Information Literacy: What is it good for?

This post was written by Langsdale librarian Catherine Johnson
A recent Mashable article pointed to some data collected by EasyBibabout the types of resources students use in academic papers.  This study found that the most cited websites are: Wikipedia, New York Times and YouTube.  Four of the top ten most cited websites feature user-generated content (that’s content that is contributed by anyone – from an expert to a novice).  

During the last two months of the spring 2012 semester, I taught a few library instruction sessions.  I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea.  Professors gather their students for a day in the library to learn all they need to know about research in an hour and twenty minutes.  I start the sessions by asking students what kinds of sources they cite in their paper.  They usually confess that they use websites, Wikipedia and YouTube most often.  To follow that discussion, I asked students to look at three articles (a scholarly article, a magazinearticle and a website) about a particular topic.  I asked students to rank those resources from “best” to “worst” for inclusion in a paper.

Students almost always said the scholarly journal article was “best” and the website was “worst.”  Students explained that they rated the scholarly source as best because they could tell who had written it, they could tell that person was an expert and they could see all the sources that person used to write the article.  They often listed other reasons, but those three usually came up first.  
I then posed the following question to the students, “If you know the scholarly source is better and you’ve identified these qualities that help you recognize its quality, why do you continue to use websites, Wikipedia and YouTube videos as sources in your work?”  

Students usually respond by explaining that it’s easier and more familiar to find sources using Google or a similar search engine.  They decided that the sources they were finding there were good enough to complete the work they were assigned.

This is where information literacy comes in.  In addition to teaching students that there are sources beyond Google (they usually already know that) and showing them how to get to those sources (they could probably figure that out on their own if they were motivated to do so), information literacy should instill a drive in students to find the best information possible.  Information literacy can help students recognize those great sources when they find them.  It can help students discern reliable sources from unreliable sources.  It can help them understand what kinds of sources are appropriate to answer their research need.  It can help them understand how to use those sources effectively.
Information literacy really helps students help themselves.   Heck, I’ve been talking about students through this post but it’s not just about students, is it?  It’s about people.  Information literacy is one of those skills you’ll (hopefully) learn in college without really recognizing you’ve learned it.  It’ll be one of those ingrained skills that stick with you and you call upon daily to ferret out the good information from the bad.  You’ll use information literacy to get a leg up on the competition because you’re armed with better information in this knowledge and information driven society.  Information literacy will help you make better informed choices about health care, employment, child care and anything else that’s important to you.
If you’re interested in learning more about information literacy, take a look at: Understanding Information Literacy: A primer(.pdf)

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