"Information literacy is perhaps the most critical issue for libraries to address in their communities": Natalie Greene Taylor and Paul T. Jaeger discuss their book
While many books have been written on the subject, Foundations of Information Literacy, by Natalie Greene Taylor and Paul T. Jaeger, is the first to examine information literacy from a cross-national, cross-cultural, and cross-institutional perspective. Providing a historical perspective to illuminate our current moment, the authors explore how information, technology, education, employment, engagement, society, policy, democratic governance, and human rights intersect. In this interview they discuss how the pandemic shaped their text, offer advice to frontline library workers in confronting disinformation, and share their hopes for the future of information literacy.
Congrats on the new book! This is your second book project written as a team. What lessons did you learn from the first time around that you were able to apply on this one?
We’re very fortunate in that we really enjoy working together, and these books seem reflect that very well—you can still have fun talking about heavy, complicated topics. We’ve been collaborating extensively for more than a decade, and by this point we have a very good sense what each brings to the collaboration. It helps enormously that we have a shared commitment to using humor to help leaven difficult topics; if you have to spend time discussing the convoluted definitions of information literacy and the dire conspiracies that are undermining democracy and pandemic responses, it helps to use dragons, Muppets, and counterfeit Peeps to explain the issues.
Before we wrote Foundations of Information Policy, we had written many things together, either as a duo or as parts of a larger team, but these two Foundations books have been our first real chance to write long works as a duo. By the time we started Foundations of Information Literacy, we were able to just split up the list of chapters, each write a first draft of about half of them, and then swap. By the time we traded them back a second time, the book was mostly finished and it was almost impossible to tell who had written any particular sentence.
Of course, we also had to keep rewriting many of those sentences to try to keep pace with changing events.
At the front of the book, you write, "The timing to write a comprehensive text about information literacy turned out to be either amazing or terrifying, depending on your perspective. Disinformation-fueled political events around the globe had certainly made information literacy a more familiar concept to many, but that turned out to be nothing compared to the events of 2020." How did day-to-day events influence how you shaped the text?
We felt it very important that this book should comprehensively address both information literacy and the challenges to literacy posed by disinformation and misinformation. They are normally treated as separate areas of discussion, but you really cannot understand how to teach information literacy if you do not understand the reasons why people reject information literacy. Librarians are better positioned than any other profession to effectively educate individuals and communities about information literacy, and they need all the tools they can get in this essential effort.
So, the oversized role of pandemic and election disinformation meant that we wrote heaps of material that we had to throw out because events galloped past what we had written. The disinformation and misinformation examples around the pandemic just got stranger and stranger as the year went on, and then came the avalanche of election lies. Yet, they also provided an unbeatable way to demonstrate how clear and incontrovertible information on topic could get overwhelmed by absolutely ridiculous misinformation that nevertheless found willing audiences.
Europeans attacking 5G towers because they thought 5G was spreading the novel coronavirus, the then-president of the US claiming that the sound of windmills causes cancer and suggesting that people drink bleach to stay healthy, and the government France having to release an official statement that cocaine did not prevent the novel coronavirus. Disinformation in these two areas has turned describing reality into something that seems to have come from a random word generator.
In the book, we discuss all of the social and psychological and economic reasons that people reject information literacy, and, ultimately, 2020 was a year that gave us limitless examples to work with. Which might be the nicest thing that anyone may be able to say about that year in hindsight.
We also tried to make it clear that these issues aren’t necessarily new. Misinformation and disinformation have been around as long as communication channels have existed, but, unfortunately, the media and information environments today have created a particularly easy way to spread lies. The events of the past few years have made it clear that information literacy is perhaps the most critical issue for libraries to address in their communities and the largest contribution that they can make in society.
One of your chapters is titled "Information Literacy Is a Human Right." Would you explain what you mean by that?
The concept of human rights really only became formalized after World War II, yet it has been strangely time-locked in spite of the huge societal, economic, and technological changes that have occurred in the intervening 75 years. Within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, information is discussed, but only in a limited manner that does not really match how long we have been living in an age of information and connectivity. The UN only got around to talking about the Internet as being essential to human rights in 2016.
In the age in which we now live, information literacy is essential as a human right because most other human rights are heavily dependent on it. Information literacy is the irreplaceable supporting infrastructure for education, employment, health, and civic engagement. Many other more traditional rights are greatly devalued without information literacy, and it is growing in importance with every technological innovation and every move of yet more of life into the interwebs, the internet of things, the metaverse, and whatever else looms next. For so long, governments have focused on physical access to information and technology, but the ability to use that information and technology effectively is equally central to people’s lives.
Returning to pandemic misinformation as an example, it is a space where the centrality of information literacy to the functioning of other rights was unmissable. The lack of information literacy and the embrace of misinformation by a great many people about vaccines has not only extended the impact of the pandemic for all of us, it has greatly increased deaths among people who refuse to get vaccinated. Health now depends on information literacy.
The role of libraries as educators of information literacy are also part of large suit of contributions that libraries make to human rights, which now range from helping people grow their own food to serving as virus testing centers to providing Internet access to teaching information literacy. While it feels weird to have to keep emphasizing these points as a profession, it is vital that information professionals are very clear about how essential information literacy is to the entire idea of human rights for individuals and entire communities and that libraries are human rights institutions when we talk to community members and government officials.
What tips and encouragement can you offer frontline library workers in pushing back against misinformation?
Embrace your role as community educator. No profession is more educated and skilled about information literacy than librarians, and each instance of misinformation voiced by a patron is an opportunity to help that patron to increase their information literacy. Not everyone will listen, but the chance to teach someone about how to find more accurate and more comprehensive sources of information, and how to evaluate those information sources, can help many people learn to be less open to misinformation.
We go into detail about the myriad reasons that people are drawn to disinformation—cognitive dissonance, social norming, group polarization, “counterknowledge,” pixie dust, and many more—in the book to prepare librarians for the range of barriers they may encounter during this education. Though trying to educate someone about improving their information literacy may feel awkward, it can be a huge benefit to the life of that individual and to the community as a whole. Have a set of information literacy education resources on your library site at hand to help when you need to tech someone about this issues.
Also, there are tons of great resources for teaching information literacy that have already been created by libraries. If you do not already have information literacy education resources on your library site, putting them together is not going to be that time-consuming.
We also emphasize that information professionals are not immune from misinformation themselves. We should simultaneously be encouraged to address information literacy issues in our programming, but also to focus on improving our own skills and knowledge in this area, which can itself be empowering in terms of how well-equipped we feel in addressing the problem on a macro level.
When it comes to societal-level information literacy, what gives you hope for the future?
While the last few years have been a festival of disinformation and misinformation, people have also have begun to pay more attention to information literacy. All of the failings of information literacy have highlighted how extraordinarily important it is, though it previously has been primarily taken for granted or simply ignored. Ultimately, there is hope that the increased awareness of information literacy will lead to increased attention to information literacy.
Our own profession can also contribute by committing more to its role as the primary education institution for information literacy by increasing preparation of current and future librarians to be comfortable as information literacy educators through MLIS courses and continuing education for professionals. There seems to be more interest from both current librarians and incoming students in learning how to best educate—and in turn, learn from—our communities in the area of information literacy.
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