The CILIP Information Literacy Group recently funded a research project on “Information literacy for democratic engagement”, led by a team at Edinburgh Napier University. The research team have kindly provided a summary of the project and its outcomes, which is available below.
The CILIP IL Group seeks to fund high quality research through an annual bursary scheme. Bids of up to a maximum of £10,000 are invited. We welcome imaginative proposals which have the potential for high impact beyond HE and librarianship, from small-scale action research to large-scale quantitative or qualitative studies (or a mixture of the two). Find out more about our research bursaries.
The focus of the Information Literacy for Democratic Engagement (IL-DEM) project was information literacy amongst community councillors in Scotland (the equivalent of parish councillors in England). Their work includes ascertaining, co-ordinating and expressing the views of their communities to local authorities. The project evaluated information literacy in this context.
The investigation addressed three key questions:
1. What are community councillors’ current practices in exploiting information channels for engaging citizens in democratic processes?
2. What are public libraries’ roles in supporting community councillors, particularly around their acquisition of information literacy?
3. What are the relationships between community councillors’ information behaviours and literacies, resources, and knowledge and experience?
In late 2016, the project team interviewed a sample of community councillors who represent different types of communities in Scotland, ranging from rural to urban, and from deprived to wealthy. Another set of community councillors completed an online survey, and some additional data was also obtained from public officials and librarians. Finally, desk research was undertaken to explore local authority policies about library support for community councils.
The main findings of the project on the information practices of community councillors are as follows:
• Community councillors use a range of practices in exploiting information channels for engaging citizens in democratic processes.
• To explore their roles, they refer to a range of formal and informal information sources, including the national community council website and Facebook groups aimed at community councillors.
• They generally understand from local authority guidance that they should communicate the opinions of citizens to public authorities (e.g. local authorities, emergency services).
• In practice, they are also tasked with disseminating information from authorities to citizens.
• They use a mixture of digital and traditional channels for information sharing and gathering. Facebook pages and groups feature prominently, which complement non-digital channels such as newsletters, word-of-mouth and local networking, and local press.
• Overall, community councillors recognise that information skills are ‘critically important’ in an environment where information serves as a form of currency that should be ‘spent’ to benefit the citizens that community councillors represent.
Some community councillors exhibit awareness of their information skills gaps. Others also recognise that they are not completely aware of the extent to which they are under-skilled. These findings are important in the context of the self-selecting sample of study participants: all were highly educated (the majority to degree level, and over half with postgraduate qualifications) and self-efficacious.
Although public libraries provide facilities for community councils – such as hosting meetings and displaying information – none appear to address the information literacy needs of community councillors group directly.
Deployment of a model of information literacy such as SCONUL’s 7-pillar framework [PDF] (above) allows an in-depth evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses in participants’ information behaviour. It also can be used to explain the extent to which information literacy contributes to the effective delivery of community councillors’ democratic work.
Future research will explore the issues raised by this study: a short project that focuses on the role of life roles in shaping information literacy in this context is already under way.