Sunday, 22 May 2011

The 7 (new) Pillars of Information Literacy

(SCONUL 2011)

I'm just taking a look at SCONUL's new model for The 7 Pillars of Information Literacy. The new model is clearly based on the original 7 pillars from 1999's "Information skills in higher education" briefing paper (SCONUL) but I wanted to have a look at how this has been brought up-to-date.

I need to show evidence based practice in response to my discipline for my PG Cert portfolio so I thought critiquing the new model and mapping it to areas of practice might be a good way to do this (and this explains why I'm spending my Sunday afternoon thinking about information literacy rather than any number of things I'd rather be doing!)...

Pillar: Identify - able to identify a personal need for information

Prob'ly being a bit librarianish and picky here but this is a bit different from the original pillar of "The ability to recognise a need for information". Small difference but I wonder what the addition of the word "personal" adds? I guess my point here is relating to my subject discipline (health and social care) in that our students sometimes need to identify information needs in others. I'm thinking here of patient information. I think it is fairly common that our students will need to recognise information needs in others and cater for that - especially in public health or health promotion roles. (I think we have a course on e-consultancy - this would be a prime example).

That aside, I think that the criteria (what students should understand and be able to do in this field) are fairly sound. I especially like that they are scalable - making the point that information changes and there is always more to learn. Getting students to think more explicitly about their information needs is not always easy. I think students are sometimes taken aback when I start lit. search sessions with a paper (or whiteboard) exercise to define key concepts and search terms. I think knowing what you need to find out about is fundamental though.

I think this pillar is fairly persistent in that most of the skills around knowing your information needs don't really change. It is interesting that being able to manage time effectively to complete a search is mentioned though. I guess this is more of an issue today than it was when the original pillars were published.

Pillar: Scope - can assess current knowledge and identify gaps

This pillar is around assessing what information is available and I guess it's about making judgement on different criteria. The updated pillar is a lot more explicit around issues like format (explicitly mentioning digital formats and how these might affect the information sources). Thinking about currency of information is an interesting one. Does our definition of current change in an age of Facebook and Twitter? Format can have a massive effect on this - really common now that articles are pre-published on the web before being available in print. Even between e-resources there can be a massive difference in currency - we often find that articles are available from publisher's links long before they make it into full text databases. For my students, accessibility is incredibly important and again it comes down to format: being able to use ebooks opens a whole new world to them when they are on a work placement with limited access to print collections.

Our students don't come to us with an understanding that some resources are in print, some in e and some in both so this is something we address in taught sessions. It's also deeply embedded in our resource discovery strategy. Putting all types and formats into a single discovery service means that, if our students use our discovery service, they will be exposed to all of the available information from day one and should develop skills in choosing the most appropriate information for their situation.

Pillar: Plan - can construct strategies for locating information and data

Again planning a search strategy is not something that comes naturally. I think maybe the awareness has changed since 1999 in that most people are now used to finding alot of the information they need in their lives really easily on Google. Does this make it more difficult to get across the message that when searching for academic information you need to be a bit more systematic and strategic?

It's good to see that an "understanding of the construction and generation of databases" is no longer a criteria for this pillar - I think that reflects how far the tools have moved on in terms of usability. It's right that the focus for this is on planing search techniques and tools. I also like that the criteria include understanding the need to "revise keywords and adapt search strategies". I constantly make this point to students - that they need to look for new search terms in their search results and feed these back into the search.

In my practice, what order you use the tools in has become important recently. I always advice our MSc. students to use our subject guides to make a list of the databases they want to search. Search the discovery service first and tick off all of the databases that it searches, only then is it necessary to go into individual databases that are not indexed in the discovery service.

A point for developing my practice here as the SCONUL criteria include understanding and using controlled vocabularies and taxonomies. I have to admit I really struggle to get these ideas across to my students! Maybe Google has brainwashed everyone into keyword searching but in my experience, the concept that people like librarians assign subject descriptors to information and that you can use those to search semantically seems to be completely alien!

Pillar: Gather - can locate and access the information and data they need

Again, digital information is made more explicit in the new model. I was particularly interested to see "how digital technologies are providing collaborative tools to create and share information". For me this only covers half the story i.e. using social media to find information and being aware of some of the problems that might be inherent in this, but I'll go back to that point later...

In the main this is about actually accessing the information. This is a massive part of what we do: from teaching students where they might find different sources (e.g. books, journals etc.) to supporting them through our authentication systems (it's interesting that one of the criteria is understanding "the difference between free and paid for resources").

The big one for my students seems to be the ability to access full text information. There is an expectation that everything is available in full text, online. Now we all know this is far from reality so part of the work is about adjusting this expectation, highlighting the difference between an abstract and full text, giving students the tools to filter information based on what is available and being able to navigate their way through our authentication systems. For a student in the NHS (with multiple athens accounts, firewalls, limited access to computers) this can be a nightmare!

Evaluate: Can review the research process and compare and evaluate information and data

Has this changed over the past 12 years? Well I think good evidence is good evidence whether its in print or online. There's nothing explicit in the criteria for this pillar that mentions evaluating online information, which seemed odd to me, but then it twigged - this is about thinking critically about the content - it's really got nothing to do with the medium. Or has it? The example that comes to mind here is advising students that if they can't identify an author or date of publication for a website then they should consider whether it is appropriate or not. I think I need to generalise my practice here a bit though. It's just occurred that just because something has been published as a book doesn't mean it's any good - especially with more and more vanity publishing...

So no, I don't think this aspect of information literacy has changed since the original pillars.

Pillar: Manage - Can organise information professionally and ethically

This is quite a biggie for my subject discipline. Some of the criteria (honesty in information handling, appropriate data handling, keeping systematic records, ethical storing and sharing of information) I think have a new emphasis. I'm thinking of issues around patient data, data protection and disclosure. I think maybe this (and the next pillar on dissemination) need to be made a bit more explicit around responsible use of social media. E.g. talking about patients or colleagues on Facebook is really not an information literate way to behave. I think partly this is around developing an understanding of the reach of social media (i.e. that it's a public space), the persistence of information created (i.e. that your drunken night out photos will be there in 5 years time for future employers to see) and potential risks and consequences of actions in this space. It's an emerging area but I think one that we have to develop support for...

Along more traditional terms it's interesting that the use of bibliographic management software is made explicit. It is qualified with "if appropriate" but I wonder if a less specific criteria might work better e.g. student is able to develop an appropriate strategy for managing bibliographic data. Just a thought. We do support endnote web use so this is an area of practice that we engage with but I guess I'm undecided on how far we should encourage students to use reference management software, especially if they have already developed their own way of managing references.

Pillar: Present - can apply the knowledge gained: presenting the results of their research, synthesising new and old information and data to create new knowledge and disseminating it in a variety of ways

It's interesting that new media such as blogs and wikis are explicitly mentioned here alongside traditional forms of publishing. There also seems to be a stronger emphasis on the importance of social networks/ communities of practice in disseminating information. Also the idea that you might present the same information in different ways for different communities. I think this pillar has come along quite a bit - especially if you look at the research lens (the pillars adapted for researchers) which include understanding the importance of open access to research.

I guess this makes sense as one of the areas that information has changed because of technology is that there are a far greater variety of tools and methods available for disseminating information. Publishing is an area of massive change - and I think with increasing open access the impact of this change is likely to accelerate over the next few years.

Definition of information literacy as an umbrella term

It's interesting to see information literacy used as an umbrella term for a range of literacies (digital, media, visual etc.). This is an area where I was unsure (for example if digital literacy is a different thing to information literacy) but I think I agree that information literacy covers all of these terms in a general way but that the more specific definitions of literacies are useful for defining different aspects of IL.

Lost a bit on embedding these in the curriculum from the original position paper

One thing that occurred, especially thinking about how difficult it can be to find opportunities to deliver learning in these areas, was that the original position paper mentioned the importance of embedding information literacy in curricula. Specifically it mentions embedding it in the subject that the student is learning. For me this would mean ensuring that subject units have information literacy outcomes built in to the assessment strategy. This is one area where I need to develop my practice - where possible to influence curriculum development to embed these important outcomes. I think this is particularly important as health and social care professions now place an increasing emphasis on evidence-based practice. For me, information literacy is a vital ingredient for developing evidence based practice.

Lenses useful for linking these to more specific disciplines - development of a health informatics lens?

I like the idea of having different lenses (discipline based adaptations of the pillars). The only one developed so far is the research lens. So, I'd like to pose a question to end this (rather mammoth) post. Does health information deserve its own lens? I think, given the distinct nature of health information, health professions and specific issues such as patient confidentiality (discussed above) that there would be some good arguments in favour of this.


SCONUL, 1999. Information skills in higher education. London: SCONUL. Available: [Accessed 22 May 2011].

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