Thing 1: What is Information Literacy?

Information literacy is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgments about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to develop informed views and to engage fully with society.

CILIP, 2018

Information literacy is quite a slippery concept to grasp. There, we said it. Don’t be scared!

In Thing 1, we’re going to go through some of the ways that we might think about what information literacy is. This is quite a ‘long read’, so don’t feel you have to get through all of it in one sitting.

Defining information literacy

Some definitions of information literacy, like the CILIP one above, are big and broad in their scope. They highlight some of the key activities associated with information literacy – finding it, using it, thinking critically about it. They also emphasise its transformative nature, its ability to deliver what we need to learn throughout our lives and to participate in a democratic society. And while broad definitions like these can seem a little bit grandiose or ambitious – it’s perhaps not easy to see the connection between being able to copy-and-paste an error message into Google and ‘engaging fully with society’ – they are beneficial. The CILIP definition makes it clear that information literacy is relevant to all of us, throughout our lives. Information literacy is not just for students.

But, perhaps because information literacy is hard to grasp, a common approach to understanding it has been to identify activities and skills related to information, and then to set an ideal standard for how that activity is performed. If a person meets that standard, then they are information literate. This approach is often seen in the form of a checklist, outlining information tasks and what steps need to be followed to demonstrate information literacy in relation to each one.

Undoubtedly, a checklist can help to make information literacy comprehensible and clear. But there are problems with this kind of behavioural approach. Firstly, checklists often imply that there is an ideal way to carry out tasks related to information, and that those who haven’t mastered this are somehow in deficit. But who determines what that ideal way is? Is it library staff? Secondly, this kind of approach implies that ‘information literate’ behaviour is universal and fixed, that information literacy is performed in the same way regardless of the context or purpose for which information is used. Even the CILIP definition hints at this – we have the ability to think critically about the information we find and use, as though what it means to think critically is always the same thing.

But it isn’t. What counts as ‘thinking critically’ depends on our context. An easy way to consider this is along disciplinary or subject lines. Imagine a Veterinary Medicine student and a History student, and how they might look for an article for an essay or assignment. They may have different sources, priorities and methods of assessing what they find. The date an article was published, for example, might matter in different ways to each of them. So the ‘ideal’ information literacy behaviour of these two students won’t look the same. What creates the difference? Context.

What is context?

Well, in the example above, context is subject or discipline, plus the specific purpose, the exact essay or assignment the students are doing. For us, it will be informed by our workplace, or related to our hobbies or interests, as well as whatever tasks we’re trying to complete, how long we have to complete them, and much more. In some theories of information literacy, and some more recent approaches, context is considered to be so important that it is the defining factor in how information literacy is understood and performed.

The ACRL framework, for example, has a focus on information literacy in an academic context, and emphasises that different disciplines ‘construct’ information literacy in different ways. (ACRL is the Association of College and Research Libraries, based in the United States). The Cambridge Information Literacy Framework, also with an academic focus, doesn’t even limit context to a student’s discipline. It says that information literacy is ‘specific to the context in which students are learning’ – this is subject, yes, but has space to incorporate other elements – what year a student is in, what they’re working on, whether they’re a full-time student, a distance learner or a mature student.

It might seem, right now, that information literacy is so changeable and malleable, that it’s indefinable. But that’s not quite the case. Information literacy does mean something, and there are behaviours which are more, or less, information literate. It just doesn’t always mean the same thing in every context.

And this begs the question: how do we determine what information literacy is in any given context? Is the context defined by a discipline, or a workplace, or something else? The answer is simple: it’s developed through the community within that context. Through participating in a community, through understanding its values, and what information behaviours are sanctioned and rewarded, we learn what information literacy means in that community. So information literacy is social. It’s based around interactions, conversations and sharing practices. It is defined by the community, and the community is the site in which it happens. We learn how to be information literate through interacting with and being part of the community.

Information literacy in your community

This might all sound a bit theoretical right now, so let’s bring it back to something practical. Information literacy can refer to any activities related to information and knowledge in any given setting and an individual’s awareness of, and fluency with, that information. It’s not just about finding it, or citing it properly. It’s much bigger and more dynamic than that. Here are some examples of what might constitute information literacy in our workplace(s):

  • If you can enter the height of a book in a 300 $c field without measuring it, that might be information literacy in your context.
  • If you can guess the height of the book perfectly well, thank you very much, but will still measure it, just to make sure, because accuracy is valued in cataloguing, that might be information literacy in your context.
  • If you receive an email from a user about an ebook which is definitely not working, and can interpret the email to understand that they’re talking about an NPLD item, that might be information literacy in your context.
  • If you know what NPLD means, and can explain to a user in an email how to access it, that might be information literacy in your context.
  • If you can look at the label of a book in your library, and know that it’s classified wrongly, or mislabelled, that might be information literacy in your context.

In all of these cases, your information literacy will have been developed in multiple ways – through reading, through conversation, through experience, through learning and following professional practices and values, through training, through helping others, and more. In other words, through community.

So where does the information literacy framework fit in?

The Cambridge Information Literacy Framework has our academic communities as its focus. It frames (rather than defines or specifies) the kinds of information activities which emerge in these communities, and it names four overlapping ‘competencies’ for information literacy in an academic context. These competencies are neither linear nor comprehensive, and the framework does not prescribe a list of ideal behaviours. It allows space for context and for community.

This course, Framework Five, will take you through each of the four competencies. Each ‘Thing’ will outline and provide a bit of a theoretical underpinning a competency, and will help you to see how that overlaps with your workplace information literacy. The context is different, and so not everything will apply: this is okay. And so as you move through this course, as you learn about the Cambridge institutional information literacy framework, it’s important to be sure that we account for our local context and our situated, real-life practices. Because it’s in these practices that the complexity and the richness and the dynamic nature of information literacy can really emerge.


First page of the Cambridge Information Literacy Network. 2020. “Information Literacy Framework, University of Cambridge.” Cambridge Information Literacy Network (CILN). 2020.

The first page of the information literacy framework situates the framework in the Cambridge setting, and outlines how the framework is aligned to the strategic roles played by the library community in Cambridge. It also provides some background to the framework, and outlines its scope in relation to information literacy teaching in Cambridge.

CILIP. 2018. “New Definition of Information Literacy.” Information Literacy Group. 2018.

This short brochure expands on and enriches the CILIP definition of information literacy at the top of this post. The description of various contexts – everyday life, citizenship, education, the workplace, health – provides parameters for some of the contexts in which information literacy matters.

(Optional) extra reading

Lloyd, Annemaree. 2005. “Information Literacy: Different Contexts, Different Concepts, Different Truths?” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 37 (2): 82–88.

This article expands on some of the ideas introduced in this blog post, but from a more academic lens. It draws on behavioural, constructivist and sociocultural theories around information literature, contextualising them with a fascinating study on what information literacy looks like for firefighters. It explores the textual, social and physical or sensory sources of information which firefighters deal with, and how information literacy is vital in enhancing firefighters’ practice.


Your task for Thing 1 is to write a short, reflective paragraph on what informs, and contributes to, information literacy in your context.

Think about some of the types of information you deal with as part of your job. This could be metadata, student information, statistics on anything from borrowing to social media, budgets, lists of holdings, palaeographical information, etc. Try to narrow your thinking down to a specific information-based task that you feel particularly fluent in or confident about.

Now write a short paragraph on how fluency in this activity is defined, and where that definition emerged from. Think about whether fluency in this activity has changed, why it changed, and how you incorporated those changes into your practice. Consider too the community within which you developed your fluency with that activity, and if and how it influenced you.

Next steps

Blog about what you have written, or submit your work using the dedicated Thing 1 form.

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