Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Information Literacy as an International Concept


Consisting of the following sections:

[Information Literacy Defined Broadly; Socio-Cultural Dimension of Information Literacy; An Academic Information Literacy; Information Literacy Integrated with UDL Curricula; Information Literacy Degree of Implementation Based on Grade Level; Origin and Use of the Term: Information Literacy; An Educational Definition of Information Literacy; Addressing 21st century literacies and Information Literacy used in Education; Information Literacy as Envisioned in a Multicultural UDL Classroom; Information Literacy in the First Grade; In Conclusion; References]


Information Literacy is difficult to define. While it is possible to rely on a single definition of Information Literacy a person must be careful which definition they use. Most definitions that are available are currently slanted toward one or another group’s agenda, based on context. These definitions should be looked at with caution, and someone who has researched Information Literacy will know that they are but part of a larger, more inclusive definition that is not commonly in use, nor easy to find. Due to this problem part of this paper is concerned with discovering the definition of Information Literacy, and how and why it is different for educational purposes.

In order to define Information Literacy in a way that is useful for us in education, we’ll have to review the overall trend of use of the term Information Literacy. While various educational definitions do exist, they, and the standards derived from them may not take everything into account. Information Literacy has become a phrase that is used in so many fields as to have a spider’s web of meaning.

Each definition of Information Literacy is valid from its own perspective. However, different perspectives tend to define Information Literacy solely for their agenda, application, perspective, or use. The most recent definition of Information Literacy encountered in the research of this paper is from the American Library Association, aka the ALA.

However, it is somewhat problematic that there are several possible definitions at www.ala.org, the oldest (and yet most recently republished of the sources I looked at) of which is “To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” (from “American Library Association. Presidential Committee on Information Literacy.Final Report.(Chicago: American Library Association, 1989)”) (source 5.A., www.ala.org, 2009).

A second source from the ALA, A Library Advocate’s Guide to Building Information Literate Communities, gives nine separate definitions for different audiences in answer to the question, “What is Information Literacy?” (source 5.B., www.ala.org, 2001)

The third, and perhaps clearest ALA definition of Information Literacy is from the web page titled Information Literacy for Faculty and Administrators:
“There are many different definitions of information literacy, but perhaps the best succinct and comprehensive definition is:
• Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”
Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. American Library Association. 2006. (Accessed 27 May 2009).

A more comprehensive definition communicating the substance and breadth of information literacy is also useful.” (source 5.C., www.ala.org, no date given)
However, notice that the ALA definitions do not make cultural considerations nor include other perspectives on Information Literacy. The ALA perspective is based in western, particularly U.S. culture, with an emphasis on academics, libraries, and learning.

Another definition, for example, consists of the business perspective from western culture. This perspective tends more toward the free economy, supply-and-demand market. The term used here, infomediary, more or less refers to a person who helps people access information but who can also restrict information. (Taylor, 2003) “At the rural level in developing countries, infomediaries are often NGOs. Each has its own agenda which could be political, social, linked to religion etc. The information they generate and provide will be informed by those agendas, or those of the donor agencies funding them. People need to know how to evaluate such information.” (Taylor, p. 21, 2003). Just because there is a free economy doesn’t mean that information is freely given, freely gained, or free, which means that Information Literacy in some cases isn’t fully realized due to business limits.

The last definition given consideration in this paper is that of Information Literacy is one that relates to politics. This is an aspect of Information Literacy, which is often combined with an educational or business standpoint (or others). Typically, politics involve access to information, control of sets of Information Literacy skills that are given or withheld, and other issues of culture or ideology. “Among other points made were about the inadequacy of such a ‘librarianship’ model to explain how sources of information are designed, created and propagated, and the importance of the sometimes problematic role of ‘information intermediaries’. In societies where direct access to sources of information is limited and skills in handling information are not widespread, information intermediaries are ‘gatekeepers’ who have the power to facilitate access to information, but who often control, filter or bias information or deny it to those of whom they don’t approve.” (Taylor, pps. 2-3, 2003)

This relates to issues where anti-poverty groups may use their own definition of Information Literacy to further their own goals, in the belief that Information Literacy will lead to the betterment of humanity. “It was agreed that we need to participate in other international forums to promote a pro-poor perspective, to head off the tendency to reserve privileged access to information and freedom of expression.” (Taylor, p. 3, 2003)

While there are probably more definitions, this is sufficient to show that there is more than one definition, and that these definitions vary widely based on the agenda of each group that creates a definition for their purposes. To obtain a broader, more inclusive and accurate definition we have to give consideration to all of these definitions and extract the common themes. An even more accurate definition might be rendered by researching further perspectives on Information Literacy.

An example of a possible broader definition of Information Literacy is: Information Literacy is the field of study of information, permeating all academic fields and perspectives, where ‘information’ is anything that is to be communicated, and where ‘literacy’ indicates knowledge of and use of skills to obtain information.

From this definition we have the importance of communication to Information Literacy. There can, then, be Information Literacy specialists in fields such as Art Information Literacy, Medical Information Literacy, Social Information Literacy, Educational Information Literacy, etc. In essence, any field that communicates ideas or knowledge, abstract or tangible, meshes with Information Literacy and has to be acknowledged as a part of the integrated whole. In this sense, communication studies are a social branch of Information Literacy.


Since the social aspect of Information Literacy must invariably be associated with education, it is important to how we look at Information Literacy. Part of this is to acknowledge culture as containing the social layers of Information Literacy. Different cultures have different ways of relating knowledge, doing research, thinking, and categorizing/filing information. In other words, there is Information Literacy intrinsic to each culture which existed long before the term was ever conceived.

This intrinsic Information Literacy must be tied into local educational efforts; both as part of an integrative education that includes the community and as a way of enabling cultural exchange of knowledge. However, to apply this intrinsic cultural Information Literacy, we have to know what it is, how it exists, how it works, and how it relates to the originating culture. The intrinsic cultural Information Literacy is one part of the curriculum which has to be determined locally, based on the cultures present in the school and the Information Literacy standards that apply to each culture.

There are at least two ways of getting these alternative culturally-based skills to the students. The first way, which is preferable, is to have an adult from the culture who is an Information Literacy Specialist for their own culture present their own ways of Information Literacy in a way consistent with their cultural teachings.

The second preferred way is to get community members of other cultures involved and collaborating in teaching their ways of Information Literacy. To do this, the community members involved would need a task sheet explaining Information Literacy in the educational context and how they can contribute to it in the cultural context.

Another valid way is for an Information Literacy specialist in general, a well-trained teacher, or a Library Media Specialist to present the alternative cultural ways.

One wonderful thing about these different cultures of Information Literacy is that none of them are truly conflicting. All different ways of managing/transmitting information are valid in their own context. The difficult part is for students to understand that there are many other non-cultural contexts, and that each culture has its own context.


The definition from the ALA is the definition of Information Literacy that is most and primarily applicable to the future of American Education. Any academic pursuit of Information Literacy at an international and/or cultural level is missing from the ALA guidelines, however. Information Literacy, as an academic field, would have to consider Information Literacy at a higher and broader level than the ALA, allowing for specialization in Information Literacy of specific regions, countries, states, localities, and cultures.

There would be, for example, Information Literacy international specialists, Information Literacy local specialists, and Information Literacy cultural specialists. Additionally, there will be specialists based in certain groups with certain agendas, such as a business Information Literacy specialist, or a governmental Information Literacy specialist. Simply put, the true definition of Information Literacy will have to be inclusive.


There are several ways for Information Literacy to be divided into different groups of skills, based on the needs of the organization. Since this paper is education-related, it will assume these groupings as being based on educational needs and standards.

The ALA standards are very good, as well as the Big6™ standards. I think that perhaps one useful method for education to align with Information Literacy is to have the standards adapted by grade level. To do this, it would be ideal if the ALA and/or Big6™ standards are merged with UDL guidelines in the creation of curriculum.


Also, the degree to which Information Literacy is taught in any grade increases from primary school through graduate level academics. For example, a more general set of skills is taught, and built from over the years so that students at a certain grade level have Information Literacy skills of a certain level. In general, at graduation from high school, students should have sufficient Information Literacy skills to meet the standards for higher-learning academics.

At this point, they are prepared for a higher level of Information Literacy skills, at which time broadening the scope of Information Literacy to include the systems of other cultures, groups, and countries might be a good idea. This could also be when Information Literacy becomes a field of research and study for students, leading to specialization eventually.

Although some books and publications on Information Literacy standards may include such integration plans based on grade level, they may not have realistic goals defined through research that include the systems of other cultures.


Many of the literacies I mention above, such as media and computer skills, seem to indicate that the concept of literacy has to be expanded from what it was a decade ago, let alone a century ago.

Literacy, in its earliest senses probably refers to (literate, literature) reading and writing skills, and perhaps loosely to oral spoken skills based on the grammar used in speech indicating degree of literacy. At that time only reading, writing, and perhaps oral tradition (e.g. Shakespeare, bards, troubadours, songs, and poetry) were related to literacy. However, in the past there were other literacies as well if we consider ‘literacy’ in the way it is currently being used.

Understanding the basis of and meanings apparent and hidden within religious art is a type of literacy that was not necessarily recognized as such. Perhaps it would have simply been considered ‘art appreciation’ at the time. Yet, that literacy did exist, as well as the literacy required to create such works.

Survival skills in the forest, such as reading the signs of nature, would have been a type of ‘literacy’ based on a survival/cultural context. Guild-learned skills would’ve been yet another type of ‘literacy.’

Culturally, different ways of knowing would have been considered literacy by these broader standards. Yet, the distinction between literacies and skills was made due to the etymology of the word.

However, at this time ‘literacy’ has been increasingly expanded to suggest use of a wide variety of tools with appropriate relevant information processing skills. And yet this is one of the problems with the term, Information Literacy.

Strict translations of ‘literacy’ result in less than applicable results. “There is not a unified term to denote information literacy in the Spanish-speaking world. The Spaniards have favored the phrase “Alfabetizacioninformacional” in their recent meetings, a phrase that in Mexico is translated as “Alfabetizacion informative”. However, the term that has been coined in Mexico and used in some countries of Latin America, is “Desarrollo de habilidadesinformativas (DHI)”, a term that also emphasizes the process rather than the result of user information training.” (Lau, p. 33, 2007).

Lau adds that “There is a general reluctance to use information literacy as such, because it denotes “rather basic skills”. Information literacy means, for most people, the challenge of not being able to read and write the challenge of being illiterate. Users who are graduates, professors and education administrators reject to attend workshops where they will be “alphabetized”. (Lau, p. 34, 2007)
Either the word ‘literacy’ needs another definition, or in translation it must be noted explicitly which definition of literacy is used.

We could also remove ‘literacy’ from all non-academic uses of the term. Thus, for business, it would be called Business Information Specialization, rather than ‘literacy.’ In other words, reserve use of the term ‘literacy’ to be only applied when related to education, academics, and library skills. After all, once a person is Information Literate they would be ready to take on professional level research.


To revisit the earlier general definition of Information Literacy, let us adapt it to this new concept of being solely for education...
Information Literacy: A field of study and research of information and ways of knowing; wherein ‘information’ is considered to be anything that is to be communicated, documented, or otherwise recorded, filed or transmitted; whether the information is ideological, ideas, knowledge, or in any other form; also wherein ‘literacy’ is considered to represent the acquisition and use of skills and denotes that Information Literacy as a term is intended only to represent academic, educational, and library-associated interests; and wherein Information Literacy is acknowledged to have cultural and other contexts that must be identified to know what area of Information Literacy is being discussed.

Thus, it is not Information Literacy when the agenda is related solely to business and customer market research. We might call such an area Business Information Research, or Consumer Indexing System, or something else, but we’ll take the ‘literacy’ term out of it because it’s not in a historically related context and has a different purpose/agenda.

However, this is still a difficult position, since research in Business schools may constitute Information Literacy since its purpose is academic. However, for the sake of argument, once the context has changed and the information research is conducted as market research for business purposes, it is no longer a strictly academic domain. And yet, if such a study generates information, that information will undoubtedly be recorded and retrievable in a way that makes it possible for an Information Literacy specialist to use.


As noted above, listing all 21st century skills as literacies in their own right would make an extensive list. Therefore, we’ll only use the education/academic/library context for our consideration of how to use Information Literacy to address the needs of students researching another culture. However, we cannot remove Information Literacy from its intrinsic links to culture.

One problem that exists is defining what Information Literacy means to different grades. It certainly means a slow progression of developing the full set of skills, but which skills apply when? Perhaps the best way to proceed with Information Literacy is to consider skills to be learned based on the outcomes desired. Certainly, children will probably not be writing essays until sixth, seventh or even eighth grade. However, writing papers is only one expression and outcome of Information Literacy.

With UDL involved, we will have to consider several outputs of results as being viable alternatives to papers. (see www.cast.org for further information about UDL. Retrieved from: http://udlonline.cast.org/guidelines)

Variable outputs are also a factor of the Big6™ standards, which allows for flexible demonstration of learned skills. “Academic content area standards emphasize finding creative solutions to problems for which we do not yet have answers, and communicating those solutions in a format appropriate for the audience. We want to produce students who can “think outside the box” to generate ideas and create solutions that have so far eluded us. In order to achieve that objective, we must challenge them to flex their higher level thinking skills throughout school.” (Murray, p. 78, 2008)

The younger the age group, the less writing involved and perhaps more modeling, acting, demonstration, talking, music, art, and other forms expressing skill acquisition. Perhaps, given research, we would know which of these gives the best results at each grade.

To begin with, let us assume an unusual, but not impossible situation, which is that the curriculum for this school or program has been developed using UDL with Information Literacy integrated, and local cultural differences have been acknowledged and valued.


Taking from the above thoughts, let’s envision the UDL Information Literacy classroom situation. We’ll imagine one example from the first grade in order to demonstrate how differently, yet similarly, Information Literacy translates for different age groups. We’ll also consider this to be a multicultural school in the U.S. with a majority population of Latin American students, a minority population of Native American Indians, and a minority population of Caucasians. A general area for this imaginary exercise is in the Southwest region of the United States.

A key component for this to work, then, is collaboration, community, and context. “Collaboration between school professionals and parents and families is less about creating a set of activities than it is about forming a mindset based on “want to” rather than “ought to.” This is especially important when working with families from diverse racial and cultural groups.” (Friend &Bursuck, p. 302, 1996 (from inset: Working Together: Creating a School Environment for Collaborating with Parents))

The first benefit of UDL is that it allows for multicultural classrooms and differences in backgrounds and learning styles. With Information Literacy integrated, we are basically providing for all of the students different ‘ways of knowing,’ as well as for different ways of expressing their knowledge with the ultimate goals defined by Information Literacy for this project.

We are also giving the students a broader, better-defined set of Information Skills that have multicultural relevancy, and validating for students that their own culture’s ways of knowing are acknowledged, accepted, and valued.


In a classroom of first grade students, they have a task that involves one way of learning how to know things. The previous week, they discussed knowing by using colors and decided that one way of knowing is to ‘look.’ A Hispanic art teacher came in to teach them how to look at various pieces of children’s art from Latin America. The response task involved was to match sets of colors that were slightly off-hue in reasonable groupings. Then, the teacher gave them in-between colors, and after some consternation the students came to the conclusion that these belonged in two groups at once, and that together they all made a color wheel. How did they know a color belonged in two groups? They looked.

This week, they are learning another way of knowing. One of the Apache parents comes in to help children learn to ‘watch’ to learn. Children are asked what will happen if the ball is placed on the slide. They answer correctly, probably. However, the parent then asks how they know this, then demonstrates by rolling a ball down an angled slide.

The conclusion is that they know this because they’ve seen it happen before, and the Apache relates this to a story from their oral tradition. Then the teacher places some other kind of object on the slide. What will happen? Although the object is unfamiliar, the children may (correctly) infer that the same will happen with another object. At this age, however, they are told that they ‘know’ this by ‘watching’ what happened before. This lesson fits with traditional ways of knowing in all cultures. Additionally, by teaching these first observational skills, children are on their way to becoming self-learners.

There are multiple tools to use in conjunction with Information Literacy: computers, libraries, community resource centers, non-profit organizations, cell phones, radios, art, museums, and more. Which tools are used depend on the lesson, but the important thing to note here is that the number of options available to teaching Information Literacy allow for splendidly flexible, engaging, and interesting lessons with tangible results.

In fact, studies could be done (in non-UDL situations) to see how highly students rate these Information Literacy experiences, which may find that they value, enjoy, and learn more from these activities than from typical classroom experiences. On the other hand, students in UDL/Information Literacy Integrated programs would probably find all of their classroom experiences valuable.


Information Literacy is intrinsically tied to culture, the community, and self-learning. It is also used within different contextual situations and is intricately related to all fields of study.

Students must be able to recognize that Information Literacy has different contexts, different cultural expectations, and that Information Literacy applies in all fields. Information Literacy standards must be research-based, culturally-based, and contextually based.

For a multicultural school, this means that administrators and teachers should all be aware of the different Information Literacies represented by the different cultures within the school, and all of these should be taught to the student population at least to a basic degree. Thus students of different cultures will understand how each other learns, and be able to help each other learn better.
Schools must look to the community for Information Literacy insight to be provided in cultural context to students. In conclusion, Information Literacy is complex, but with good research, community collaboration, and integrated implementation it doesn’t have to be taught to students in a complex nor rushed manner.


1. Friend, M. and Bursuck, W.D. (1996). Including students with special needs: a practical guide for classroom teachers (Fifth Edition). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.

2. Lau, J. [.pdf] (2007). Information literacy: an international state-of-the-art report [I read section on Latin America, pps. 33-38] (Second Draft). Retrieved from http://www.ifap.ru/pr/2007/070824aa.pdf

3. Murray, J.R. (2008). Achieving educational standards using the Big6™. Columbus, Ohio: Linworth Publishing Inc.

4. Taylor, C. (Ed.). (2003). Information Literacy, the Information Society and international development: report of a meeting. [.pdf] Retrieved from http://www.archive.org/details/InformationLiteracyTheInformationSocietyAndInternationalDevelopment

5.A. ALA definition of information literacy [.pdf] (2009). Retrieved from ALA website: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/issues/infolit/standards/using/infolit-highered.pdf

5.B. A library advocate’s guide to building information literate communities [.pdf] [Action Pack 2001] (2001). Retrieved from ALA website: http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/ola/informationliteracy.pdf

5.C. Information literacy for faculty and administrators. Retrieved from ALA website: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/issues/infolit/overview/faculty/faculty.cfm

6. UDL Guidelines – Educator Checklist. Retrieved from www.cast.org: http://udlonline.cast.org/guidelines