Photograph of Drew Feeney - ILG Public Libraries Representative

Tracking Information Literacy Undercurrents in Public Libraries

Hi everyone – my name is Drew Feeney and I am the Public Libraries Representative for CILIP’s Information Literacy Group. I have almost twenty years’ experience working as a Librarian in the public sector in the west of Scotland, and I am currently also a PhD student at Edinburgh Napier University looking at the role of participative research methods when developing digital literacies in older adults within public libraries.

All in all, I rarely get the chance to sit still these days! When thinking about writing this blog I was struck by a commonality among several of the projects I have been involved with recently, and of how individually and as a group they have both implicit and explicit implications for the role of information literacy (IL) within our wider public library sector. Some of these projects are very firmly rooted in the public library sphere and some are less so, but all work well at highlighting the often-intangible and ‘un-measurable’ aspects of IL as a discipline and as a critical mode of user engagement.

Let me bring some of these projects and the issues they raise to the fore to explain further. Recently colleagues at MILA and Edinburgh Napier published the CILIP and ILG-funded report ‘Information Literacy and Society’, a comprehensive review of existing research about the impact of information literacy on wider society. Amongst several significant findings the report outlines that while information literacy research covers a wide range of topics and contexts it is heavily skewed towards academic environments (predominantly those in tertiary education) at the expense of a more holistic and comprehensive worldview. Thus, the impact of IL training, education or even general awareness in the public library sector is very much under-represented within wider research at the moment.

This is a particularly salient finding, given that the report also suggests that much formal and informal IL training could come from librarians themselves in collaboration with others, and so for the public library sector at least the impact of this is largely unmeasured at the present time. The report similarly recognises a number of missed opportunities for IL research and education to make societal impact, such as in clinical or general health settings.

All of this is really food for thought for public libraries in particular in that it poses the key question: how do we advocate for public libraries as critical IL resources when we don’t really know what actual impact they have here at present? Similarly (and by way of full disclosure) I have been working recently with colleagues in Edinburgh Napier on a research project entitled ‘Librarians as Proxies: an exploratory study on the digital proxy practices of librarians’. Led by Dr. Frances Ryan, the project is investigating how public librarians support library users to access digital services and tools, in order to gain a better understanding of the types of activities public librarians support and the impact it has on their professional roles. The final results of the project will be published in due course but it has already uncovered an-almost ‘hidden curriculum’ of activity where public librarians assess, enact, advise and educate library users on a whole range of information and digital literacy competencies which are so critical to everyday life now, despite such support very often not appearing on formal job description or person specifications for these roles. Again, this highlights the implicit nature of IL knowledge made explicit by the practical nature of IL support and so similarly asks: how do we value the key IL support offered by public libraries if it is not a formal requisite of the roles within them?

And finally I have had the privilege to recently attend several briefing sessions for the BRIDGE project, an EU-funded programme of IL activity seeking to foster information literacy as a vital basis for an informed and engaged citizenry. The programme seeks to achieve this by placing IL at the heart of education, specifically for 8-11 year olds, in the form of a huge range of relevant IL literature, transmedia and multi-language resources made available for librarians to access and utilise within their own teaching environments. This wonderful project has huge potential for the public library sector in particular, as it engages with librarians and students about equality, diversity and inclusiveness and global citizenship issues, and as a door to information and digital literacy activities that help to encourage inquisitiveness, informed, enquiry-led learning and critical thinking. Here again is a project tackling aspects of IL seen in public libraries – in this instance access to relevant resources that reflect the rich diversity of our modern communities – that are implicitly understood and demonstrably necessary but are often intangible, overlooked or rendered difficult to access by more formal measurement mechanisms.

Once more the abstract nature of this very concrete IL issue posits the question: how do public libraries support the IL needs of all of their communities if these needs are not really promoted or even understood in the first place? So for me these three projects all highlight issues of intangibility within information literacy as a discipline, which become particularly visible when the issues they address come up against the very pragmatic and rigorously hands-on nature of public libraries. However, this very practicality is also the key strength of our sector, in that it has the ability to take the often-abstract nature of IL and put it into practice for the betterment of all involved. Thus these intangible IL undercurrents are arguably given impetus, direction and purpose by public libraries, and these three projects for me are great examples of this.

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