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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

Information Literacy as a Barrier

Barbara J. Ford


The 60th General Conference of IFLA, Libraries and Social Development is designed to promote experience sharing on the role played by libraries in the improvement of living conditions. Information literacy addresses new library technologies and library research and training for social development. It is particularly relevant in the science and technology areas.



Today most of us have too much information. Each year the number of books and journals published increases; radio and television stations broadcast non stop. A daily edition of many newspapers includes more information than a person would have come across in her or his whole lifetime in the 17th century. In this data rich environment, information consumers must learn to overcome information an xiety and to sift through the information chaos to digest, interpret, and utilize information for sensible decision making.

Computer tools help us manage information but also bring us more information. Paul Saffo, a research fellow at the Institute for the Future, speaks about information as a wave about to engulf us and of the need to learn to handle large volumes of information. More important than the ability to recall specific information, the skill to prize in the information age is the knack of making connecti ons between seemingly unrelated information. Effective information users will be generalists, people who can tease knowledge and understanding out of large information flows. They will be pattern finders, applying new intellectual skills and working with more powerful information tools. This is especially true in the science and technical areas where computerized information tools provide expanded access and are changing the way scientists do their work. This however is not unlike other historical changes. In the mid 1400s, before the emergence of a print culture, memory was prized as the scholar's most important intellectual tool, and literacy was a secondary skill. After Gutenberg invented the printing press, literacy was synonymous with scholarship and memory less used. There was a shift from the use of the brain as storage to processor of print based information. The intersection of tool and skill can change the fabric of society, and computerized tools are changing our societies today.

The changes in formats and organization of information mean that users need guidance and may have unrealistic expectations. Information literacy is a concept that has emerged to describe the task ahead. The phrase information literacy was first used in the 1970s, but its current meaning and use came in response to education reform and has become an international movement. Information literate people are those who have learned how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in a way that others can learn from them.

Information literacy

Information literacy is knowing when information is needed and having the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. Information literacy is an important and challenging concept in addressing a changing and varied library clientele with differing preparations for library use.

Computers can create the misimpression that library research activities can be accomplished quickly and effectively. With pluralistic societies and global economies, there are changing user needs with respect to libraries. New technologies are experimental and unproven, and the best uses are not always known. Yet technologies will increasingly mediate information. Librarians will help informa tion seekers use critical thinking skills to select and reject information sources and to develop frameworks in which information can be understood. Information control of a discipline will not be as important as understanding the structure of information. With interdisciplinary research increasing, this is an even more essential understanding.

Methods of determining literacy have become increasingly rigorous. A signature, years of schools, literacy tests, and other methods have been used as indications of literacy. In the midst of the information explosion, the ability to access, retrieve, and evaluate information should constitute a significant part of today's definition of literacy. To be information literate, one should be able t o efficiently and effectively locate and use information needed for problem solving and decision making. New knowledge, not land or capital or machines, is the new frontier, and minds must be prepared to use it. A growing percentage of occupations belong to the information sector of the economy. The number of information tools available Ä commercial databases with on demand document delivery, fax transmissions, and electronic mail Ä provide new and effective options for information seeke rs. Libraries are where the knowledge of all disciplines is related within a meaningful framework. Libraries provide a model for the information environment in which graduates will need to work and live. They provided the framework for synthesizing specialized knowledge into broader societal contexts. Librarians can help users master critical information literacy skills.

Information technology is changing our environment at an ever increasing rate. While such technology provides improved opportunities for accessing information, realizing these opportunities requires knowledge and skills that are not easily acquired and are even more difficult to keep up to date. Technology improves physical access to information but does not necessarily improve intellectual acc ess. It provides a greater opportunity for peer learning, for communication. The time to read, think, and write cannot be reduced. It provides a mechanism for the networking of invisible colleges. Hardware and software changes and copyright issues create a high risk environment in which applications are experimental and may not be lasting.

The increasing use of computers has coincided with rapid expansion of national and international telecommunications with far reaching consequences. If librarians are to continue to demonstrate that they are an integral part of this information rich, technology rich society, they must play a more active part in the education of information users.

Education for information literacy

As information overload increases, as information resources further fragment, and as the need to access information globally grows, the ability of individuals and groups to control their future will be further eroded. The impact will be felt most quickly by those who are already socially, educationally and economically challenged. The gap will widen as a new information elite emerges. Ultimate ly we will all suffer, because the social and economic drain of nonfunctioning citizens will exact a heavy toll upon society. Information seekers must become sophisticated users of resources and technologies as they gather needed information from all sources, test the validity of information as it remains constant and as it changes from discipline to discipline, place information into various contexts that ultimately will yield pertinent meaning, and remain skeptical about information and discriminate fact from truth. In the United States, the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) passed the following resolution:

Today's information society transcends all political, social, and economic boundaries. The global nature of human interactions makes the ability to access and use information crucial. Differences in cultural orientation toward information and symbol systems make the management of information complex and challenging. Current and future reform efforts should address the rapidly changing nature of information and emerging information technologies. Information literacy, the ability to locate, process, and use information effectively, equips individuals to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in the global information society. Information literacy should be part of every student's educational experience . ASCD urges schools, colleges, and universities to integrate information literacy programs into learning programs for all students.

Education for information literacy is important in relation to science and technology as these areas are central to social development in a time of universal dataflow and telecommunications. Understanding of scientific and technical issues must not be left just to the experts, but all citizens must be able to understand basic concepts and their implications for their communities. Only with citi zens who are literate about science and technology can social development continue. All of us must be knowledgeable about science and technology to participate in decisions about its role in our societies.

Worldwide activities

Recently information literacy has been of concern in countries around the world. In the United States, the National Forum on Information Literacy is a coalition of over 50 national associations that promote information literacy through programs, publications, and advocacy. Information literacy was one of the issues about which recommendations were developed at the Second White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services in 1991.

In the Netherlands by the start of the 1990s information and computer literacy courses were being taught in nearly all secondary schools. While slanted toward computer application, the course has shifted toward general information handling knowledge and skills with emphasis on problem solving by finding relevant information. In England at the higher education level, the British Library commissi oned three studies during the 1980s to determine practices in information skills training. The central government in China in 1987 issued a mandate that all academic libraries must provide user instruction to students. In France, there is a government body to coordinate functional literacy. In Australia, an entire section of a 1990 report commissioned by the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, which is the principal independent advisory body to the Australian Minister for Employment, Education and Training, dealt with issues related to information literacy. A formal recommendation dealt with the need for teacher training institutes to consider including a curricul um element on information skills development. In schools of library and information science, lecturers are concerned about the issue of linking information literacy to the future well being of the profession.

The first issue of InformaSA, the newsletter of the South Australian Forum for Information Literacy (SAFIL), was published in September 1992. SAFIL was established to bring together community groups, professional associations, educators, and people from business and industry, all with the common goal of enhancing the information skills of the community.

An Australian national conference on information literacy was held in 1992, bringing together leaders from education, librarianship, government, and business and focusing on strategies for promoting information literacy as a means of personal and national empowerment in today's information dependent society. Recommendations from the event include expanding training to be certain library staff an d educators are information literate and conducting more research to provide evidence of the impact of information literacy programs. The need for libraries, educators, and business to establish partnerships and networks to improve information literacy skills is also noted. The existence of information poor within the community and the need for strategies to increase information literacy for sp ecific groups are highlighted.

In South Africa, there are challenges and opportunities with the changing government and the large number of people who are seeking educational opportunities. In such an environment, academic leaders and librarians recognize that there is a need to modify the learning process to encourage information literacy abilities and life long learning. A report prepared by the Ford Foundation has recomme nded information literacy pilot projects to promote economic development by providing information to users in the form they want and need.

Information sources

At the 1993 IFLA conference in Barcelona, Spain, the working group on user education proposed that a round table be established. While the phrase information literac is not used, the resolution for establishing the round table recognizes the importance to all members of society of developing the skills of information retrieval, selection, evaluation, and use. This will provide an established fo rum for librarians from around the world to share expertise on user education and information literacy. Even more importantly, such efforts should reinforce and expand current efforts to bring about future generations of information literate people who are well equipped for effective decision making and life long learning.

The IFLA Round Table on User Education has been established and is sponsoring programs and meetings at this conference. Collaborative programs and activities with the new Round Table could be an effective way to address the issue of information literacy in science and technology. Since much of the literature on information literacy is not discipline specific, there are opportunities to make imp ortant new contributions in reviewing the relevance of information literacy to science and technology.

Another source of information on information literacy activities around the world is the ERIC (Educational Resources and Information Center) Clearinghouse on Information and Technology at Syracuse University in the United States of America, which collects materials. The Clearinghouse actively seeks documents related to information literacy for inclusion in the ERIC database and is collecting mat erials from around the world.


Without information literacy skills, there will be barriers to the access to information, especially in scientific and technical areas. Libraries must embrace these concepts and develop programs to enhance these skills in information seekers. Information literacy is a means of personal and national empowerment in today's information rich environment. It allows people to verify or refute expert opinion and to become independent seekers of truth. It provides them with the ability to build their own arguments and to experience the excitement of the search for knowledge.

In 1791 Samuel Johnson said, Knowledge is of two kinds: We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. The importance of this ability is significantly increased in today's information society. In the world of unlimited information, to know must include the intellectual skills necessary to find, screen, analyze, and synthesize information. Librarians in scientific and technical areas have an important role to play in working to assure that information literacy for these areas is a reality.


American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy Final Report (Chicago, Il: American Library Association, 1989).

Information Literacy: Revolution in the Library, by E. Gordon Gee and Patricia Senn Breivik (New York: McMillan, 1989).

InformaSA: The Newsletter of the South Australian Forum for Information Literacy (Adelaide, South Australia: Adelaide College of TAFE).

National Forum on Information Literacy (Chicago, Il: American Library Association).