Making a Dent? Information Literacy Instruction in Canada’s Public Libraries
ASIS&T Annual Meeting - 2006 (ASIS&T 2006)
Austin, Texas, November 3-9, 2006
This poster will present results of Canada’s only recent study of information literacy (IL) practices in public libraries. The overall objective of this project was to explore the actual and potential role of public libraries in Canada in developing the public’s information literacy skills. A skills deficit exists among the general population, ironically in parallel with much (misplaced) confidence about those skills; that deficit is a kind of second-level digital divide (Hargittai, 2002). Thus, access to digital information in particular is compromised in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. Despite an urgent need to develop IL skills, and expectations that public libraries fulfill that role (Canadian Library Association, 1998) (imposed by the federal government ‘Connecting Canadians’ initiative, particularly via the Community Access Program) (Government of Canada, 2006), the author’s previous research suggested that the real experiences of public librarians and of public library customers may not bear out this expectation. The study was done in two phases: first, a national quantitative survey of instruction was conducted to examine the instructional objectives, practices, and challenges in the public library context. The study’s second phase consisted of visits to a diverse range of public libraries in Canada. The site visits included interviews with library staff and library customers, structured observations of customers’ internet use, and photographs of the public Internet access areas within the libraries (to be incorporated into the poster). Staff interviews focused on instruction currently occurring in the library, and on the perceived role of public libraries in information literacy training; this data triangulated the quantitative survey data obtained in phase one of the study. Library customers were asked about their Internet use in the library, their training experiences, and about their experience of being ‘information literate’ (or not). Preliminary analyses suggest that the primary uses of the Internet in public libraries observed in this study are email, online news, gaming, word processing, shopping, and search engine use. More men than women were observed making use of the Internet access computers in public libraries, and most customers appeared to be under 35 years of age. The primary means of developing IL skills are informal, via personal experience or seeking the advice of friends and family. For some customers, experiences of being information literate include feelings of superiority, empowerment, and personal control, while others are utterly nonplussed, suggesting that being information literate is as mundane as tying one’s shoes. The interview, observation, and photographic data from the second phase of the study (site visits) will be the focus of the ASIST conference poster presentation. Theoretically, this research will advance understanding of public policy making and policy implementation by analyzing the role of the public library, as a nonprofit institution, in advancing federal government information policy (the ‘Connecting Canadians’ initiative). Implications for the “second-level digital divide” are also apparent from these research results. If citizens outside of academic institutions, which have traditionally taken on the role of developing information literacy skills among their students, are not generally taking advantage of opportunities for training such as those offered by public libraries, it is no wonder that actual information literacy skills are lacking (Fallows, 2005). Additionally, understanding library customers’ experiences of information literacy will advance information literacy theory. More practically, the study results provide an analysis of the relative success of public libraries in developing Canadians’ information literacy skills. That analysis brings voice to a community of professionals expected to fulfill an important policy function, but provided with few resources to do so. Equally significant, the actual Internet practices of public library customers, and the views of this group, are revealed.