Information Literacy: Redefining the Memex

February 15, 2007 at 5:24 pm 1 comment

Mentioned on the Information Literacy blog, I asked for a copy of “As we may think” by Johnston and Webber, Research Strategies 20 (2006? 2005?) 108-121. The paper uses Vannevar Bush’s article as a “touchstone,” and compares and contrasts his vision with the current information environment. The authors go on to offer their vision for the future of information literacy.

If we walk through Bush’s specs for his Memex, it seems that quite a few of our current information tools meet the needs.  But what becomes obvious is that there are many many tools, that together create our Memex, not a single desktop device, be it a modern computer or otherwise.  And this underlies, I think, Johnston and Webber’s paper: in order to make our Memex work, we need to make sure we’re teaching people how to use the tools available.

The goal of the article might be paraphrased: Vannevar Bush warned us of information overload and imagined a solution in his Memex.  Now we’ve got a Memex.  We just don’t know how to use it yet.  Information Literacy might be the ‘user’s guide,’ the approach to take, and it is not only the skills used in a library, or something that can be completely measured in academic achievement tests, but it is a critical part of living in today’s society.  As a discipline it needs to be supported by a knowledge base and a curriculum.  They are proposing the best ways to do this.

A large portion of the paper seems involved in defining the type of discipline information might be, the better to suggest a path forward.

In the introduction, it’s stated that information literacy is not just a set of ‘personal attributes.’ It is not completely clear at the outset what is meant by this term.  Critical thinking?  Is it a list of academic standards to meet?  If you search for information literacy you’ll find plenty of articles describing ways to best write a term paper and how to discriminate between good and bad resources (for example Big6).  The personal attribute view is later described as biased towards library skills and educational settings, capabilities that students and graduates should possess.

Bush’s Memex was described as an aid to scientific endeavors, and Johnston and Webber point out that the information overload that Bush described is instead part of everyone’s lives.

Johnston and Webber walk though US and Australian Information Literacy standards and suggest that ‘information literacy’ is more than what is described in these standards, and suggest a shift to “…a concern for the person situated in the information society…” for the person “…situated in a range of dynamic, social, and personal contexts….”

I am reminded of Kurzweil’s comments, “It is also important to note that the term ‘information technology’ is encompassing an increasingly broad class of phenomena and will ultimately include the full range of economic activity and cultural endeavor.” And “everything – including physical products, once nanotechnology-based manufacturing becomes a reality in about twenty years – is becoming information.” 

This is also reminiscent of Fab, by Gershenfeld.   Also mentioned by Kurzweil was Wiener’s book, Cybernetics that suggested “…the transformation of information not energy was the fundamental building block of the universe.”

From Morville’s Ambient Findability, “p.162,3.…we enjoy incredible access to free information. But with freedom comes responsibility, and with free information, finding is not only a right but a duty. In short, access changes the game.” and “p.7 it’s almost impossible to function in modern society without mastering the skills of written communication. But it’s not enough. Gone are the days when we can look up the “right answer” in the family encyclopedia. There are many answers in many places. Transmedia information literacy is a core life skill.”

Also from Morville’s Ambient Findability, “Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize what information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. Knowledge workers are paid for their ability to find, filter, analyze, create, and otherwise manage information.” Information Literacy is part of life.

It is not about computers and it is not (only) about education:  Information Literacy has been proposed as a ‘liberal art’ by Shapiro and Hughes (that article is a great read).  And here liberal refers to ‘liberating’ as also described well in Gershenfeld’s FAB, “…a pathway to power.”

Johnston and Bush go an to say that “All these people…need some sort of personal “information control” in order to function, and in our terms satisfying this need goes beyond the provisions of technologies, to include aspects of thinking and ways of being.”

Davenport in Thinking for a Living mentions that companies typically let knowledge workers fend for themselves and “…most individuals have not thought very much about this issue and that they have probably underinvested in their own personal information environment. 41% said they receive little or no help from their organization in managing personal information flow….”

Before defining the term “information literacy” and the sort of “discipline” that information literacy has become, Johnston and Webber point out that “ordinary people” have become creators as well as consumers of information, in a nod to web 3.0, as I think of it, though that term seems to be invoking “the semantic web” now.  “…the combination of mobile phones, digital cameras, social software, and the internet have put citizen photographers [ordinary people] into a new potentially powerful position….”

Johnston and Webber define Information Literacy: “The adoption of appropriate information behavior to identify through whatever channel or medium, information well fitted to information needs, leading to wise and ethical use of information in society….not only as a personal experience of need and fulfillment, but also a socialized activity”

Perhaps the “wise and ethical” portion is wishful thinking?  Certainly these terms are subjective and based on your point of view. 

Johnston and Webber go on to state “The definition flags up the primary areas of knowledge and research comprising the discipline of information literacy…”  I am not sure what’s meant here, though they go on to talk about indicators of a “Discipline” which include:

  • Professional associations and journals: National forum for Information Literacy (USA), ….SCONUL working group on Information Literacy, Journals like Reference Services Review and Research Strategies, [and now Journal of Information Literacy]
  •   International community,, 
  • Academic departments with graduate students
  • People using it in their job titles
  • Distinctive language [jargon]
  •  Knowledge and research base?

The discussion continues around definition of hard or soft, pure or applied disciplines.  They suggest Information Literacy is a “soft applied” discipline with elements of “hard applied.”  The key word for me is “applied” which means “concern about application.”

My take away is summed up by the comment “…information literacy is not concerned with the actual development of new tools from scratch, but rather how these tools might be applied by and enhanced for information-using people.  Additionally there is a focus on the context (personal, organization, and societal) in which information is to be used.”  So the typical ‘education-based’ approach of Information Literacy is only a part of what Johnston and Webber are calling the discipline of Information Literacy.

As to defining a curriculum.  First we’re given a definition of information society, “…in which the creation, distribution, and manipulation of information has become the most significant economic and cultural activity…..” in which “…information literacy [is] ‘…a prerequisite for participating effectively….and [is] part of the basic human right of life long learning.'”

The curriculum should not present quick fixes (kludges?) and shouldn’t represent itself as the “one best way.”  Major requirements of an curriculum address information literacy for  citizenship, economic growth, and for employability.  All of these imply the information literacy is important for personal growth, and creativity, i.e. a liberal art where liberal means ‘liberty’ or ‘liberating.’  These requirements definitely sound different and more all-encompassing than the traditional “library-centric” or standards-meeting requirements.

Johnston and Webber note that higher education itself is changing and this makes information literacy all the more important, in order to connect higher education with the information society.  But then where to teach it?  Existing disciplines like chemistry have pretty well established places to start.  Currently, information literacy is presented within other traditional disciplines as a new, additional way to get information alongside the established traditional methods.

And here is where I start to differ in opinion from the authors.  If I read correctly, Johnston and Webber suggest that embedding information literacy within an given context (like chemistry), and teaching it as a new, or another, way to get information within a traditional area of study, undermine the goals of information literacy “…weaken[s] effort and divert[s] attention from the need to develop and communicate information literacy in its own right as a crucial aspect of the information society.” 

I think they are suggesting that information literacy be a class, a subject, unto itself?  This seems to contrast with the idea of an “applied” discipline.  If you are teaching “new” skills, they are probably best taught in context (contextual tools), to do something

“In…standards, information literacy is framed as part of other things: of lifelong learning, of other disciplines of varying contexts…’common to all disciplines, to all learning environments, and to all levels of education….’ ‘Achieving competency in information literacy requires as understanding that this cluster of abilities is not extraneous to the curriculum but is woven into the curriculum’s content, structure and sequence.'”  These are stated goals of the standards, but the authors are suggesting that these approaches are not enough.

These comments recall Bush’s concern with the information-burdened scientist, whom we now know is everybody, learning to better organize their information environment on all fronts.

Australian standards also describe four approaches to information literacy: generic or extra-curricular, parallel or complementary to traditional approaches, integrated as part of the curriculum, and embedded.  The standards state the embedded approach is the most effective.

Johnston and Webber acknowledge that there are different approaches and varying benefits to these approaches, yet argue that these approaches above, these “version[s] of information literacy… tailored to the information types and needs of a particular discipline will not…” meet the stated goal areas for information literacy of citizenship, economy, employability.  They point out that people within a discipline may not be effective in relaying information literacy, and further, outside the realm of higher education there’s a need for information literacy as well – how best to help the support the everyman in their quest to improve their information environment? 

This latter reminds me again of Thinking for a Living by Davenport.

This then seems the crux of their paper: “…information handling activities and skills are [commonly, currently] proposed for ’embedding’ with insufficient discussion of the broader social picture that we have been outlining.  By contrast, a clearly described discipline of information literacy can offer a powerful intellectual and pedagogical force for coherence and relevance, and not just a new term for library user education, research skills, or generic attributes.”  I understand the ‘not just a new term….’ part of that sentence, but not the ‘can offer a powerful…’ part. 

Johnston and Webber end the paper noting that today’s citizen knows that with better access to information comes responsibilities, as also mentioned in Ambient Findability, by Morville.  Developing the discipline and knowledge base of information literacy is proposed to support citizens in the information society.

I agree with many aspects of the paper, except that I see information literacy as a tool that needs to be taught, used, and applied in context, in a practical way, to show utility and relevance.  For example, teaching search skills for the sake of search skills is not as effective as teaching search skills during a research paper assignment.  There are other comments like this, suggesting an embedded form of information literacy might be important: For example on 2cents and Education World.  The latter states, “One positive aspect of “adding” information literacy activities to the curriculum is that this should be a method of teaching rather than an add-on.”

It is also interesting to note that “The Web” and “Podcasts” and all this information stuff seems like ‘extra’ stuff to us digital immigrants (as discussed in Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning, Prensky).  We are struggling to fit the new into our old paradigms.  Our kids, the digital natives, won’t see any of this as a big deal.  They’ve got their Memex, and as much it is the reverse in traditional education, here they will be teaching us how to use it.  Perhaps our role is to remind them of where it all came from?


Entry filed under: feed my pet brain, information literacy.

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