Information Literacy

What is information literacy? Simply put, it’s the ability to find, interpret, and use information to meet your needs. Information literacy has many facets, among them the following:

  • Computer literacy: Facility with electronic tools, both for conducting searches and for presenting to others what you have found and analyzed.

  • Media literacy: The ability to think critically about material distributed to a wide audience through television, film, advertising, radio, magazines, books, and the Internet.

  • Cultural literacy: Knowing what has gone on and is going on around you. You have to understand the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, U2 and YouTube, Eminem and M&Ms, or you will not understand everyday conversation.

Information matters. It helps empower people to make good choices. The choices people make often determine their success in business, their happiness as friends and family members, and their well-being as citizens on this planet.

Learning to be Information Literate

People marvel at the information explosion, paper inflation, and the Internet. Many confuse mounds of information with knowledge and conclude that because they found links using a search engine, they are informed or can easily become informed. But most of us are unprepared for the number of available sources and the unsorted, unevaluated mass of information that pours over us at the press of a button. What, then, is the antidote for information overload? To become an informed and successful user of information, keep three basic goals in mind:

  1. Know how to find the information you need. If you are sick, you need to know whose help to seek. If you lose your scholarship, you need to know where to get financial assistance. If you want to win a lawsuit, you need to know how to find the outcomes of similar cases. Once you have determined where to look for information, you’ll need to ask good questions and make educated searches of information systems, such as the Internet, libraries, and databases. You’ll also want to cultivate relationships with information professionals, such as librarians, who can help you frame questions, broaden and narrow searches, and retrieve the information you need.

  2. Learn how to interpret the information that you find. It is very important to retrieve information. It is even more important to make sense of that information. What does the information mean? Have you selected a source that you can understand? Is the information accurate? Is the source reliable?

  3. Have a purpose. Even the best information won’t do much good if you don’t know what to do with it. It’s true that sometimes you’ll hunt down a fact simply to satisfy your own curiosity, but more often you’ll communicate what you’ve learned to someone else. You should know not only what form that communication will take—a research paper for a class, a proposal for your boss, a presentation at a hearing—but also what you want to accomplish. Will you use the information to make a decision, develop a new solution to a problem, influence a course of action, prove a point, or something else?

What's Research—and What's Not?

To discover good information that you can use for a given purpose, you’ll have to conduct research. You might be working on a college research paper right now or you might be anxious about one that’s ahead of you. As you contemplate these projects, be sure that you understand what research involves.

In the past you might have completed assignments that asked you to demonstrate how to use a library’s online catalog, databases, government documents collection, map depository, and interlibrary loan service. Or you might have been given a subject, such as ethics, or an assignment to find a definition or a related book, journal article, or Web page. If so, what you accomplished was retrieval, and although that is an essential element of research, it’s just one step, not the end of the road.

Nor is research a matter of copying passages or finding a handful of sources and patching together bits and pieces of information without commentary. In fact, such behavior could easily slip into the category of plagiarism, a serious misstep that could result in a failing grade or worse. At the very least, repeating information or ideas without interpreting them puts you at risk of careless use of sources that might be new or old, useful or dangerously in error, reliable or shaky, research-based or anecdotal, or objective or biased beyond credibility.

Good research, by contrast, is information literacy in action. Let’s take up the ethics topic again. If you were assigned to select and report on an ethics issue, you might pick ethics in politics, accumulate a dozen sources, evaluate them, interpret them, select a few and discard a few, organize the keepers into a coherent arrangement, extract portions that hang together, write a paper or presentation that cites your sources, compose an introduction that explains what you have done, draw some conclusions of your own, and submit the results. That’s research. If you learn to do it well, you’ll experience the rush that comes with discovery and the pleasure that accompanies making a statement or taking a stand. The conclusion that you compose on the basis of your research is new information!

Employing Information Literacy Skills

By the time you graduate, you should have a level of information literacy that will carry you through your professional life. The Association of College and Research Libraries has developed the following best practices for the information-literate student. If you learn how to apply them, you’ll do well no matter where your educational and career paths take you.

  • Determine the nature and extent of the information needed. In general, this step involves first defining and articulating what information you need and then identifying a variety of potential sources.

  • Access information effectively and efficiently. Select the most appropriate research methods, use well-designed search strategies, refine those strategies along the way, and keep organized notes on what you find and where you find it.

  • Evaluate information and its sources critically. As an information-literate person, you’ll be able to apply criteria for judging the usefulness and reliability of both information and its sources. You’ll also become skilled at summarizing the main ideas presented by others and comparing new information with what you already know.

  • Incorporate information into what you already know and believe. To do this, you’ll determine what information is new, unique, or contradictory and consider whether it has an impact on what’s important to you. You’ll also validate, understand, or interpret the information through talking with other people. Finally, you’ll combine elements of different ideas to construct new concepts of your own making.

  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose. You’ll apply information to planning and creating a particular product or performance, revising the development process as necessary, and communicating the results to others.

  • Access and use information ethically and legally. There are economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the retrieval and use of information. You’ll need to understand and follow laws, regulations, institutional policies, and etiquette related to copyright and intellectual property. Most important, you should acknowledge the use of information from sources in everything you write, record, or broadcast.1

database A database is an organized and searchable set of information. Like a special search engine, a database is often classified by a certain subject area, such as chemistry or U.S. history.