This page is older archived content from an older version of the Emerald Publishing website.

As such, it may not display exactly as originally intended.

Information literacy


"…the learning agenda, the students’ learning experience and achievement, needs to be absolutely at the forefront of librarians’ thinking. If you accept this, then it radically changes the understanding of what it is to be a librarian".
From an interview with Professor Philippa Levy, University of Sheffield.

A student doing a liberal arts degree 30 years ago could expect to have a list of "recommended reading", most of which were books, all of which were print, and available in a well-stocked library. Because these titles had been recommended by the relevant lecturer, the quality was assured.

Today’s student has a vastly more extensive possibility of sources in different media, both print and electronic. Information is probably more extensive and more freely available than ever before. Finding information is easy – finding the right sort of timely, accurate and quality information is not, and academics and librarians alike complain that many students see information seeking as simply searching Google.

Developing the ability to find the right sort of information is a major concern for higher education, and indeed the world beyond and outside academe. Kinengyere (2006) cites the folowing examples:

  • In the UK, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), convened an Information Skills Taskforce in 1998, which developed the Seven Pillars model of information literacy.
  • In the USA, the American Library Association (ALA) Presidential Committee on Information Literacy (1989) defined four components of information literacy.
  • In Australia they are one of the five key elements in the profile of a lifelong learner.
  • UNESCO sees information literacy as essential for lifelong learning.
  • Wu and Kendall (2006) quote Drucker’s contention that the world was held together by information, as well as the IDC’s opportunity cost estimate of $6 million a year of not finding relevant information.
  • A survey conducted among library users in Uganda on the effect of information literacy programmes showed that information literate researchers were actually taking less time on research as they were better able to conduct relevant literature searches.

Information literacy, defined by the ALA (1989) as the ability to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information", is one of the main current concerns of librarians, who bring to the situation their ability to find quality – as opposed to instant – knowledge. Recent surveys of the librarianship profession in the UK show that many librarians spend around a third of their time, in some cases more, teaching. It is hardly surprising therefore that this is one of the most popular subjects in librarianship literature, and a number of Emerald articles provide useful literature reviews, most notably Johnson et al. (2006).

Drawing on the most recent articles, we look at the main frameworks for information literacy, before exploring the ways in which the subject is taught.

Information literacy frameworks

Information literacy as a concept first appeared in the 1970s, and although initially associated with IT, it is now accepted as a separate skill set (Corrall, 1998). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was much research into information seeking behaviour, however there has been less into, say, academic perceptions of the subject or the pedagogy of how to teach it. Hardly surprisingly, the main attempts to examine ; there is less from an academic’s perspective. We shall look at these various frameworks in turn.

Librarian frameworks

The two main frameworks are those by the major librarianship bodies on either side of the Atlantic: the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) of the American Library Association (ALA), and the (British) Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL). Another framework, based on that of ACRL, was developed by Alan Bundy for Australia and New Zealand (Bundy, 2003). The SCONUL model is known as the Seven Pillars of Information Literacy and forms the basis of information literacy training in most UK universities.

All these frameworks have developed standards by which an information literate person can be recognized, together with learning outcomes and examples. Their approach, summarized below, is broadly similar – all emphasize recognition of need, access, evaluation and synthesis, appropriate use and ethics.

Summary of librarians' information-literacy-framework approaches
Definition of need The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed The ability to recognize a need for information. The ability to distinguish ways in which the information "gap" may be addressed The information literate person recognizes the need for information and determines the nature and extent of the information needed
Access The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently The ability to construct strategies for locating information. The ability to locate and access information The information literate person finds needed information effectively and efficiently
Evaluation The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system The ability to compare and evaluate information obtained from different sources The information literate person critically evaluates information and the information seeking process
Use The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose The ability to organize, apply and communicate information to others in ways appropriate The information literate person manages information collected or generated
Synthesis   The ability to synthesize and build on existing information, contributing to the creation of new knowledge The information literate person applies prior and new information to construct new concepts or create new understandings
Ethics The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally   The information literate person uses information with understanding and acknowledges cultural, ethical, economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information

All sets of standards are freely available on the Web, and can be accessed by clicking on the links given below:

The ACRL Anthropology and Sociology Section (ANSS) includes data literacy in its discipline-related standards, which could equally well be applied to business studies with its use numerical data and quantitative methods (ACRL, 2007). Stephenson and Caravello (2007) describe an initiative at UCLA to link information literacy with data literacy, defined as "the ability to read and interpret data, to think critically about statistics, and use statistics as evidence".

Academic frameworks

Academic studies of information literacy are more likely to emphasize the importance of critical thinking. Back in the 1990s, Shapiro and Hughes sought to reframe information literacy by linking it with critical reflection (Loo and Chung, 2006).

Boon, Johnston and Webber (2006) studied UK English academics’ conceptions of information literacy, and compared them to library frameworks. Using phenomenographic methods, which focus on people’s perceptions of a situation, they found that academics also valued the higher order skills of analytic thought and reflection. Sharkey (2006) describes the information fluency model, created by the (US) Associated Colleges of the South, which blends information literacy with critical thinking skills and technology, with the object of creating students with analytical skills and the ability to navigate a wide range of technologies in their search for information.

Loo and Chung (2006) describe the "Big Six" model, which consists of a number of steps similar to the librarians’ standards:

  1. task definition
  2. information seeking strategies
  3. location and access
  4. use of information
  5. synthesis
  6. evaluation.

However, it integrates these steps with findings from cognitive psychology on how new knowledge is constructed on that which is already known. Mokhtar et al. (2007) link information literacy with learning styles, and draw on the concept of multiple intelligences, whereby there are a number of different forms of intelligence:

  • linguistic-verbal
  • mathematical-logical
  • kinaesthetic
  • visual-spatial
  • musical
  • intra- and interpersonal.

Finally, Andersen (2006) sets information literacy in a social framework by claiming that it is a socio-political, rather than merely technical skill, requiring an understanding of the genres under which information is grouped.

Teaching information literacy

The fact that so many librarians are now also teachers has led many to seek professional development in that area. However, Professor Sheila Corrall comments on the lack of provision within library and information management education, as well as the unique pedagogical challenges posed by the fact that their contact with the student is likely to be more limited than that of their academic colleagues.

"The typical librarian is lucky if they see the students twice in a year in some cases so they have to get it right first time. They have to be able to assess fairly quickly the level at which the students are currently at and the type of delivery and learning support that is going to be most effective in any particular situation. They don’t have the luxury to build up their understanding gradually as academic staff can to a much greater extent".
Sheila Corrall, Professor of Librarianship and Information Management at Sheffield University.

Much time will probably also be spent liaising with academic colleagues and trying to find out what is required.

Importance of embedding

Information literacy has historically often taken the form of a one-off introductory session at the beginning of a course. However this type of training, divorced from any but the most general context, is not the best way of imparting information literacy skills. According to Professor Philippa Levy of Sheffield University:

"…it’s important to embed the information literacy development activities into a meaningful context. That might mean embedding information literacy activities into a discipline-based module so that for example in literary criticism, you also undertake activities which will develop your information literacy in that area. In a standalone module there also needs to be some meaningful context for the student; it’s well-accepted that generic forms of training are less successful than forms of development which are contextualized in students’ engagement with their academic subject or another area of their lives".
From an interview with Philippa Levy

An experiment was conducted involving 476 students at secondary schools in Singapore, the results of which led to the following conclusion:

"...IL competencies cannot be sufficiently learned and applied when the competencies are learned through a one-time training, be it in the form of lecture-tutorial, workshops or hands-on sessions. The competencies need to be entrenched through close coaching or mediated learning so that students are able to identify their learning gaps, rectify them and improve their learning under the close supervision and guidance of an expert".
Reference: Mokhtar et al. 2007: p. 476

Context is critical, and usually the best way of ensuring that information literacy is taught within a context is by linking it to the curriculum. In their review of the literature 18 months ago, Johnson et al. (2006) comment on a degree of integration and embedding in the curriculum previously not seen. To be effective, therefore, librarians need to look carefully at the learning objectives of the courses which they service, to see where information literacy might best be included. Year one compulsory courses, which already teach research skills or writing, are a popular choice.

San José State has pioneered integrated information literacy through its English department; its first programme was in 2000 and centred on a first year required course, English 1b, where students do a module on information literacy which is divided into three parts:

  1. formulating a research question
  2. finding information
  3. evaluating information.

This also acts as a learning needs analysis, helping librarians assess where students need more help. More recently, librarians did a thorough study of the business degree syllabus, and thought that the course, Business 100W, which emphasized research and writing skills, would be a good starting-point for information literacy (Wu and Kendall, 2006).

Many librarians try to integrate their information literacy teaching with the curriculum, both horizontally, across different subjects, and vertically, at different levels.

At King’s College London, information specialists deliver information literacy as part of the taught course curricula. Each school has its own information specialist whose job it is to understand the information needs of staff and students. In the medical school for example, training in the nature of biomedical information, use of Medline, medical resources on the Internet, evidence-based practice, and use of bibliographic management is distributed throughout the five-year course, at increasing levels of complexity. For example, basic Medline skills are taught in year one, and advanced skills in years three to five; discovering resources in year one, and evaluation in year two (Haines and Horrocks, 2006).

It is quite common for librarians to team teach with academics, for example research skills courses are often taught by a combination of librarians and subject academics. For example:

  • At UCLA, a sociology information literacy lab was team taught by a librarian and a data archivist from the UCLA Institute for Social Science Research (Stephenson and Caravello, 2007).
  • At Newcastle University, UK, library staff work in conjunction with academic colleagues to develop courses that are relevant to that discipline.

In addition to embedding information literacy skills within the curriculum, some libraries try and ensure that staff have appropriate support, not only to service their own needs, but to enable skills to be passed on if there are insufficient librarians to tackle the teaching. This occurs at King’s College London, UK, where the sheer numbers of students on nursing courses mean that not everyone can be taught by a librarian, so support documentation has been created for teaching staff to deliver their own sessions (Haines and Horrocks, 2006).

Embedding is not confined to the curriculum: at San José State, a member of the library staff lives in one of the campus villages and helps with information literacy in students’ residences.


Some university libraries – such as the University of Guelph – support students by offering mentoring. Doing this can be costly in time and resources, but librarians appreciate seeing immediate benefits in the students’ improved skills.


Students are more likely to take their information literacy training seriously if they have to submit graded assignments. The latter should also relate to the course the student is taking; a common pattern is to collect and evaluate resources prior to completing the main course assignment. For example:

  • At Thompson Rivers University in Canada, students are asked to compare and evaluate sources and search tools (Brendle-Moczuk, 2006).
  • King’s College London, UK, has tried various forms of compulsory assessment for its medical students: multiple choice questions were rejected because of problems of ambiguity; search skills assessments were more demanding but impractical; finally, the library settled on an online skills workbook, which must be signed off (Haines and Horrocks, 2006).

Online delivery

A basic problem with information literacy, as with all forms of instruction at higher education, is the sheer volume of numbers. For this reason, there are plenty of examples of courses that have been developed online as a way of reaching more students.

  • At King’s College London, rising student numbers in the health schools has led to a rethink of delivery options, including online tutorials (Haines and Horrocks, 2006).
  • The University Library System of The Chinese University of Hong Kong provided an e-learning tool that would increase students’ information literacy skills. E-learning was chosen in an attempt to cover more content and reach more people (many students lived some distance away) than would have been possible in a time- and space-bound classroom situation. The interactive design followed the ACRL standards, and uses a case-based approach to provide a context (Li et al., 2007).
  • San José State University also provides some of its tutorials online for its students – see

Online delivery is not always chosen for pragmatic reasons: one Australian university uses podcasting because it is funky, gets rid of the staid image of the library, and meets students’ need for information on demand (Berk et al., 2007).


Most higher education information literacy programmes draw on the ACRL or SCONUL standards. The latter are particularly popular because they are scalable, so they can be used when information literacy is taught at all levels. One illustration of this is the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, where information literacy is integrated at all four levels of a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences programme; the SCONUL standards are used because of their scalability, and concepts repeated throughout the four years with increasing complexity and sophistication. For example, using research resources starts with encyclopedias and moves on to looking at journal articles and creating sophisticated annotated bibliographies (Harrison and Rourke, 2006).

The syllabus is obviously dictated by the needs of the group concerned: a graduate group for example would need higher level, and research oriented, information skills:

  • King’s College London runs an information retrieval programme for its graduate students, iGrad, which is strongly oriented towards research skills and includes topics such as how to construct a systematic literature review (Haines and Horrocks, 2006).
  • At San José State, the English 100W course focuses on research, reading and writing skills, and the information literacy training looks at how to research effectively, use a business database, and cite correctly (Wu and Kendall, 2006).

Advocacy and organizational understanding

Not all academics automatically accept the need to integrate information literacy instruction into the curriculum, and there may also be problems with full timetables. Librarians therefore need to have good advocacy skills, and the ability to export their convictions to faculty. A good way of gaining acceptability is to have a champion – someone who recognizes the worth of what you are doing and is prepared to pioneer new courses, which can act as pilots for larger projects. This was the case at the University of Guelph, where a member of the English faculty had had a long cooperation with her liaison librarian, who had taught information literacy to her students. This person therefore acted as a champion for more ambitious liaison projects (Harrison and Rourke, 2006).

Understanding the organizational context in which you teach is also vital – how does the organization approach instruction?


Everything in universities is measured these days, and it is therefore very important to assess programmes. This can be done by feedback from users, which will pinpoint areas for improvement, but it is also important to check that learning objectives have been met, for example by pre- and post-intervention tests.

Professor David Nicholas, director of the School of Library Archives and Information Studies (SLAIS) at University College London, is particularly emphatic about the need for hard data:

"…the task of libraries is to demonstrate that if people really do crack the literature, go through literacy programmes, know about the sources, what is authoritative and what isn’t, then they will get a better degree. There has to be a correlation, that’s why we are desperately in need of outcomes data, hard information which says that, if you attend this literacy programme, if you really search the library’s databases, and don’t just use Google, it will make a difference and you will end up with a higher grade."
From an interview with David Nicholas.


We have looked at information literacy frameworks as well as at various ways of teaching it. What is very clear is that if librarians are to act successfully as interpreters and intermediaries in the information revolution, they will need an extensive set of skills far beyond and above the standard professional competences. According to Sheila Corrall:

"For this role, as for any library and information systems professional role, practitioners really need a blend of professional technical skills at the core surrounded by managerial and organizational competences, including an understanding of the context in which you operate as well as personal and interpersonal skills which will enable them to exploit these competences to their advantage. That’s particularly true in the case of instructional roles because you have to understand how your institution approaches instruction."

Librarians engaging in information literacy teaching, therefore, in addition to an excellent understanding of the subject, also need excellent interpersonal, political and educational skills. A demanding role, but a worthwhile one.

Editorial note

As from autumn 2008, the University of Sheffield will be launching an MA in Information Literacy, available on a part- or full-time basis, and will have two key strands:

  1. developing understanding of information literacy theory and practice, and
  2. preparing for the role of educator for information literacy.

Thought to be the first of its kind, it will also be possible to do individual modules on a continuing professional development basis.

For further details, please contact either:

Sheila Webber, Director of the Centre for Information Literacy Research
E-mail: Sheila Webber
Tel: +44 (0)114 222 2641

Prof Sheila Corrall, Head of the Department of Information Studies
E-mail: Prof Sheila Corrall
Tel: +44 (0)114 222 2632

Department of Information Studies, University of Sheffield,
Regent Court, 211 Portobello St, Sheffield, S1 4DP, UK


ACRL (2007), "Information literacy standards for anthropology and sociology students" [accessed January 22 2008].

ALA (1989), Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report, American Library Association, Chicago, IL.

Andersen, J. (2006), "The public sphere and discursive activities: information literacy as sociopolitical skills", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 62 No. 2, pp. 213-228.

Berk, J., Olsen, S., Atkinson, J. and Comerford, J. (2007), "Innovation in a podshell: bringing information literacy into the world of podcasting", The Electronic Library, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 409-419.

Boon, S., Johnston, B. and Webber, S. (2006), "A phenomenographic study of English faculty’s conceptions of information literacy", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 63 No. 2, pp. 204-228.

Brendle-Moczuk, D. (2006), "Encouraging students’ lifelong learning through graded information literacy assignments", Reference Services Review, Vol. 34 No. 4, pp. 498-508.

Bundy, A. (2003), Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework: principles, standards and practice, 2nd ed. [accessed January 21 2008].

Corrall, S. (1998), "Key skills for students in higher education", SCONUL Newsletter, Vol. 15, Winter 1998, pp. 25-29.

Foster, A.E. (2006), "Information literacy for the information profession: experiences from Aberystwyth", Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 58 No. 6, pp. 48 -501.

Haines, M. and Horrocks, G. (2006), "Health information literacy and higher education: The King’s College London approach", Library Review, Vol. 55 No. 1, pp. 8-19.

Harrison, J. and Rourke, L. (2006), "The benefits of buy-in: integrating information literacy into each year of an academic program", Reference Services Review, Vol. 34 No. 4, pp. 599-606.

Johnson, A.M., Jent, S. and Reynolds, L. (2007), "Library instruction and information literacy 2006", Reference Services Review, Vol. 35 No. 4, pp. 584-640.

Kinengyere, A.A. (2006), "The effect of information literacy on the utilization of electronic information resources in selected academic and research institutions in Uganda", The Electronic Library, Vol. 25 No. 3, 328-341.

Li, L.F., Leung, S. and Tam, G. (2007), "Promoting information literacy skills through web-based instruction: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Library experience", Library Management, Vol. 28 Nos. 8/9, pp. 531-539.

Loo, A. and Chung, C.W. (2006), "A model for information literacy course development: a liberal arts university perspective", Library Review, Vol. 55 No. 4, pp. 249-258.

Mokhtar, I. A., Majid, S. and Foo, S. (2007), "Information literacy education through mediated learning and multiple intelligences: A quasi-experimental control-group study", Reference Services Review, Vol. 35 No. 3, pp. 463-486.

Sharkey, J. (2006), "Towards information fluency: applying a different model to an information literacy credit course", Reference Services Review, Vol. 34 No. 1, pp. 71-85.

Stephenson, E. and Caravello, P.S. (2007), "Incorporating data literacy into undergraduate information literacy programs in the social sciences", Reference Services Review, Vol. 35 No. 4, pp. 525-540.

Wu, Y.D. and Kendall, S.L. (2006), "Teaching faculty’s perspectives on business information literacy", Reference Services Review, Vol. 34 No. 1, pp. 86-96.