Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Information Literacy as Liberation

There's been a lot of discussion of what role librarians can/should play to fight the ongoing maelstrom of suspicious information sources. I agree: information literacy is a powerful tool we have at our disposal, but we have to be smart about this. LibGuides, while useful in some circumstances, are not the way to go. Our constituents barely use our websites when they are required to do so, never mind about when they are out in the wilds of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., looking at the title of an article that was just posted by a friend. And as clever as the CRAAP test is, and as funny as the acronym might be, I sometimes have a hard time remembering what each of the letters mean even though I'm in this field - imagine how often our students forget it.

No, we need to use a tool that the members of our community can take with them anywhere and easily remember at any time. I've written about this before, but I'm writing about it again because it's timely and important: we should be teaching our constituents to look at information sources using the 5 Ws.

  • Who? Who wrote this? Can you even tell? Are they an authority in this topic? Credentials are important, but first hand accounts are also important. Most importantly: who stands to benefit if you believe this source?
  • What? What kind of resource is this? Is it an advertisement? Newspaper article? Scholarly research article? Also, what kind of information does it present? Does the content accurately match up with what you already know about this topic? And another thing: are there a bunch of advertisements, either related or unrelated to the topic of the article?
  • When? How up-to-date is the information? And how soon after an event was this published? (We've all seen false reports and misinformation happen shortly after major events like school shootings.) Also, how up-to-date do you need the information to be? Looking for reviews of classic movies that came out shortly after the cinematic debut versus critical acclaim that came years later can make a big difference.
  • Where? Country of origin? (And yes, I teach students about country codes and how to figure out origin when it's a .com or other three letter extension.) How different is the information provided by CNN versus BBC versus Al-Jazeera? Also, where is this information in relation to the structure of the website? Is it on the front page? Is it buried?
  • Why? What's the purpose of the source? Is it trying to sell you something? Convince you of something? Share facts? Also, why are you looking at this source? Entertainment? Medical research? Academic need?

This is something I've used for years, and it sticks to students. It sticks because they already have the 5 Ws as a tool in their mental toolbox, and I'm just showing them another way to use it. The thing about information literacy is that it's how we teach our constituents to think for themselves. We need to be as efficient and effective as possible in this war against propaganda, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and click bait. Don't you think?



  1. Dear Jessica, thank you for writing this. Can readers of yours have permission to reprint this content for libraries and other education spaces? I'd like to put it up near my school's printer, citing you as the author of course. Thanks.

    1. I'd be honored. One of these days I'm going to get around to posting a CC-BY note here.