Cees Hamelink and the forgotten political origins of information literacy

At the moment I am going through a range of old papers and articles which collectively introduced the term ‘information literacy’ in the 1970s. This is an area I have been working in for some years, albeit with an increasing sense of concern about the fundamental roots of the concept.

In a broad sense, information literacy (IL) is the set of skills, processes, attitudes and outcomes that collectively allow individuals and communities to develop and sustain healthy informational environments and, thus, engage in the sort of autonomous, self-organised learning that this blog as a whole is trying to promote and investigate. At least, that is my informal definition of it. (Whether we need a “definition” of IL at all is an interesting question, and one to return to in a later post.)

However, the most commonly quoted definition is still that of the ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries, a US organisation) which states that an information literate person is someone who:

  • determines the nature and extent of the information needed;
  • accesses needed information effectively and efficiently;
  • evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into their knowledge base and a value system;
  • uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose;
  • understands many of the economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information and uses information ethically and legally.

As I have said in Information Obesity (in chapter 6), this definition of IL is useful at one level, but there are a range of problems with it. It implies a linear sequence, one that the learner deliberately engages in, and does not therefore account for the way most real information searches are often more in the way of accidental or serendipitous discoveries, are driven by availability rather than need, and do not take place in formal educational settings. It does not allow for the ways information is filtered and selected before the individual learner even gets the chance to ‘access it effectively and efficiently’, whether by dominant interests in the media, educational curricula, individual preferences and prejudices, peer pressure and so on. And it diminishes the idea that learning is about constructing new knowledge, rather than retrieving information that has already been constructed by others.

I do not want to go on here about these issues: in any case I’ve already discussed them in my previous book, and other writers, particularly Christine Bruce and Annemaree Lloyd, have done a lot to rework IL in more nuanced ways, ways that allow for its application outside the realm of formal (especially higher) education, and permit a range of different approaches that include social awareness, subjectivity, serendipity and so on.

What I do want to do is consider how this dominant, standards-based and linear view of IL was only one possible form that it might have taken. This is why I have been re-examining the history of the concept.

There are three principal papers, all dating from the mid-1970s, which brought the term into academic discourse. They were:

  • Paul G. Zurkowski, The Information Service Environment Relationships and Priorities (Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, 1974), 6.
  • Lee G. Burchinal, “The Communications Revolution: America’s Third Century Challenge,” in The Future of Organizing Knowledge: Papers Presented at the Texas A & M University Library’s Centennial Academic Assembly, Sept. 24, 1976 (College Station, Tex.: Texas A & M University Library, 1976), 11.
  • Cees Hamelink, “An Alternative to News,” Journal of Communication 26

Zurkowski’s paper was the first to actually use the term ‘Information literate’ and is usually now cited as the originator of the genre. He writes:

People trained in the application of information resources to their work can be called information literates. They have learned techniques and skills for utilizing the wide range of information tools as well as primary sources in molding information solutions to their problems.

The individuals in the remaining portion of the population, while literate in the sense that they can read and write, do not have a measure for the value of information, do not have an ability to mold information to their needs, and realistically can be considered to be information illiterates.

This is a very general description but nevertheless a useful one. The idea of ‘molding’ information, to find solutions to problems, implies rather more than just ‘using’ it or, more limited still, ‘retrieving’ it. It implies that the information literate person is creative, and can change, or at least, reconceptualise information based on their understanding of a problem.

However, what is also apparent from Zurkowski’s paper is his orientation towards a commercial view of information literacy, one in which the private sector has the primary interest in producing both information, and the information literate people necessary to sustain competitiveness in the workforce. This is not to dismiss his paper which is very interesting (and anyone working in the IL field should read it at some point) – but his focus is not on developing information literate individuals through a process of formal education. Rather, he is exhorting governments – the US government, specifically – to create policy structures that will develop an information literate population.

Burchinal’s paper dates from 1976. It is the one of the three that most clearly develops the notion that IL is about an individual’s skills, and that it is in formal education that these skills should be developed. He writes that:
to be information literate requires a new set of skills. These include how to locate and use information needed for problem-solving and decision-making efficiently and effectively.

It is not hard to see this as an antecedent of the ACRL definitions mentioned above, and indeed, Burchinal was addressing the library profession (at a symposium at Texas A & M). Of the three initial ‘branches’ of IL that these three papers represent, this is clearly the one that grew the most strongly. The reasons for this seem to lie in the omission of any reference to libraries from the US’s 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, and the library profession’s aggressive response to this neglect: Behrens (in her paper “A Conceptual Analysis and Historical Overview of Information Literacy”, in College and Research Libraries, July 1994) makes this point on p. 313, amongst others. This is also an interesting story but one to be taken up in another blog post.

Of the three mentioned above I find Hamelink’s paper the most interesting – and unfortunately, it has also been the most forgotten. Google Scholar – not a 100% reliable indicator I know, but a reasonable estimate – shows only 28 citations since 1976, and quite a few of these are in other literature reviews. Nevertheless, I think this paper is the most important of the three, certainly so if looking at what information literacy can do to fulfil the promise of my informal definition of it, given above: to “allow individuals and communities to develop and sustain healthy informational environments and, thus, engage in… autonomous, self-organised learning”.

Hamelink’s perspective on IL is made clear from the very first sentence:
A new ‘information literacy’ is necessary for liberation from the oppressive effects of the institutionalized public media.

He then goes straight into an observation about the way that information is not usually freely available, but is pre-selected and filtered by dominant interests in society:

what is actually communicated [in the public media] is the outcome of a decision between possible alternatives which is made on the basis of the most powerful interests (economic, hierarchical, intellectual).

Through the way that these interests that “select items for the public agenda”:

“information” functions as an oppressive tool since, by its manner of presentation, it keeps people from shaping their own world. The incoherent fragments preclude the wholistic perspective which enables insight into the interdependence between happenings, into the involvement of  one’s own context, and into the possibility of acting upon the challenge thus posed. The ready-made explanations preclude the insight of the world as something problematic and changeable.

He goes on:

If, however, people are to be given the chance to intervene in their reality, then information channels have to be created that do permit the coherent organization of information.

Media installation at Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

The media…

What he is talking about here is akin to Gramsci’s idea of “counterhegemonic” operations to counter the hegemony of the dominant interests in society and the media. Gramsci (in the Prison Notebooks) recognised that power was often not overtly exercised through repressive means, but instead operated through the manipulation of public opinion and the manufacturing of consent. Plenty of writers, and Hamelink is among them, identify the media and communication channels of society as conduits for hegemony. But Gramsci is no fatalist, believing that there is no way in which this hegemony can be challenged: instead he recognises that counterhegemonies can, and indeed always do, open up around alternative means of communication and what has been called a “radical infrastructure”. This is exactly what Hamelink is talking about.

He says that “the first step toward ‘information literacy’ is to recognise that access to information starts from where the information users are”, and that “their situational context… is central”. Information is not something that should be given to people, or ‘retrieved’ by them, but formed by them, as a response to their own needs and through their own efforts. This may, of course, happen as the result of some kind of formal learning process, but as recognised by Paulo Freire, this learning has to be sensitive to the needs, and political/social context, of the learners, and not something which has had its content and context determined by others, in a paternalistic way.

Hamelink writes:
Herewith, a vital step towards ‘information literacy’ is the implementation of community centers which give access to a set of information resources with which the user can interact, i.e., ask for and receive information at his own initiative and in his own perceived self-interest. To avoid sophisticated forms of well-intended paternalism, such centers would have to be designed and developed with a major input from those who are supposed to benefit from them.

An example of such alternative channels may be represented by Indymedia (see this piece by Jon Pike), which is not just presenting a different perspective, but actively engages with the fact that the stories on these sites have to be created in different ways, from the bottom up.

To me this is a completely different conceptualisation of IL from the skills-based, formal educational perspective originated by Burchinal and epitomised in the ACRL definition. It is, truly, community-based, recognising that the sustainability of any community resource depends on the understanding of the context of that community. It does not discount the importance of ‘experts’, whether in the media, academia, or anywhere else, but does firmly recognise that these types of people cannot make others ‘literate’ on their own terms, and that literacy cannot be reduced to a set of generic capabilities or ‘skills’ but varies according to need and context. In other words, because it is a definition of IL which recognises differences between people and interests, and presents IL as something which is oriented towards empowering the usually disempowered in society, it is firmly political. That this paper has subsequently been so neglected, and IL instead formed into something which is, at best, apolitical, and at worst contributes to the very oppression by “information” that Hamelink bemoans, is for me the biggest mistake the IL movement has made.