The New Information Literacy

As a public librarian I am often in the position to help newcomers to using computers for the very first time.  Many of them have never sat in front of a computer before, have no idea how a mouse works, or even rudimentary typing skills.  Given the outrageously bad literacy rates in the District, the fact that they have never used a computer before seems unsurprising.  But now nearly everything is online, and people are constantly being confronted with the necessity of information literacy.  Even the lowest paying cleaning jobs and cashiers are required to submit resumes and applications online.  Vast amounts of government services require that their recipients file their claims online.  750 million people are on Facebook.  That’s a big chunk of the entire planet.  To not be connected online today is to be cut off the world.

But the unconnected users are only a fraction of information literacy needs in the public library.  There is a spectrum of information literacy needs that needs to be met by the public librarian and the skill set required to meet those needs is evolving and changing as we speak.  The spectrum, as I see it, runs from zero connectivity to immersed.  Here’s a little graphic.

Let’s talk about these users, because these are the people we work with every day and their needs are different.


This is the person who has no knowledge of computer skills whatsoever.  They have, through the nature of our information economy, finally been confronted with learning new technology and they are starting from zero.  This is the person to whom you need to teach how to use the mouse, what email is and how it works, and the basics of using an internet browser.  These are the people to whom most of the introductory computer classes in libraries are geared.  Public Libraries are the necessary waystation in learning how to become a computer user to accomplish the few things that they need to get that one step forward.  These are also in many respects the most challenging patrons, because they have no background the amount of material required to get them started can be overwhelming.

Light User

This is the individual who has mastered the fundamentals of using the physical parts of the computer but for whom understanding some of the complexities of software and web functions is still confusing.  This is the user from whom we get questions about how to properly space things in MS Word, how to attach something to an email, why Outlook doesn’t work when they try to auto-email a document, why a web page freezes up on them, etc.  These users need someone with a deeper understanding of the functionality of the software they’re using and how web pages function.


These users have gotten to the point that they know how to function online, and they are using social media to connect to their friends, family and coworkers.  They are mostly self-reliant, but they have begun to explore new technologies and software to integrate into their social experience.  They’re are getting to the point that they are creating original content online, but slowly.  These are the users who want to learn how to create and edit digital photos and possibly videos for their Facebook, Google+, Twitter and YouTube personae. Here the librarian serves as a consultant regarding the software used to create original content.


The gadgeteer is the user who has acquired a new device (digital camera, smart phone, iPod, ebook reader) and either a) has no idea how to use it or b) is trying to engage in some kind of file transfer maneuver that they cannot navigate.  Those are really the only two scenarios I have seen take place in the library, though I’m sure there are more.  The unsure new user may bring their device to the librarian to help demonstrate to them how to use the device itself or an application on the device.  The file transfer user just want to desperately figure out how to migrate data from point a to point b, and the librarian’s role is to educate the user in the file structure system underlying their devices. The gadgeteer may also fall at earlier points in the spectrum, but it is usually seen (in my experience) when they have at least mastered the light user phase.


This is the user who has grown to become savvy with social media and often times devices, and they are looking to build a bigger presence for themselves online.  These are the users who are exploring creating original public content on a website, blog, photo site, video site.  They are often self-reliant because they have learned to navigate the internet and they understand internet content well enough that they are ready to become content creators themselves. These are the people who want to learn about content management systems, search engine optimization, using social media for marketing, and how to power-use web technologies.


This is the person who wants to begin tinkering with electronics to make something physical, and not just digital creation.  These are the hackers who make things with arduinos and LEDs for fun.  They are the makers who want to play with 3-D printers and CAD programs.  These users are going to want to learn programming languages so that they can make smart phone apps or design new electronics.  They are the ones who want to make the next big thing, or at least the next cool thing.

Traditional library service has been able to help people up to the gadgeteer phase.  When we get into complex issues of web design and programming, these often fall far outside of the body of knowledge of the average librarian.  Though we don’t see much in the way of reference questions from these users now, we may begin seeing this sooner than any of us would think.  One of the speakers at the TEDxLibrariansTO conference, Eric Boyd, spoke about programming as a literacy skill and the hope for libraries to incorporate hacker spaces into their domain.  I wholly agree with this sentiment.

When I was in library school (10 years ago) Information Literacy was about navigating the user interface and how to verify and compare information on the internet.  We just basically changed the words “bibliographic instruction” to something else.  Today’s information literacy is much deeper than that.  It’s about understanding the complex interconnections between software and hardware; people’s interaction engagement with content (as user and creator); the sociology, politics and ethics of software; and right down to the fundamental building blocks of understanding how software operates so that you can see why it does what it does as well as what it does to us.  The scope of what a librarian needs to know has grown, and we need to have a very real conversation about that.  Does every librarian need to be a programmer?  No.  But we can’t remain ignorant of programming and electronics, or we become information illiterate ourselves.


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