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.”  Continue reading “Information Literacy, A Myth?”