What is Lifelong Information Literacy?

I’ve been working on a research project for the last six months with a few colleagues on my campus. Although the paper is nominally about graduate students in a Teacher Education program, a lot of my thinking has gravitated toward the notion of “lifelong learning.” There are lots of definitions and concepts associated with that phrase, but I tend to think of it as this question: “What are students learning now that will allow them to continue to learn later?” In the case of this specific project, “What are these students learning in grad school that will help grow as teachers years from now?”

I think lifelong learning is incredibly important (and, frankly, it’s the reason I do what I do). My desired outcome is that students will think critically about accessing new information in the future, then use that information to improve their lives and create something better. I want them to know how to ask questions and find answers. When I’m working with these particular grad students, I want them to be great teachers now, and even better teachers later. I think information literacy is a big part of that.

Teaching isn’t always like this, however. Like many other courses of study, the curriculum in Teacher Education has increasingly become a response to outside forces, such as accreditors or government agencies. The result is that there are those things faculty may want to teach the students (like critical evaluation of information) but there are also those things we have to teach the students (like how to comply with federal mandates). The result is a program of study that tries to balance between the two.

To be clear, if a program’s mission is to prepare students for a specific career, there should be a balance. Both of these areas need to be addressed in the curriculum. At the same time, however, we need to recognize that compliance with federal mandates is not a lifelong skill- it has a shelf life. It only lasts as long as that mandate is in place. As soon as the legislation is revised or a new standardized test is introduced, suddenly teachers feel like they have to start all over again. What they learned in school no longer applies.

That really bothers me.

This happens in other disciplines, too. As an undergraduate, I was required to take a computer science class focused using Windows XP and MS Office. A couple of years later, Microsoft updated their operating system and most of what I learned in that class became irrelevant. I know it’s still common for research methods classes in the Social Sciences to focus largely on using SPSS, which is all well and good until students lose access to the program or IBM drastically alters its functionality (as software companies are wont to do).

Which brings me to my point: If librarians want to promote a notion of “lifelong information literacy,” we have to stop being so reactionary. We have to stop letting outside forces guide what we do. For one, we have to move beyond just “teaching databases.” Databases change or go away or get bought out. And even if they stayed the same forever, students still lose access when they graduate. Showing people “where to click” is not lifelong learning.

I recognize that we still have to talk about databases in class, in the same way that the Teacher Education program has to talk about federal mandates and the Psych majors have to learn SPSS. Where librarians have fallen behind is in establishing that balance between what we have to teach (databases) and what we want to teach.

Come to think of it, what do we want to teach? What is lifelong information literacy? That seems to be the question of the day. The latest Project Information Literacy study is addressing this, and CILIP recently published a literature review on the subject. My issue with these works is that they put too much emphasis on “workplace success.” Relying on employers to tell us what to teach is just another way of externalizing our curriculum, and that kind of instruction is not sustainable. To me, lifelong learning exists apart from the labor market, or which database just changed its interface, or any other outside factor. We need to recognize these factors, but we can’t define our learning outcomes around them. There has to be a balance.

And therein lies the problem. As a librarian, I’ve struggled to find a balance between what I want to be and what others expect me to be. I think the profession, as a whole, faces a similar dilemma. Are libraries just buildings full of books? Are librarians just tour guides? Should we just teach databases? I sometimes worry that we’ve been so concerned with meeting user demands that we’ve forgotten to consider what we want for ourselves.

For me, I think information literacy, and all learning, comes down to critical inquiry, reflection, and engagement. Those are lifelong skills. That’s what I want to teach. And if someone is capable of those things, they’ll likely be a great employee. But that’s not why I’m an educator, and I don’t think that should be the force driving my growth as a librarian.

Which brings it all back to my work with the Teacher Education students. I’ve thought long and hard about what I want to be teaching them, and as luck would have it, the outcomes I’ve identified are also beneficial for their future job prospects. Everybody wins! But I also recognize that there will be days when external forces will demand instruction that I know to be unsustainable. In those situations, I’ll still be happy to teach, but I also need to be honest with myself that the learning outcomes have a shelf life. I suppose that’s ok some of the time, but I also need to make sure I maintain that balance.