Information Literacy, A Myth?

By Joshua Salmans


“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence.”

—John F. Kennedy


In my last post, I juxtaposed Kennedy’s unorthodox approach to information mobility within the workplace with contemporary discussions on information literacy (IL). Outside of the library profession, however, the term is often foreign; so at the risk of conjuring up an already settled discussion, I want to revisit the concept of IL and how librarians define it.

Not too long ago, I came across Princeton University’s blog Academic Librarian. In a post written several years ago, Wayne Bivens-Tatum, the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton, delivers a scathing charge against the concept of IL, “There is no such thing.… It’s a baggy phrase that means either too much or too little.”[i] He further argues that its goals, as defined by the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, are too broad to be realistic and attainable for students and puts an unnecessary burden of responsibility on librarians.

As a MLIS student with an Adult Basic Education (ABE) teaching background, I thought this position worth looking into. Princeton is a historically prestigious school renowned for its highly ranked graduate programs in International Affairs and Engineering, and Applied Sciences. All graduate students are required to write a senior thesis, and its alumni include well-known public figures such as President Woodrow Wilson, Michelle Obama, and John Forbes Nash. Given the context of Princeton’s academic notoriety, Bivens-Tatum’s observations are understandable if we view it from a strict disciplinarian perspective.

Without getting into too much detail about his specific criticisms [ii] about each of the standards, I want to address his main objection to the librarians’ role in developing IL. He maintains that IL classes have little to no striking epiphany, and that scholarly research skills are almost always developed strictly in one discipline, “project by project, over a period of years.” 

Bivens-Tatum has a valid point, at least from an academic librarian’s point of view: scholars generally develop their research skills in a specific discipline from the mentorship of other scholars in the same field. Whereas librarians are taught to be “content neutral yet process strong,” scholarship is conversely content rich and always accompanied with a subject context. He adds, “[this] development takes time and energy, and most students will never devote that time and energy to learning to be great researchers, no matter how much we prod them.” In his estimation, the role of the librarian is thus limited and does not include teaching anything called information literacy.

So far, it is looking somewhat grim for the role of the academic librarian in IL, right? R. David Lankes, author of The New Librarian Field Guide, proffers a different perspective of librarianship and academic knowledge in a presentation he did about library science vs. information science.[iii] In this age of information ubiquity that has repeatedly called into question the value of librarianship, what if we started looking at librarianship in the information domain “not as a single set of methods, research questions, theories, or even a shared definition, [but] [as] a community having a sustained conversation”?

What if the strict “mono-disciplinary” context Bivens-Tatum applies to scholarly research pedagogy doesn’t really convey the increasingly dynamic nature of scholarly and professional communications and their flow between disciplines?

Several years ago, I came across Thomas Davenport’s article in the Harvard Business Review in which he urges business education to emulate interdisciplinary approaches that has appeared in some scientific fields.[iv] In it, he cites a previous interview he had with two Canadian bankers who were searching for candidates who could approach customer analytics through a statistical marketing perspective as well as from an ethnographic and competitive intelligence point of view. They were searching for people who could be both scientists and artists at the same time.

Davenport recounts another successful interdisciplinary endeavor by CIO of fast-food company who combined his expertise in computer science and neuroscience in order to gain insights on what information consumers will pay attention to and subsequently act on it.

He goes on to lament the strict course slots of the disciplinarian programs in business higher education. He insists that business education has to adapt like the above entrepreneurial business professionals in order to face many of the increasingly interdisciplinary demands that lie ahead.

At Harvard, the scholastic community recognized this need when they built the first and largest multi-disciplinary laboratory building. This laboratory won the 2009 R&D Magazine Laboratory of the Year High Honors Award for its collaborative learning and teaching design. If institutions like Harvard are to become more interdisciplinary in their academic pedagogy and research, IL skills are going to be in high demand — librarians consequently must seize the opportunity to become IL experts.

Rather than depicting IL as broad set of objectives, I view it as the ability to be conversant between disciplines. This perspective does not mean that librarians have to be scholars or experts in all fields, but IL Librarianship can offer the development of IL skills that perpetuate academic conversation.

Even disciplinarians, if only on occasion, have the need to be conversant to make a breakthrough, or to advertise the value of their research beyond the confines of their own discipline. As bridges and connectors, librarians can serve as catalysts or, as Lankes puts it, “conversational lubricants” between various academic disciplines and the broader community to do just that.

Then the conversant nature of IL librarianship does not need to compete or diminish the immense value of the context-rich nature of disciplinarian content, but it can help draw that content out from the bastions of the disciplinary fortress and into the broader academic community. Its benefits apply to the entire institution and allows for cross-pollination between the disciplines. If viewed this way, IL is unmistakably quintessential to scholarly communication.


[i] Wayne Biven-Tatum. (2011, April 5). The myth of information literacy [Web blog post]. Academic Librarian. Retrieved from https://blogs.princeton.edu/librarian/2011/04/the_myth_of_information_literacy/

[ii] Ibid. (2011, March 16). A bit on information literacy [Web blog post]. Academic Librarian. Retrieved from https://blogs.princeton.edu/librarian/2011/03/a_bit_on_information_literacy/

[iii] R. David Lankes. (2016). Librarianship in the growing information domain…or how I learned to stop worrying and love information [Video post]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/154465735

[iv] Thomas H. Davenport. (2008, July 30). “Biogeochemistry” and the need for an interdisciplinary approach to business [Web blog post]. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/07/biogeochemistry-and-the-need-f

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camelotsecho by Joshua Salmans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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