Section 1.2. Information Literacy


1.2. Information Literacy

The average child in the United States watches four hours of television every day. These kids are exposed to 20,000 commercials annually. They see 8,000 onscreen murders by the time they finish grade school. Is this a good thing? As a society, we send mixed signals. On the one hand, we condemn the evils of television. Authorities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics warn that TV viewing may lead to more aggressive behavior, less physical activity, and risky sexual behavior. Newspaper headlines blame television for our epidemics of violence, obesity, and illiteracy. And yet, we let our children watch it. Perhaps we question the authorities and doubt the headlines. Perhaps we lack the time or energy to intervene. Or perhaps we trust that things will be okay because all the other kids are watching too. Perhaps.

Whenever I hear about the dominance of television and the decline of literacy, I experience a disconnect. While I do fear for the health of this media-saturated generation, I don't worry about their ability to read and write. Our culture does not reward illiteracy. On the contrary, it's almost impossible to function in modern society without mastering the skills of written communication. If you can't fill out a form, you're in trouble. The literacy rate in the United States is 97%. It's 99% throughout most of Europe. Basic literacy is not in danger. However, it's also not enough.

Our children are inheriting a media landscape that's breathtaking and bewildering. Books, magazines, newspapers, billboards, telephones, televisions, videotapes, video games, email messages, text messages, instant messages, web sites, weblogs, wikis, and the list goes on. It's exciting to have all these communication tools and information sources at our disposal, but the complexity of the environment demands new kinds of literacy. Gone are the days when we can look up the "right answer" in the family encyclopedia. Nowadays there are many answers in many places. We can find them in Microsoft Encarta or in the Wikipedia. We can find them via Google. There is so much to find, but we must first know how to search and who to trust. In the information age, transmedia information literacy is a core life skill.

The American Library Association defines information literacy as "a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information."

Information literacy also is increasingly important in the contemporary environment of rapid technological change and proliferating information resources. Because of the escalating complexity of this environment, individuals are faced with diverse, abundant information choicesin their academic studies, in the workplace, and in their personal lives. Information is available through libraries, community resources, special interest organizations, media, and the Internetand increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability. In addition, information is available through multiple media, including graphical, aural, and textual, and these pose new challenges for individuals in evaluating and understanding it. The uncertain quality and expanding quantity of information pose large challenges for society. The sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complementary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively.[*]

[*] Information Literacy Competency Standards. American Library Association: http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/informationliteracycompetency.htm.

Information literacy helps individuals succeed. As consumers, fluency with the use of multiple media enables us to find the best products at the best prices more efficiently. Whether you're buying a book or a car or a house, the Internet can often save you significant time and money. As producers, information literacy helps us find and keep the best jobs. Knowledge workers are paid for their ability to find, filter, analyze, create, and otherwise manage information. Those who lack these skills become lost on the wrong side of the digital divide. As a society, we must continue to invest in the education of our children, and we must work harder to develop information literacy among our citizens.