Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 97 – Information Literacy and professional curiosity

Whenever you travel do you visit the local libraries and information centres? It can make for an interesting comparison of services. Let me explain…

Whenever I travel to new places I like to visit as many libraries as I can. Call it professional curiosity if you like. We don’t spend long in these libraries, just long enough to ask permission to have a look around, take a couple of photos and explain why I am interested. As you know from various newsletters I have written over the years, one of my primary interests lies in information literacy, and more recently, Digital Literacy. And the impact these are having on our society, and the future to my mind is not looking so good.
We stopped at three very different libraries. A public library in Carmel, a museum library and a second public library in a tiny place called Tuba City. The Carmel Public Library was purpose built in the 1920’s. It was multi-leveled and had the most fantastic interior with a reading room complete with an open fire (though not lit). Most of the computers were catalogues, with few (I could see) available for Internet use. The major problem they had were the stairs. To put it simply, the building did not cater for those with disabilities.

But they had found quite a novel way to get around the problem (if you excuse the pun). And no, we didn’t press the button to see if a librarian would come running (though it was tempting).

The second library we visited was part of the Arizona State Museum. While they housed the usual collection of books and journals, the catalogue was the old fashioned card variety, and I was unable to locate many computers, nor patrons on that sunny afternoon. 
Compare that to the second public library we visited which was in Tuba City. Population just over 8,000 and it seemed just as many dogs. While it is situated in Arizona it is also the largest community of people in the Navajo Nation. It was getting late on a Sunday afternoon but we needed a caffeine stop. As we pulled in to the car park I was delighted to see a library across the road, and it was open. So as my tea cooled I wandered across.

It wasn’t a big place, but it was packed with just 20 minutes left to closing time. Perhaps what surprised me the most was not only was the library packed, but sitting at every available computer workstation (and there would have been about 30 of them) there was someone engrossed in their chosen activity. From youngsters playing games, students checking email and completing assignments to the adults and seniors reading whatever they had chosen.

Of course it could be argued the lure of free internet access on a Sunday afternoon with little else open in town was the biggest draw card for the local residents. But for me it was a delight to see the services being used by so many people who appreciated them. Obviously I stood out like the proverbial tourist so I didn’t take any pictures inside nor did I linger, but the memory has.

The people we saw in this small town didn’t suffer from a literacy problem, and just as importantly everyone using the library that day was digitally literate as well.

However, being digitally literate doesn’t just mean you can use a computer program or two.

Digital literacy is the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies. It requires one “to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms”.[1] Digital literacy does not replace traditional forms of literacy, it builds upon the foundation of traditional forms of literacy.[1] Digital literacy is the marrying of the two terms digital and literacy, however, it is much more than a combination of the two terms. Digital information is a symbolic representation of data, and literacy refers to the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word.

I can remember the first time I had to “drive” a mouse. I had gone from a predominantly paper based system, to a keyboard driven system before moving into a PC work environment. To the younger generation reading this, my first computer didn’t have a resident hard drive, you loaded it from a disc every time you wanted to use it, and to get something as remarkable as BOLD you had to know the code for it. Which was quite amusing (not) when you came to print anything out and you’d forgotten to switch off the code at the end of the section. Today we have WYSIWYG not raw HTML coding and technology is changing at a rapid rate of knots.

Which is great if you can keep up with what is going on in the world of geek, but what of those people who don’t know how to turn a computer on, let alone understand how to compose a letter, and if they do, can’t write a cohesive sentence?

It could be argued that this is where most of the younger generation will come into their own of course. Technology is nothing new. Most have access to a smart phone, there is at least one computer in the house and parents will have netbooks or tablets. I say most, because I know of one family where the father – an accountant, refused to buy a computer for home (and they still don’t have one), the children had to go to the public library with their mother to do assignments. Nor did the children have a mobile phone.  He had the means to purchase all of it; he just chose to sit on his pile of money just in case anyone stole it. The children in this particular case were motivated and did whatever they had to do to get around those problems and they had the support of at least one parent to do well.

However, just because the technology is there, doesn’t mean people know how to use it.

My mum is now in her mid 70’s and she asked her grand-daughter (my niece) to teach her. But in some cases, there may not be anyone to help. So who do they turn to for help? In most cases the answer is the public library.

A colleague told me recently about a very recent example he had experienced:

There is this huge focus at the moment on children and I think that is really important, but last week, the issue of the 50% functional literacy rate really came home to me when this old Italian born couple came into the library wanting help – someone to write something out for them.  They have been living in Perth for at least 50 years but both had strong Italian accents and poor English speaking and writing skills.

It was all about a dispute with a neighbour and they had no children around to help and they wanted someone to write out a statement for them so they could take the issue further.

Who did they turn to? Their public library of course!
He went on to say
While Gonski is the flavor at the moment we often forget of the large number of adults in the community who also suffer from poor English language reading and writing skills.  And I won’t even start on all the tradies and labourers who need help with the public computers to upload their CVs and apply for jobs online.

So what is the answer?

I’m not sure there is a one answer fits all. Gonski is a good start, but what of everyone else? What of those older children and teens who don’t know they don’t know. They certainly may not be aware there is a world available to explore if they just knew how or were encouraged to find out. And then there are those who have it all and take it for granted.

Your thoughts as always are greatly appreciated