Changing definitions of information literacy

There were many informative and inspiring presentations and workshops at last month’s IFLA Satellite Meeting on Information Literacy, but it was a round table discussion that probed the traditional definitions of IL that really sparked my curiosity and made me want to share the debate here on my blog (if a little belatedly).

The Active Citizen in a changing Information Landscape

tweet with image of opening slideThe round table discussion was presented by Bill Johnston, Sheila Webber and Shahd Salha was one of my highlights of the Satellite Meeting, appealing to both my professional and personal interests. The discussion dealt with information and the status quo, and questions around what makes a good citizen.

Webber spoke of her experience and observations of the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK. Their move towards electronic communication has alienated some patients, and Webber wondered how much people understand about recent changes to the collection of health records. Health information is provided online, creating the emergence of e-patients. How much this digital supply of medical advice empowers a patient depends on their ability to connect, and to discern between the sources of this information. It seemed particularly resonant to me that those most in need of quality health information, are those who are sick and vulnerable, and very often without access to it.

Shahd Salha, spoke about a training course that she ran as research for her PHD. Being from Syria, she was motivated by both her access to Syria and desire to help people caught up in the crisis in whatever way she could. Shahd realised that it was possible to support human rights activists from dispersed locations using online channels. She stressed the importance of listening to the needs of activists in Syria and border countries, and amending her Information Literacy training course based on cases arising in the crisis.

Training took place in virtual meetings using Facebook, messaging and chatrooms. She had to rely on the technology available to train activists and couldn’t limit it to one communication channel due to the unstable situations people on the ground were in. Shahd connected with activists working in bordering countries – Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon – and inside Syria. There were activists all around the world participating in the virtual network, providing psychological support during training and taking time to understand the various information needs. Emotional intelligences were involved in processing information, not just technical skills.

Tweets from the presentationBasic information needs were being addressed through this network, from accessing maps and sharing knowledge of safe areas, to instructions for improvising household equipment. From Shahd’s training course grew a network of sharing in action, reflecting the best elements of a co-ordinated Community of Practice. Dispersed people were connecting and coming up with solutions for growing food crops, fixing broken essentials such as a shower and creating electricity through peddle-power.  Participants were sharing solutions from one location to another – improving and building on solutions as they were passed on. Learning came about from this process and information was built on and improved.

Shahd emphasised the need to recognise that there are many sides to Information Literacy and that her example shows the importance of developing skills to overcome information barriers. Information activists are lighting the way for others and transforming lives for the better, sometimes in very basic ways. Shahd has come under pressure to discontinue her work but feels she has no choice but to help people in Syria by increasing Information Literacy in this context, which is contributing to survival.


The discussion that followed demonstrated the passion many of the Information Literacy practitioners in the room have for information as a tool for empowerment, but also some frustrations with how IL is restricted within an academic context. These were the points that were contributed and discussed after the main presentation:

  • Does our concept of Information Literacy take for granted that citizens are exposed to formal education and technology?
  • Using information to inform communities – use of information by seniors and students differs and how they share with their communities differs.
  • Information Literacy can transform people’s lives – as these cases so clearly show – but only if we expand what we mean by IL and are flexible in defining it.
  • Measures of success in Higher Education and Libraries – is Information Literacy one of those measures, should it be tied down and restrained by this?
  • Tweets with updates from discussionInformation Literacy skills transferred to workplace or real life contexts – this is a real measure of IL skills.
  • Develop an understanding in students of IL and its impact on real contexts, not just ensure they achieve a good grade.
  • Conversations and challenges to Information Literacy definitions need to happen within the academy to assist the spread of Information Skills.
  • Information Literacy can empower students to look beyond the system, teaching them to create their own jobs or projects in an uncertain future.
  • We must be open to new definitions of information and merge or combine these definitions allowing for a wide scope for Information Literacy and citizens’ rights to information.
  • UN and IFLA discussions on Information Literacy as a human right – give citizens a chance to define what this means, not have it decided in academic institutions and imposed upon people.
  • Core competency in Information Literacy is challenging what is presented to us and this should be widely applied.
  • Information available via Social Media is a valuable alternative channel to “news”, but also requires critical skills to filter.
  • Everything around us is information, so where do we draw a boundary and should it be so broadly defined?
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Posted in Information and Digital Literacy

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