Information literacy issues in the real world

You probably don’t think that it’s too hard to find good, reliable sources for information online. You may well think that, because you’ve developed excellent information seeking and verifying skills yourself. You’ve learned how to assess all sorts of online resources, check them for accuracy and bias, and decide for yourself whether they are trustworthy. This is an important skill in the modern environment, and is known to information professionals as “information literacy”. Throughout the education sector and the public library sector, information professionals are working to impart these skills to both children and adults, to enable those individuals to make good decisions on the accuracy and reliability of the information they access online. Being equipped with good information literacy skills means you can make informed and reasoned judgements on information you encounter.

The Australian Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, unfortunately appears not to have developed these skills regarding assessing the veracity of resources found online. Despite the many problematic issues associated with some of the information available on the site, he has recently declared that when checking whether there was a link between climate change and bushfires in Australia, he “looked up what Wikipedia says”. Now, on the face of it, this is funny – a government minister has relied on a site that’s notorious for its capacity to be maliciously or entertainingly edited to give misinformation for his facts, and now he looks slightly foolish!

However, what is of more concern is the extent to which Mr Hunt appears to be unaware of the fact that Wikipedia is not regarded as an authoritative source for information, particularly in regards to contentious or political issues. As climate change is a highly politicised topic, the most reasonable approach to understanding whether there is a link between climate change and bushfires would be to check for research on the topic in scientific publications. These journal articles would have been peer reviewed and the science rigorously checked, meaning that the conclusions drawn within them would have a strong basis in verifiable facts. Somehow, Mr Hunt has managed to avoid all the times throughout his school and work career when information professionals attempted to teach him information literacy skills, and has made a poor choice when selecting a source to support his viewpoint. Luckily, this sort of cherry-picking of unreliable information is obvious, due to the fact that he cited Wikipedia as his source, and this undermines the strength of his argument. But this use of Wikipedia as a source for information hints at a concerning underlying issue – are the people in power actually equipped to assess the information they’re being given? They are bound to be bombarded with a large volume of information on all sorts of topics: do they have access to information professionals who can either help them to learn how to effectively assess the veracity of sources, or who can do this checking for them?

It appears not: this letter from the Australian Library and Information Association was issued in response to Greg Hunt’s statement. It shows that staffing cuts in government and other libraries mean that ministers do not have the level of access to skilled information professionals that they should. This means that those ministers are now having to rely on their own information assessment skills, and in this particular case, those skills have fallen far short of those which the public could reasonably expect a government representative to have. Without those skills, it appears that government ministers are liable to making mistakes in important policy areas, by potentially basing their decisions on unreliable sources. It is important that the people in these powerful positions are equipped with the skills which will to enable them to deal appropriately with the information they encounter, and make good, well informed decisions. Information literacy is not an optional skill, it’s an essential requirement in order to be able to work effectively, and one which even government ministers must develop if they want their views on topics to be respected, rather than be laughed at!

By Jennie Findlay

6 thoughts on “Information literacy issues in the real world

  1. Not just in Australia of course, but all over the world. But I don’t think it is realistic to expect Government Ministers to have developed sufficiently fine-tuned IL skills to – as Jennie points out – read scholarly articles and make sense of them. Nor is it appropriate for them to rely on special advisors who are political appointees sharing the same world view as the Ministers. Instead, every Minister should be required to have an information manager/scientist working for them (and probably based in the Parliamentary library) responding rapidly and objectively to queries and to be able to point out where particular research results are flawed, for whatever reason. And it requires Ministers to have an open mind! This I think is the fundamental problem….

    1. Yes, it’s probably a bit idealistic to expect ministers to be able to assess these things themselves, but they should definitely have access to a team of information professionals who *are* able to make those sort of informed, and neutral assessments of information. I know that the Scottish Parliament has a team of such staff (following info from a recent job advert http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/abouttheparliament/55467.aspx):

      “The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) provides research, information and documentation services to the Parliament. Within SPICe there are 25 researchers working in three teams of 6 to 10 researchers providing expert information and briefing to MSPs, their staff, parliamentary committees and to the staff of the Parliament in relation to their parliamentary duties. This work includes providing subject briefings to committees on legislation, committee inquiries and petitions, and responding to individual enquiries. Our work is non-partisan and, when carried out for individual MSPs, it is confidential.”

  2. For me, the point of information literacy is to empower users to find the information they want from reliable sources. The point is not to force them to do it or to see information literacy training as a replacement for library and information professionals. Therefore, I agree that the expectation shouldn’t necessarily be that everyone becomes an information guru. This highlights how important the support of library and information professionals is in providing reliable sources but also briefings.

    I know that the House of Lords has Library Clerks who specialise in particular topics to inform the briefings given to peers and I presume the House of Commons has something similar (http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/offices/commons/commonslibrary/).

  3. This is a very important issue, well described.

    In local government in the UK, how many library authorities are able to support council members in this way? How many councillors call upon their libraries for assistance with complex or contentious analysis of evidence? How far would regular use of librarians’ skills help counillors understand the value of library services themselves?

    I’m not in the loop as far as library services to councillors are concerned, but I’d like to hear the views of those who are in this position.

  4. I worry when doctors tell me that they’ve checked something on Google. It seems I spend a large part of my life trying to teach them to use better resources but it’s like pushing water up hill with a fork!

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