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.

Why ‘anarchic’?

Why have I called this blog the ‘anarchic educator’? What’s all this reference to anarchy, isn’t that a nasty thing, practiced by punks and subversives who just want to throw down the system but have no idea what to put in its place? Let me address this question here, in what will be the first in a series of posts on this issue.

The word anarchy comes from the same Greek roots as ‘monarchy’ (one ruler) or ‘oligarchy’ (a few rulers). The ‘an-’ prefix is merely a negation, as it is in the word ‘amoral’ (without morals) and so represents the idea of not having any rulers. This is all it means.

There is a strong tendency, however, in modern political discourse, to then segue smoothly from here into a statement or position that if rulers are absent, what will result is a state of chaos. In fact so strong is this tendency and so smooth is the segue that the term ‘anarchy’ has come to signify chaos and disorder, without any acknowledgement of the real meaning of the term. But this is an imposition of meaning; imposed by the state/corporate hierarchies which control most of the planet’s physical and economic resources and have an interest in denigrating any attempt at autonomous political action. Yet it is false. There are plenty of examples of structured, orderly activities, groups and societies that exist, now and in the past, without ‘rulers’ in the formal sense.Peter Kropotkin

I once wrote up my feelings about anarchism in an essay published under a pseudonym and available here: “The Trouble with Anarchism”. I do take back some things said in §5 about property vs. possessions, or at least, admit that the view propounded in that section is naive: but I stand by the rest. The important sections for this discussion are §3 and §4, on page 2, where I wrote about how collaboration and consensus can come about when there are no ‘leaders’ to orchestrate it. The answer – as the great anarchist writer, Kropotkin [pictured], recognised in his book Mutual Aid – is self-organisation.

Now this is not a rare phenomenon. It happens all the time, and Kropotkin identified many examples, from animals through to pre-literate and then ‘civilised’ human society. Social structures can emerge without there having to have been ‘direction’ from some kind of ‘leader’. Within these structures, activity takes place, which can be on quite a large scale (e.g. raising a barn). One can organise without becoming ‘an organisation’ (here see the excellent book by Merrick (1996) about the Newbury by-pass protests) – and decisions can and do get taken within the collective. And the collective can in turn learn about the problems it faces, and the impact of its own activity, including its decision-making.

None of this is particularly radical. As a model of education it is, in fact, quite well described by Etienne Wenger with his original idea of communities of practice. In the first part of his 1998 book, which is probably the best simple statement on what a community of practice (CoP) actually is, Wenger describes how newly-employed claims processors in an insurance company came out of their first few weeks of initial staff training having learnt ‘how to do their jobs’ from the point of view of the company, guided by all the systems analysts, business process analysts, instructional designers and other such operatives who form part of the technostructure – that wing of the organisation which Henry Mintzberg (1989) defines as having a mandate to “plan and control the work of others”. But when they get on to the shop floor, they find that the technostructure’s idea of how this work proceeds is not matched by the reality. On the shop floor there exist a whole range of short cuts, unofficial procedures that have been learned by the claims processors collectively, in the face of the shared learning need that is ‘I want to learn about how to get my work done as effectively and in as stress-free a way as I can’. So the new processor joins this CoP and for the next few weeks unlearns a certain amount of what the technostructure thought was the way the job was done, and relearns the procedures and short-cuts which have slipped under the radar of the technostructure. They do this not because they are being directed to do so by a ‘leader’ (or a ‘teacher’); the learning, and the spaces, skills and structures which shape that learning, are emergent.

Peoples' Front of JudeaMany might say at this point that it is impossible for a whole organisation to structure itself in this way. Would it move in any direction at all? Possibly not. Mintzberg (1989) recognises this when he describes the ultimate ‘political organisation’ as one which spends all its time discussing and fighting over the details but never getting anything done – rather like the Peoples’ Front of Judea (pictured) in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (‘Right! This calls for immediate discussion!’). But one of the things the collective can learn about as it works is the impact of the decisions it takes. This includes how to reconcile individual motivations and desires with those of the group.

This is the crucial tension for self-organisation. As Black (or rather, I) wrote in the essay linked above, there is a ‘school of pseudo-anarchism’ which would subsume all such considerations under that of the individual and reduce human social contact to a mere transaction, offering aid to someone only if they can pay for it (the libertarian position) and never recognising that sometimes one’s views must be modified in the face of the collective interest. Yet this is also part of the essential learning processes of society:

“The true anarchist recognises an absolute need to deal with others, because all authority is fallible: and this therefore includes oneself. Just as one should never listen to only one “expert”, nor read only one perspective on any subject, so one should never fully trust one’s own judgment. Of course, this does not mean that one should take advice from others about which way to travel to work in the morning, but what it does require is the mutual and reciprocal recognition of all other people as autonomous beings. The trick anarchism needs to pull off — and it is the same trick as democracy must master — is to preserve the autonomy of the individual within the collaborative efforts of the group. Group decisions are based on individual preferences, but they must transcend them. Reaching a consensus does not mean talking until one gets one’s own way; a consensus is innately and irrevocably a group creation (Follett, 1920) which can only arise through a process of deliberation in which (ideally) all those affected by the decision under discussion have an equal chance to participate.”

Thus, participation in decision making is a learning process – and a creative process of co-construction of spaces in which learning can subsequently continue in the same way. To solve a decision-making problem – a learning problem – within a self-organising collective by creating a hierarchical structure which will damage one’s ability to take collective decisions in the future, can be defined as a poor decision (see Blaug 2007). The main learning problem faced by the self-organising collective (or CoP) is therefore how to recognise the trade-offs which exist between the desire to maintain the autonomy of individuals and the group as a whole, and how to take decisions that move the collective forward.

Anarchic education is therefore essentially about how we:

  • create and sustain the spaces in which such learning can occur;
  • develop in people the skills and awareness they need to make best use of such spaces;
  • react to change by learning about the impact of such change on these spaces and the people within them.

There are plenty of real-life examples to illustrate these processes, for good and bad, but they can be discussed in subsequent blog posts.


Black, J. (2004): “The Trouble with Anarchism”, Tangentium May 2004, online at http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/drew.whitworth/tangentium/may04/supp1.html [last accessed Dec 31 2012]

Blaug, R. (2007): “Cognition in a Hierarchy”, Contemporary Political Theory 6(1): 24–44.

Follett, M. P. (1920): The New State: Group Organization, the solution of popular government, New York, Longman Green.

Mintzberg, H. (1989): Mintzberg on Management, London, Collier Macmillan.

Wenger, E. (1998): Communities of Practice, London, Routledge.

The MOOC: power to the few, or to the many?

It’s about time I started a blog about academic stuff… and with a sabbatical coming up in Australia next semester, and a book to write (and tell people about), now’s the time…

This move was probably waiting to find the right issue to start with, but the provocation was making the following post to the ALT-Members mailing list (Association of Learning Technologists), today, on the subject of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses):

I think that although the structures used to deliver education are changing – and the MOOC is just an extension of things that were already happening with distance learning, so this change has been underway for some time – I believe that we still need good teachers, in the sense of people with drive, vision, subject matter expertise and an affinity for, and knowledge of, their students. This is what really makes any course, isn’t it? How many of us think back to the best courses we have undertaken and go, hmmmm, really liked that VLE, or really enjoyed that assignment? No, most of the time it will have been because of the teacher.

In the very good recent article by the team at Edinburgh who are involved in one of the new MOOCs, they pointed out that the role of the teacher shifted into a more distant role, but was still very present, just as people buy books on cooking and may feel, even in a small way, that they are being ‘taught’ by Jamie Oliver (or whomever). Now, such charismatic effects are not invested in institutions. They are invested in individuals. The first key point then is that I believe the success of a MOOC remains invested in individuals, or at least, good close teams (of genuine colleagues, rather than some kind of hierarchical structure).

It is clear that an institution with money, and good management will be able – like a successful football club – to marshal a very good team of individuals and get them working together within some kind of common infrastructure. They don’t even need to be located in the same country any more. That may lead to some institutions becoming the Manchester United/Barcelona/etc. of education. To some extent, this has always been the case, but MOOCs will exacerbate it at first.

Students in a face-to-face class

How much do we need face-to-face teaching? Can the MOOC bring down the notion of a campus?

However, I believe that within them, the power remains with the teacher. If a teacher is what makes a MOOC really work – invests that infrastructure with the spark which will keep students interested and motivate them to complete the course and – perhaps at some point – be willing to pay for it; then institutions will need to work hard to keep the teacher with them and, in due course, reap the benefits of the MOOC. Because, just like the new model of online publication is seeing a shift in power away from the middle-man (publishers) and toward a more direct connection between author and reader, producer and consumer (and indeed a fuzzying, even eradication, of the boundaries between the two) – so it is in education. I believe that what is being weakened by the MOOC is the middle-man, the institution, the impersonal system that is regulating access to education and deciding who can come in and how much they will pay – and how the academics under their charge will be managed. And paid. Because the second that we develop the possibility of the student paying the teaching team directly for their work and (as noted in the Clay Shirky post) we can decouple the idea of ‘learning’ from the idea of ‘getting a degree’; then we have a business model that may not require institutions at all. (Market-savvy teachers in MOOCs should surely already be thinking of ‘spin-offs’ – all you need is everyone in a 50,000-strong MOOC to be willing to spend £10 on your accompanying e-book and, well, I’d be quite happy with that as a return. Particularly if I’d self-published the book.)

As a teacher, I do not feel threatened by the MOOC, and when I’ve got time, I’m going to look into setting one up of my own. I have something to say, I think; as with many academics, there aren’t an infinite number of people publishing in my specialist field; I am confident that I have an original slant on things, could bring in other leading colleagues from round the world as guests or partners in various ways; know about distance learning (though I’d obviously have more to learn – at the start, and as the course evolves); etc. Put it this way, I could give it a good go. And I don’t – wouldn’t – need an institution to do it – except, most likely, to advertise it, and that could be done by a different agency. Yes, these are idealistic views, but they are still possible futures.

That is the really exciting thing in the end. Publishers are trying to find ways to hang on, and yes, some publishing institutions are very strong at the moment, but in the end the author _can_ reach the reader directly and we are starting to see the consequences of this. Same with music. And the same with education.