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Info Lit

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Information Literacy: The Digital Age Everywhere one turns today, one finds an access point for information. This is the problem librarians’ face: how do we assist our patrons in sifting through what is undoubtedly a daunting pile of information? There are many ways in which we can do this and make information literacy a realistically achievable goal for all age groups: students, adults and senior citizens but to do so requires some ingenuity, persistence and a recognition that information literacy is vital to our society.
Information literacy has very broad applications from print to electronic sources. The characteristics of it are the same in both worlds: the ability to read, access, use and evaluate information . This ability is what makes a person informed and able to understand an advanced argument via literature be it electronic or hardcopy. Information literacy is also not without disagreement over several important aspects. For example, Darrow notes that regardless of the way one feels about students on the Internet, a school library media specialist must still customize the basic rubrics to fit the needs of their students . Sometimes this is very difficult. Darrow explains, “Today’s high school students are the first to grow up with the Internet” and as such, we as librarians are dealing with a generation gap.
This generation gap would not be the problem it is if we were talking about theories and ideas. Instead, the problem we are talking about is learning. These generations are diametrically and fundamentally opposed in the learning opportunities and the teaching techniques, which causes problems. These problems make themselves obvious in how library programming and instruction are executed. When the librarians were in school, they did not have the Internet or electronic resources. As such, they do not have experience to draw on from their own youth. The librarians in this position are teaching students without the advantage of having experienced it themselves, in what Darrow calls “analog adults and digital kids” . Just as the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) find emphasis, so must information literacy. In an age where most get news and other information predominantly from the Internet, this challenge becomes ever more daunting. Every time someone logs into the computer, the information universe opens up and it is all too easy to go into information overload. Information literacy reduces this to at least a manageable level and very possibly, to where a person does not feel overloaded by information. To do this, one needs to be innovative in instructing users in becoming astute with information. This effort begins before children become school age but continues throughout their educational career. At one time in the not so distant past, finding information in school libraries was extremely difficult. However, the advent of the Internet has removed that barrier to information retrieval. However, the aforementioned information overload becomes a serious problem with the amount of information accessible. Consider: a keyword search brings up many hundreds, if not thousands of results. This brings up another aspect of information literacy we as a profession need to be aware of hypertext literacy. According to Thomas Scott, “hypertext literacy plays an important role in a student's ability to formulate knowledge from the information found on the Internet .” Without the Internet, most students would be lost when trying to find the information they need. Scott makes a good point with an ability to formulate knowledge from the Internet’s information. The vast amount of information on the Internet is such that human must analyze it before it can become knowledge, which is the student’s role. Without this interaction, information would just be that: information. However, after the student interacts with the information, it becomes knowledge. Student’s research habits also play an important role in information literacy as finding information is difficult without certain natural or developed abilities. One example Scott found was when the students were told to search a given website, they did not alter their search query despite repeated failure, instead repeating the search with a different search string. This makes it clear many students have not developed the cognitive skills necessary to negotiate hypertext . To have information literacy, students must be able to interact with the access methods in a manner that gives them the information they need. In some cases, such as the example above, students have not developed to the stage they need to be in order to receive all they need from these sources. There are solutions to the above problems Scott brings up and these are not difficult to implement. In today’s consumer environment, finding something quickly and easily takes precedence over pretty much anything else. However, this works well with the natural design of websites and most designers will not argue with the necessity of clearly organizing content . He offers several tips for instructing children in how to use the Internet in such a way that it makes sense to them. For example, most Internet web sites incorporate information text structures similar to those found in books such as tables of contents and indexes, which are the organizing "backbones" of most successful medium to large web sites like the Smithsonian Institute .
The important point he is making with that statement is the skills and abilities students already possess can be put to use with the Internet. They do not have to learn entirely new skill-sets to be successful in using the Internet or some of the more commonly used sites for searching. As such, information literacy really does not have to be as frustrating for anyone as it may seem.
McPherson continues and discusses other familiar text forms found online, such as keywords, graphs, headers and titles, and so forth. These are in addition to the interactive/multi-media fly-out menus, pull-down menus, textual and pictorial hyperlinks, and the like . These text forms are entirely new to students using the Internet as it is technologically impossible to create these in a book. As such, there is a point where the traditional learning tools must evolve and complement the technology-drive tools. The Digital Age started at a time when the Baby Boomers were aging. The Baby Boomers created a society very different from the one in which they grew up in and with very different technology as well. As such, as the years progress, more and more of them are retiring. While this is a tremendous loss, a certain amount of innovation may cease to be ignored. The baby boomers grew up without computers and other technological accessories and many of them feel uncomfortable with using them. According to Kurt Squire, “as the Nintendo generation turns 30, adults--not just children--will demand access to information in the ways and with the tools they already use and like” .
Humans are creatures of habit and changing those habits in the slightest at least irritates all of us. Our information finding habits are no different. Being able to go from strictly an electronic environment to a hard copy or paper system drives most of us nuts. What Squire tells us is this is usual and expected from our generation. It may not be good for us but it certainly is not something that should surprise us. College graduates remember the late nights in the library, trying to find one particular book or article that just could not be found anywhere online. Finding articles or written material online is exceptionally easy when comparing to walking through the stacks, trying to find a source.
In the past, when researching for a given topic, students’ first stop was the library since librarians were seen as “gatekeepers, arbiters of access to information” . Now, the Internet is seen as the gate to accessing information. Sometimes, that is not entirely accurate and students need to get additional help. Whether that actually happens is something else entirely.
In the last several years, technology, reading/writing and arithmetic have become the most desired and most complained about traits in American high school graduates. An ability to research via technology and more particularly the Internet is something that needs improvement. According to a 2005 study by Achieve, Inc, 2005 study, 40% of students who went on to college and 45% of students who went to work identified research skills as one area in which they were lacking . This suggests a serious lack of information literacy. If research skills are not up to par, how do we expect students to succeed in entry-level college courses, particularly those with a research or writing component?
Being competent in research has a direct connection to information literacy with an ability to interact with information without going into information overload and to discriminate between useful and useless information. The latter is very difficult if one does not have information literacy skills as being information literate means knowing what good information is and what bad information is. Without that ability, ninety plus percent of research papers will have very little if any support or credibility.
Rob Darrow makes an excellent point when he asks, “How is information literacy in the digital age different?” He answers his own question with, “overall, it provides expanded access to information in a variety of formats from worldwide institutions, businesses, and universities” . The result is a much larger array of information accessible without having to leave one’s computer. However, information literacy in this context has a serious possibility of going into information overload since having access to all that information is very overwhelming, particularly when 10,000 hits pop up on your screen.
A user group often left by the wayside in many analyses of user services is seniors, partly since they make up a much smaller piece of the population. That is not to say they do not want to or cannot learn the technology, it is that their relatively small numbers make it much less likely they will be paid much attention. Today’s elderly mostly retired before the computer was in mass use, which means they didn’t get the experience or training on it younger workers did because computers were more common in the workplace than homes first. According to Janet Balas, seniors are on the other end of the abilities scale of many of today’s students since they have the research skills but cannot use them with today’s technical systems . She goes on to add they are “more familiar with the card catalog and printed indexes such as the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature” .
Computer literacy for seniors is another topic directly relating to information literacy. Since the bulk of these senior retired in the years just prior to the mass availability of computers, they really have no idea how to use a computer. As such, libraries are their best bet for learning how to use a computer and many of them will need the most basic instruction on how to use computers before they can use these excellent research skills they have . After they have learned the most basic computer operation needs, they become very effective users. Balas offers an example from her family from when her youngest son received a Sega game system and wanted to play a football game with his grandfather. The first game was a handy victory for the young boy but after reading the manual for the controller, the grandfather’s football acumen produced a decidedly different outcome .
Information literacy is an important factor to consider in user services. Without information literacy, its very difficult, indeed nearly impossible, to research and come up with a supported argument. Many younger professionals may think nothing of technology aids since they have grown up with it but to older patrons, it is a very strange and sometimes scary object. Repeated use makes it such that this intimidation recedes and allows a user to interact with the given technology with no problems. In the future, it will be vital for librarians to stay on top of information literacy to ensure informed patrons although there is a very solid start on this effort.

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