There is no simple definition of information literacy. It is generally agreed that when there is a need for information, students should be able to recognise, locate, evaluate and effectively use that information for the problem at hand. Information literacy also encompasses concepts of scepticism, judgement, free thinking, questioning and understanding.
Until recently, it has been rather subsumed as a subset of other forms of literacy – traditional literacy, digital literacy, library skills and critical thinking skills. Throw in visual literacy, aural literacy, emotional literacy and so on and it would be easy for it to disappear altogether. However, in the context of an increasingly complex information society, information literacy is emerging as a distinct and necessary skill set, one which schools need to address with some urgency.
The concept of information literacy predates the Internet, the phrase first appearing in the US in 1974 in a report by Paul G. Zurkowski which focused on the use of information tools and primary sources for ‘molding solutions’ to the students’ research. But it is the online world that has really emphasised the issues involved. It may be unrealistic to question the extent of this new archive but who can seriously defend its stability? It has crossed national, cultural and legal frontiers, it has brought together means of communication and types of content, it has aided and abetted the researcher in a multitude of ways. But its foundations are shaky – one person’s deluded opinion may proliferate across the continents. Without the necessary research skills, how can it be debunked?
Information literacy is a human right. ‘It is a prerequisite for participating effectively in the Information Society, and is part of the basic human right of lifelong learning,’ according to UNESCO the Prague Declaration, ‘Towards an information literate society’, of 2003. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions reiterates this: ‘It is a basic human right in a digital world and promotes social inclusion of all nations.’ (Alexandria Proclamation, 2005)
Older and younger students will both benefit from information literacy which should be taught from the ages of six or seven, from the time when students acquire limited information materials from the teacher. But in primary schools there are pitfalls. Few schools employ specialist librarians, information literary skills are seen as falling within the curriculum area and, in most cases, there is no-one in the school to champion the cause. Most teachers, at all levels, will have witnessed slapdash internet searching by students which can only be hampering progress.
Students need to be aware of intellectual property rights. They need to know how to attribute the work of others. They need to be able to search, find, evaluate and use information appropriately. The process of acquiring the necessary skill set to make sense of an ever-expanding world of information is still developing, but you will find some useful information on teaching it to students of all ages in the articles and on the websites linked shown opposite.