Librarians Lead the Way to Digital Literacy

March 17, 2017
By Natalie Orenstein

Librarians have been on the front lines of information literacy for years, putting them in a prime position to help youth learn to navigate a complex and growing world of digital information and news.

Unfettered access to information and news is essential for learning—but it can also be a hazard when learners lack the right tools for parsing that information.

Nobody knows this more than librarians.

“We’ve always talked about information literacy,” Nicole Cooke, a professor who teaches future librarians at the University of Illinois’ School of Information Sciences, told The Verge. “Information literacy is just trying to get people to be savvy consumers of information.”

For decades, visitors to a library were confined to a static collection of information. Librarians helped them access and wade through it.

“In today’s digital world, information literacy is a far more complex subject than it was when the phrase was coined,” writes University of California, Merced, librarian Donald Barclay at PBS. In this digital world, librarians play a different, yet even more important, role.

In January, this blog explored the need for digital literacy education in the age of “fake news.” Remake Learning covered the recent Stanford University study that confirmed many educators’ fears: middle and high school students are likely to take false information they encounter online as fact. More than 80 percent of middle school students studied were unable to distinguish between credible online news and sponsored content.

Sam Wineburg, the director of the Stanford History Education group, which published the study, says librarians may be uniquely poised to help young people navigate a sea of digital information.

“Librarians are natural allies for educators in helping students become critical news consumers,” he told the American Libraries Magazine.

Librarians—whether at schools or in public libraries—provide access and support in welcoming settings. Trained to help people find and decipher information, they can act as coaches. As young learners explore topics of their choice, librarians are there on the sidelines pointing them to sources that may be helpful and training them to recognize those that are not. Libraries also can hold workshops for visitors on topics like online safety and digital literacy.

Many students learn basic practices for determining whether a digital source is trustworthy. Is the ending of a URL a for-profit “.com” or an academic “.edu”? Is there an author or organization’s name attached to the information, and what can you find out about that person or entity?

Beyond encouraging those basic precautions, librarians and other educators and mentors can facilitate conversation that stokes inquiry and critical thinking—necessary skills as digital credibility becomes ever murkier.

“Having respectful and constructive dialogues is a must so that people can feel heard and understood,” Barbara Alvarez writes in the Public Library Association magazine. “Public libraries have an opportunity to lead this effort while promising a space where all are welcome…they may be able to use the connections made in their conversations to form new opinions and critically think about the information they read.”

One path to critical consumption of media is by creating it. Doing so allows young people to share their own truths while honing their critical thinking and evaluation skills. Libraries have increasingly begun offering programs that train students to make their own media.

Storytellers Without Borders, a joint program between the Dallas Public Library and the Dallas Morning News, teaches journalism to high-school-aged visitors. As part of the journalism training, librarians show participants how to conduct research using digital resources at the library.

In Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Public Library becomes a “lab” where teenage visitors can work with mentors to make films, record music, or build robots. The Labs @ CLP program, at multiple branches, leverages the library’s accessibility to all in the community.

As the digital information landscape continues to change rapidly, so too must librarians. As the consequences of “fake news” become clearer, some veteran librarians are reevaluating how they approach digital literacy education.

In the School Library Journal, longtime librarian Laura Gardner writes: “Teaching evaluation of information has never been so critical, and I’m thinking fast.”

By Natalie Orenstein
Originally Published at Remake Learning