SKILLS FOR AN INFORMATION AGE:
WHO TAKES UP THE CHALLENGE?
Paper presented at the 1987 NZLA Conference
The starting point for this session is Joe Hendry's concluding remark in recent issue of the Library Association Record. Defining the purpose of JILL, the Johnstone Information and Leisure Library for teens, he said, "And in the long term, to think, to ask questions, and to get the information they need for their lives and on their terms."
This begs a few interesting questions:
• What is information as it relates to young people both in NZ and UK?
• What exactly are the skills they need to get and use this information?
• What do we mean by 'for their lives, and on their terms'? Are the lives and terms of young people any different from other people?
• What has changed? Is it any different from when we were young and
needed information? What exactly is the Information Age?
• If there is an increasing gap between the Haves and the Have Nots, which, for the young, means Have Jobs / Have no jobs, should we be directing our attempts to provide information and information skills in two different directions
- one lot of information and information skills for potential executives with jobs, hatchbacks, share portfolios and mortgages?
- one lot for unemployed or unemployables, unemployed by choice, or
by virtue of lack of skill and education?
1. What is information?
If we, as librarians, are in the business of providing it, we should, surely, be able to define it. Whether we define it as a noun or a verb makes a significant difference to the terms on which we offer it to young people, and help them to use it effectively.
As a noun it is facts, data, knowledge etc, which is ail very well, but in reality it all too often means facts lying in an encyclopaedia waiting to be photocopied. Any of you who teach, or have children at school will know what I mean by the travesty of research in the name of projects!
As a verb information, simply, is the process of becoming informed, a doing word. It is an active process of adding to one's store of experience from the experience of others - whether this is in print, person or electronic form, stored in books, non-books, fiction, non- fiction, databases, or in people themselves.
The difference is a crucial one. It is worth examining the implications for librarians in terms of how we approach 'user education' (probably the most patronising term in the whole jargonese of librarianship!) - what I prefer to call information skills or information literacy skills.
What are the implications of this process view of information?
As everyone, child and adult, has a different base of experience, adding to this experience is invariably an individual pursuit. It cannot be systematized and reduced to an all-purpose pathfinder except as a broad guide. One person night find the answers through gossip. Another might prefer a Reference Book as a resource. Another might find an organization listed in the Yellow Pages and locate an informed, interested person resource. There is no one right way.
The process of becoming informed is essentially an individual process of seeking, finding and using the answers to problems.
While this process is highly individualized, what there is in common in all people engaged in finding what they need to know, is the desire to be in the driver's seat; to be in control of the process and the information; to be acting upon it, to be translating the coded experience, coded in book, electronic or whatever form, into their terms, their experience.
If learning how to use information and enhancing one's store of experience are synonymous, and if this is essentially something one does for oneself in the light of one's existing experience, how do we assess user education programnes which are more often offered on our terms, the library's terms, than their terms?
Simply, the implication of information as a process, in learning terms, is that you don't learn to drive a car by being told about driving skills. You learn to drive by driving. Likewise, you learn to learn by learning, not by having an intermediary - teacher or librarian - do it for you and tell you what it was you needed to know.
In summary, if you define information as a verb - as the process of becoming informed by adding to one's store of information and experience, the implications for libraries and librarians become clear:
• it is a process
• it is active
• it is individual
• it is an active process related to an individual's experience and perceived in formation need
• it is necessary, if the Information seeker is to add to her/ his store of experience in any meaningful way, that s/he participates fully in the process.
2. What are information skills?
To define information skills simply as the skills needed to make efficient and effective use of information, implies that these are relatively simple skills. Would that they were! When I did my MA in London in 1977 I spent months observing how information was used in school and public libraries. If information skills were being taught, there was no evidence that they were being applied!
It is worth looking at some characteristics of the way information skills are currently approached. Information skills are:
˘ frequently regarded, and taught, in a fragmented way as reading, comprehension, notemaking, library and study skills,
˘ frequently taught as standalone programmes rather than in the context of real information searches,
˘ frequently not taught at all! Assumed to be learned by osmosis. Everyone blames everyone else, but few address the real problem.
˘ frequently seen by librarians as what teachers should do - who else is paid to ensure that children acquire and use information effectively? But frequently they are seen by teachers as the province of librarians, because teachers think that librarians understand the mysteries and mystique of Dewey and libraries. Often teachers have managed to get through Teachers College or university without ever really coming to grips library skills with because everything they needed was on desk loan anyway!
While we might all acknowledge the importance for all children of being to use information effectively, we ask, rightly, who in schools is delegated to teach it? The reading teacher? Classroom teacher? English teacher? Teacher responsible for the library? Computer teacher? Library assistant?
Every teacher must be a teacher of information skills to the extent that it is every teacher's responsibility to facilitate learning, but:
• what is everyone's responsibility can easily become no-one's responsibility unless it is planned and co-ordinated. (this, incidentally, is one of the main functions of the new Teacher-Librarians in New Zealand schools)
• precisely because it is acknowledged to be important, it is easy for a teacher to assume that it must somehow have been done before, and better by someone else.
Our usual compromise is to draw up lists of skills and competencies and hope for the best, but often all they do is to strike terror into the hearts of teachers and librarians. However, if, as librarians and teachers, we were to adopt a process view of information, i.e. information defined as a process of becoming informed, it becomes easier to look at the skills through the process.
The process itself can be broken down into six stages, and these give students a handle for grasping the skills in a way that makes sense on their terms and in their lives.
The six stages are:
or, in other words:
1. Deciding what you need to know; deciding, in relation
to what you already know? what you need to find out; deciding
the scope, the parameters and direction of your enquiry.
2. Finding likely sources of information - in libraries, people, organizations,
institutions; finding the resources themselves; finding appropriate
information in the resources.
3. Using the information located by applying it selectivity, applying
a wide range of reading, viewing, listening, interviewing, questioning
and cognitive strategies with flexibility.
4. Recording relevant information selectively in accordance
with the information need and purpose; organizing the information
retrieved for use and re-use.
5. Presenting the information relevant to the information
need with impact and accuracy, tailoring the message to suit the
medium and the audience
6. Evaluating how well you have achieved what you set out to discover;
how well you achieved your original information purpose, or what
it is you thought you needed to know; how well you were able to
participate in the research process, acting on the information
and controlling it, rather than being controlled by it.
The whole futility of drawing up lists of skills and thinking that you can make people independent information users if you teach then those skills, lies precisely in the fact that the process of research and information use means that you don't work through skills sequentially.
There: is no right skill for the right time in the right place. At any stage of the process you need to be able to choose between a number of different skills and apply them with flexibility and initiative.
The advantage of breaking the process down into stages as is that it imposes a pattern, a framework on what is otherwise an impossibly vast conglomeration of disparate skills ranging from cognitive to linguistic, journalistic, artistic.
The stages allow for what I was talking about earlier - the information user being in the driving seat, in control of the operation, able to stop at any stage of the process and say "How am I doing? Should I go back, or forward or use alternative routes and skills?"
The age of
are the changes?
of information: the much-talked of exponential growth in information
- growth in proportion to itself - information in some subject
areas doubling every ten years - increase in number of ways is
stored and communicated.
of information: previously published information was relatively
"pure", authoritative, written by experts', vetted, edited and
reasonably reliable. With the vast growth in so-called 'dirty'
publishing - made possible particularly by wordprocessing, photocopying
and tape recording, we are looking at the whole world of what
is called grey' publishing' - real-time, informally published
and distributed- that hasn't come through the formal publishing
and media: video, videodiscs, CD-Rom, fiche, interactive video
and videodisc, holography, videotex, teletext etc etc etc. Enormous
growth in the range of materials and methods by which information
can be stored and disseminated, and interactivity as the password
of the 80's, with previously unrelated media being linked on an
unprecedented scale - like the linking of telephone, photocopying
and computer technologies in telefacsimile machines.
user-friendly interfaces to online databases; after- dark facilities
provided for the general public on databases like ERIC .
As well as growth in ways information can be stored and accessed,
unprecedented growth in range of ways in which it can be communicated
- Starnet, facsimile, Machine readable tapes and discs videotex,
skills do students need that they didn't need before?
to read, listen, view, interview, question (back to the comment
by Joe Hendry about asking questions with purpose and direction).
to exercise judgment, discrimination. Be able to compare, contrast,
analyse, detect bias, propaganda, 'fact', opinion, inaccuracy,
in a far wider range of sources than just book-based print.
to adjust all these listening, reading, viewing, questioning skills
in terms of rate and style, choosing an appropriate speed and
technique; using browsing, skimming, scanning, in-depth study
techniques with flexibility and confidence.
to transfer flexibly from text to graphics -diagrams, spreadsheets,
databases,etc; to be truly information literate by being able
to use the unique potential of each medium to retrieve, analyze,
synthesize and communicate information.
to employ all information skills with flexibility and initiative
in the frequent job changes which are likely to be a feature of
students' lives, far more than ours - the ability to harness skills,
not just to a change of job, but a change of profession, employment
in a totally different field. The ability to harness skills to
creating their own enterprises outside the traditional formal
Haves and Have Nots?
2000 prophets', Stonier, Naisbitt, Toffler, Christopher Evans,
Barry Jones, Lancaster, all see an increasing gulf between the
haves and have nots in society, and increasingly, link 'haves',
not just with have money, but with 'have jobs', have information,
have access to the skills needed to make use of information, ask
questions and make decisions.
is not just an economic one. I think we all accept the inevitability
of the have/ have not society. But if we believe what the Information
Prophets tell us, increasingly it is as much a gulf between information
literates and information illiterates as an economic gulf. The
new international currency of power is not sheep or minerals,
It is worth
pushing it to its logical extreme and suggesting that if we are
going to take Joe Hendry's challenge to provide the information
that they, the young people, need for their lives, and on their
terms, we should design processes for teaching information skills
that give them power over information:
- the power
to see alternatives, to make informed decisions after weighing
factors, exploring options
- the power
to shape rather than be shaped,
- the power
to know what information is, how to get it, how to use it,
- the power
of feeling like a decision-maker because you can see things clearly
- what does information do, ultimately, if it doesn't allow a
broadening of perspective, alternatives, options, directions,
without which it is difficult to have a sense of self worth?
This is what
I want for all children - the ability to make informed decisions;
a sense of self-worth as New Zealanders with options to consider