Information Sophistication

moet & chandon champagne

CC image from naotakem on Flickr

Our institution was recently in the New York Times for the focus we are placing on financial literacy. We require students to attend multiple sessions about how to manage their money and make sound financial decisions. I think this is a forward thinking initiative, and wish that I had something like this when I was an undergraduate. What really struck me about the article, though, is the language that is used to describe what we’re teaching:

“Champlain… doesn’t actually use the term financial literacy. The opposite of literacy, after all, smacks of ignorance. Nobody wants to be ordered into a classroom for being illiterate. So the college speaks of its “financial sophistication” offerings…”

This is something I am going to begin adopting in the way I approach information literacy and teaching. As terms, I think ‘financial literacy’ or ‘information literacy’ are fine. People know what you are talking about. But they carry a lot of baggage, especially when used around students.

I almost never use the term ‘information literacy’ in the classroom, because I don’t want students thinking that I believe that they are information illiterate. If they think that, I’ve lost them. And in truth, I don’t think they’re information illiterate. I think they’re bright as hell and often they teach me things. They are really comfortable and adept at searching the web. I just think they’re not as sophisticated in their use and evaluation of information as they should be.

As part of our information literacy assessment, librarians got to look at annotated bibliographies handed in by first year students. In some of them there were rather questionable sources being used. Some included websites from high schools, some included only websites. People with a high level of information sophistication would include sources from a variety of formats. They would try to find sources that argued against their thesis, anticipating arguments. They would recognize bias and approach their problem with balance and objectivity.

I don’t believe that students are information illiterate, they simply need a higher level of information sophistication. At first students are only drinking the Pabst Blue Ribbons of the information world. These are things like Wikipedia and biased blog websites, and sites in the top five hits of a Google search. This is fine is many instances, but I want to help them develop more refined information palettes. I also want them to enjoy the Moët et Chandons of research articles, reports, and information presented in a scholarly, balanced way.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. You know I never use the word literacy in any form when talking with patrons unless we’re discussing something like Early Literacy for kids. But this has me thinking what other words might I be using that I shouldn’t.

  2. Our words can often have unintended effects. I try to choose my words carefully when working with the public. Among librarians, we can use terms like “interlibrary loan” or “journal holdings” but I try (sometimes I fail) to not use jargon like this around patrons. Some terms can confuse patrons or in the case of “information literacy” could possibly make them feel stupid. I try to explain things in clear positive language when I can.

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