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Information Literacy’s Third Wave

The daunting complexity of becoming information literate today.

February 14, 2019
 
 

We’re developing a seven-week course that we proposed after a history professor urged the library to teach a course on fake news that everyone should have to take. We’re not using the fraught phrase “fake news” and we have no plans to force it on anyone, but it’s a great opportunity to think about what we mean when we say “information literacy.” Students think librarians know stuff about libraries, which is where you go to find information for school. We actually know stuff about information systems that are not mediated by libraries and information literacy is more than finding sources for assignments. This course will focus on information that we encounter through various channels, how those channels work, how to quickly verify a doubtful claim and (to use Peter Elbow’s phrase) how to play the believing game as well. As Mike Caulfield has demonstrated, students don’t need to learn skepticism as much as they need to learn when to trust. We'll see how it goes.

I’m beginning to think we’re entering a Third Wave of information literacy. The first was empowering students to ask questions using information made available through libraries, and we called it bibliographic instruction. The second was rethinking what students needed to know because the internet happened and it was changing how we sought and shared information. Now it feels as if we’re entering a different era. We’re just beginning to respond to the commercialization and portability of networked information. Perhaps the negotiation among academic librarians to reformulate information literacy standards first adopted in 2000 marked the swelling of this new wave. It wasn’t that we’d done it wrong before; the world of information was changing again, profoundly, and we needed new ways to talk about it.   

What’s new is not just that we are constantly connected to the internet, thanks to the computer-formerly-known-as-a-phone that we carry everywhere in our pockets, but our lives are in the pockets of a small number of very large companies that have colonized the internet and any number of industries. They have turned the internet and what we do on it into the engine for a new form of capital (something Shoshona Zuboff explores in her new book that is currently near the top of Mount To Be Read). That new form of economic exchange influences our relationship to information institutions – book publishing, the news industry, entertainment, interpersonal communication, political communication, and more. That new form of capital is based on keeping us engaged (and sometimes enraged) to serve ads online while sweeping up immense volumes of granular information about nearly everything two billion human beings do as they both consume and generate information.

And we thought getting on the Information Superhighway was a big deal. This is way more complicated.

A friend pointed me to a new report from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. I haven’t read its 150+ pages yet. All I’ve managed so far is the table of contents and the Executive Summary, which is so short I wonder if executive time should be measured in nanoseconds. Anyway, the report raises big, gnarly questions about democracy, epistemology, media, technology, and citizenship. The trouble is each of these arenas is a big ball of complexity and all of them are interdependent. If we want to fix journalism, we also have to make changes to the technology that distributes it. We’ll have to agree on what good reporting is, and that means dealing with disagreements about how we know what is true. We have to talk about governance if we want to mend our broken political relationships, but they’re broken because people don’t trust the government. We have to think about the economics underlying both the distrust of institutions and these new institutions of capital that depend on gathering and analyzing the minutia of our lives for predictive and persuasive purposes, and if we don’t like what these companies are doing, we need regulation, which means we need trust in government and some agreement among ourselves about what is true. Round and round we go.

That’s partly why I’m finding it hard to wrap my head around information literacy’s Third Wave. If we think it matters, we have a lot to do, and it’s all so entangled and complex that it’s hard to know the best way to approach teaching students about how information works in the world we inhabit today. Students don’t have time for the equivalent of a 200-page report analyzing the entanglements and complexities of the information they encounter daily when this third wave is breaking over us all. I don’t blame them for wanting to cut to the chase if what they need to do right now is find five peer-reviewed articles. Figuring out what’s important for their survival this semester is where their focus is, and that's understandable.

But being educated is more than being able to pass courses and information isn’t always in library databases. Librarians have for decades made the claim that information literacy matters. I hope we and our colleagues across the campus can find a way to rise to the challenge.

Meanwhile, I’m channeling some of my confusion into co-designig a course. There’s some comfort in that.

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