also applies here: LIS is a feminine-coded field and profession. Does that impact how seriously it is taken in masculine-coded fields such as management? 

The discussions about what terminology we use, and do we call it “information literacy” or borrow terminology from other disciplines to make it more relevant to our audience, feels like something we’ve been grappling with for as long as I’ve been in the profession (and I’m sure long before I started my career!). I go back and forth on this: on the one hand, I think it’s important to stake our claim, set out our expertise and define our own terms. On the other hand, on a practical level it is hard to engage learners who don’t always see the relevance of “library stuff”, so using terminology that is familiar to them may be a useful shortcut.

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