It is quite clear from the literature that there is no one agreed definition of information literacy. Bundy (2004), tells us that the term information literacy was first used back in 1974, by a US educator Paul Zurkowski and the same decade saw early information literacy efforts appear in Australian schools (p. 45). In those early days, information literacy was seen as study or research skills, and the compartmentalised domain of the school librarian (Langford, 1999).
Since then, definitions of information literacy have evolved from specific information technology and computer skill sets to research-based, student-centred, culturally-aware, critical approaches to constructing knowledge for clear purposes. Information literacy can then be defined as either functional or cultural.
Functional definitions focus on the skills or procedural set of activities that students are required to complete to be seen as ‘information literate’. In these models, generally, students work out what information they need, where they might get it from, gather the information, evaluate it, build it into their existing knowledge and then evaluate its ability to meet the original needs (Toyn, 2013. p. 56). This narrow definition of literacy is analogous to filling up the empty head with information and fails to recognise the cultural aspects of information gathering and knowledge construction. The students head is not empty!
In 1995, Carol Kuhlthau, in true social/constructivist form, introduced the notion of applying attitudinal behaviours towards information seeking (Langford, 1999). She suggested that information literacy is far more than simply being able to access needed information, but it also involves being able to construct new, meaningful and purposeful knowledge. This construction of knowledge enables students to become life-long learners. It is this notion of life-long learning with clear purpose that reveals the major difference between functional and cultural definitions of information literacy.
To be literate requires interaction with others. Cultural information literacy definitions recognise that students need to interact with their research, they need to make connections and develop deep understandings by critically analysing sources of information, identifying cultural perspectives, collaborating and discussing opposing views and conflicting information, then forming their own response or opinions, on reflection. In essence transforming their research into new knowledge, formulating new theses or problems to solve and then beginning again.
This definition of information literacy has significant implications for teaching and learning. It requires strong collaboration between teachers and the teacher librarian with a commitment to embedding information literacy in the curriculum. It requires independent and group work. And it requires a new mind-set for Principals, Teacher Librarians and Classroom Teachers to truly commit to a life-long learning paradigm for their students.
Bundy, A. (ed.) (2004). Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework: principles, standards and practice. 2nd ed. Adelaide: Australian and New Zealand Institute for Information Literacy (ANZIIL) and Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL).
Langford, L. (1999). Information literacy? Seeking clarification. . In J. Henri & K. Bonanno (Eds.), The information literate school community : best practice (pp. 43-54). Wagga Wagga, NSW : Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University.
Toyn, M. (2013). Finding things out – information literacy. In E.Honan (Ed.), Thinking through new literacies for primary and early years. (pp.51 – 66). Moorabin, Victoria : Hawker Brownlow Education