Information literacy: the work of librarians past and present

As long as there have been public libraries, librarians have been involved in education. They have helped people choose what to read for leisure and helped with their information needs. The recent emphasis on information literacy is more of a new term than a new concept, but as technology has transformed everything in society, information literacy needs to be done differently.

For most of the twentieth century, the best way for most people to identify books on a particular subject was the card catalog in the library. Specialists could use various published bibliographies or the Cumulative Book Index among other tools. Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which began publication in 1905, helped the general public find information in magazines, etc. As the century progressed, publishers brought out more, and more specialized, indexes to periodical literature, including some of the major newspapers. Encyclopedias have been around since the late eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, encyclopedia publishers aggressively marketed door to door. Many families owned a set, but the library always had up-to-date editions of several different encyclopedias.

The foregoing describes the kinds of tools available up until the Internet went public. In every case (except for the family encyclopedia), people who wanted to use them had to go to the library, and could easily ask librarians for help when they needed it. Librarians also excelled at helping people clarify just what kind of information they needed. And since not everything ever published is well written or reliable, librarians helped people learn how to distinguish good information from bad. Now, of course, people can look up all kinds of things online. What has changed for the librarian and information literacy now that we have computers? Lots. And not much.

The online library catalog has replaced the card catalog. That gives library patrons the same advantages as any other online searching, but it operates on different principles from search engines. Librarians love to explain how to get the best use of both,

New online databases have replaced the Reader’s Guide. Several serve the same kind of general purpose it used to. Many are much more specialized. They all work a little differently. Patrons who find them confusing can still ask a librarian for help. It is no longer necessary to visit the library personally in order to use them, but as they are prohibitively expensive for individuals, people can only access them through subscribing libraries. All of this new technology has changed people’s information-seeking habits. Not everyone today is even aware that the flood of print publications continues. Fewer people know about the databases or any other online information sources that are not free to the public except at libraries.

Generally speaking, finding information is now much easier than ever before. Finding particular information and knowing how to evaluate its reliability is as difficult as ever. People still need the help of trained experts–librarians–for that. So in a sense, information literacy means doing the same things libraries have done for generations, but the public no longer has to visit the library to find information. Therefore, librarians can no longer foster information literacy by passively waiting for patrons to come in the door. Librarians have recognized the need to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach–like blogging!

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