Information Literacy, Librarianship and the Negotiation of Professional Expertise

Dr Olof Sundin, Associate Professor with the Swedish School of Library and Information Science presented his research on information literacy at the Toa Payoh Community Library on 26 July 2006. The talk was organized by the National Library Board and open to LAS members.

The stage was set by his introduction where he stated that our monopoly on the tools for information seeking has been broken. He felt it was important for librarians to be aware that they “continuously show a strong interest in controlling the users with reference to the users’ own good” and that the “practice of librarianship can be viewed as exhibiting a tension between the two concepts of control and access”.

The relationship between librarians and users had changed and all professionals are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their traditional hierarchical relationship with their clients. With the changes facing librarianship, it has led to a growing interest in the pedagogical aspects of librarianship which involves teaching and empowering users.

Information literacy and knowledge claims of librarians
Dr Sundin put forth that information literacy is shaped by the different knowledge claims made by librarians. He felt that professions and their expertise should be understood as negotiations over knowledge claims. It was by establishing information literacy as an important social issue that a specific expert role is created for librarians.

He studied the web tutorials created by Scandinavian university libraries and the approaches to information literacy that were taken. There were many tutorials which used the source approach where the user was taught to use specific sources and tools. In the behavioural approach, the user is prescribed an order in which sources should be used. There were very detailed tutorials which were very structured, covering search techniques, Boolean searching, field search, proximity. On the other hand there were tutorials which used the process approach, which focused on meta-cognition and showed users the different information seeking process. An example of this is where 3 different characters choose different approaches to find information. Finally, there was the communication approach were the social aspects of information seeking is emphasized and could also include some meta-awareness of the feelings of users. Tutorials taking this approach were less common.

Dr Sundin pointed out that reliance on ICT tools sometimes overshadowed the purpose of the tools. He emphasized that information literacy should not be done just for information literacy alone but for the purpose of equipping users with the necessary skills they need to handle information. He suggested greater engagement and communication with the users to re-negotiate the relationships with users, the roles of librarians and the expertise of librarians.

In the question and answer segment, a participant commented on Dr Sundin observation that many librarians and tutorials said negative things about Google. He pointed out that librarians did it as they wanted to re-direct their users to their paid sources and that they wanted users to be more critical of the sources they used. It was suggested that librarians also point out that academic sources have value as they are used in the profession that the students are studying to become. It was also commented that although the role of librarians were shifting with changes in focus, but that the core remained important which is to connect users with the information they need.

Dr Sundin pointed out that librarians needed to be more aware of the changes that are happening and position themselves accordingly. If librarians stuck to their old ways and did not evolve together with the environment, we could end up in our libraries guarding only one entrance and users were by-passing the librarians to access the information via various other means and entrances.

A discussion was facilitated by Assistant Professor Brendan Luyt from NTU. The audience was broken up into groups to discuss and present their views on different aspects of information literacy.

How has ICT changed librarian expertise?
Computer skills are now key and this includes web page creation, Where formerly we needed to know print sources to retrieve information and later command search to retrieve good results from a database, it can now be easily done using the user-friendly interfaces. Changes are now happening at a faster rate, and librarians need to keep abreast of the changes to existing databases and new products. Communication skills are still important but shifting from face-to-face to virtual and from written to email, SMS, IM and even blogs. Marketing skills are more important as librarians need to sell to users the benefits that libraries and librarians can bring them.

What kind of librarian expertise is most important to mediate to users?
The group came up with communication skills, interpersonal skills, networking skills and also marketing skills. They also felt that having teamwork and a network of colleagues to tap on for their knowledge and resources was important.

How can you include the skills or expertise of your users when designing IL programmes?
The group suggested training students to do library tours and to involve them in modifying the tour. Another way was to use problem-based learning by giving students a questions and letting them look for it themselves. The librarians act as guides rather than teach or give the answer.

Who are the other actors that could be involved in designing IL programmes?

The group suggested including the users and the teaching staff to develop the content and to get their buy-in to the programme. Dr Luyt suggested including anthropologists and sociologists to tap on their research into the background of the community. Multiple skills and knowledge from multi-disciplinary fields would become increasingly important.

Contributed by Yeo Pin Pin