Information Literacy: current ideas and developments

A NetIKX seminar, London, 30 May 2019

Information literacy has experienced something of a resurgence in the past couple of years, largely due to increased awareness of manipulation of political opinion in social media. This NetIKX seminar offered an opportunity to hear from two speakers who both contributed to the revised definition of information literacy produced by CILIP in 2018.

A4 poster of CILIP's new definition of information literacy
CILIP’s 2018 definition of information literacy

First, Stéphane Goldstein, Executive Director of InformAll and Advocacy and Outreach Officer on CILIP’s Information Literacy Group, spoke on the importance of embedding information literacy as a life skill in different contexts. There is an increased awareness among policymakers of the need for critical approaches to information as vital to a healthy democracy, amid concerns about the spread of disinformation and ‘fake news’. The original definition produced by CILIP in 2004 (“Information literacy is knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner”) was focused largely on academic skills. The revised definition (“Information literacy is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to develop informed views and to engage fully with society.”) emphasises the critical evaluation of information as a tool for everyday life and places it within the context of other literacies such as digital literacy and media literacy. This led into a discussion about whether ‘literacy’ is in fact an appropriate term for a concept which in other languages and cultures is often referred to as ‘information competence’ or similar.

Geoff Walton, Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Languages, Information and Communications at Manchester Metropolitan University, then spoke on his research into ‘information discernment’ (the process of making well-calibrated judgements about information). Applying stress theory – the way in which individuals respond to stressful situations with either an adaptive (challenge) or maladaptive (threat) response – to levels of information discernment, he observed a distinction between low and high information discerners. Those with low information discernment capabilities are more likely to experience negative physical and emotional reactions when looking for information, especially when confronted with contradictory information, whereas those with higher levels of information experience more positive emotions both during and after the task. Low information discerners are less likely to attend to detail or to check the source of the information or the credentials of the author. However, he found that it was possible to train users with lower levels of information discernment to adopt a more critical stance and build their own ‘cognitive firewalls’.

Information literacy diagram
Diagram by justgrimes on Flickr

The syndicate sessions covered a range of discussion topics, including how the principles of information literacy could be put into practice in the workplace, the challenges posed by automated ‘disinformation agents’ such as bots, and the issues involved in evaluating non-textual sources of information. It was clear that, as the digital world, and particularly the social media landscape, is changing so rapidly, the skills we need for critical evaluation also have to be constantly honed and updated.


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