On 12 December I attended an event at the University of West London called ‘Information as a Graduate Attribute: are employers getting a good deal?’. I was really keen to attend since Strand 10 of ANCIL deals with information literacy beyond academia, in the socio-economic aspects of daily life and also in the workplace.
Speakers included Ruth Stubbings of the CILIP Information Literacy Group, Jason Eyre of De Montfort University, and Joelle Fanghanel, Director of the INSTIL unit at UWL; it was an excellent and thought-provoking lineup. As well as good coffee (an element of primary importance) and excellent presentations, the event had a great deal to offer in terms of exchange of experience and workshopping/discussion opportunities. One significant element was lacking: UWL had tried to attract some local employers to come and give their views, but in the end it didn’t happen. Perhaps this is because employers, like many other stakeholders, hold a narrow and reductivist view of information literacy as “some kind of library thing”, and can’t imagine what it might have to do with employability attributes … ?
This, of course, was the burning question of the day – and it goes back in many ways to how we market IL. The final speaker of the day, a senior Careers advisor, showed us a number of application forms from major companies and suggested one or two questions where she thought mentioning information literacy might be useful. She clearly struggled to understand why we kept saying that information literacy underpinned the applicant’s response to every single question on every one of those forms.
Too often IL is perceived as a single, tickbox skill that can be put on the same level as teamwork, communication, problem-solving, or even time management and IT fluency – all those things that employers say they want. The problem is that IL simply can’t be isolated and reduced to a single skill. The ability to analyse the nature of a specific task in a given context and the capacity to frame an appropriate response, based on an informed and judicious use of relevant information, are not simple functional skills but complex intellectual operations.
Is the issue one of language or of education? Should we change what we call this all-important element, or educate the stakeholders who have such influence on our students’ careers to better understand what we mean by ‘information literacy’? When Jane and I ran our expert consultation as part of the ANCIL research, our interviewees were divided down the middle on whether to retain and rehabilitate the term or ditch it completely and find a different label that resonates better with faculty, employers, and students themselves. The problem is to find a label that succeeds in doing this without under-representing or over-simplifying the complex spectrum of skills, competences, and values that makes up information literacy.
Answers on a postcard, please …