Foundations of Information Literacy: A Book Review

Book Review, Education, Information Literacy

This post reviews Natalie Greene Taylor and Paul T. Jaeger’s Foundations of Information Literacy from the perspective of intellectual freedom.

Book cover for Foundations of Information Literacy.

Bottom Line Up Front

Library workers, information professionals, LIS faculty and graduate students seeking to understand current theories of information literacy should look no further than Taylor and Jaeger’s Foundations of Information Literacy. This engagingly written1 text provides a robust introduction to information literacy since its emergence in the “information society” of the 1970s and its continued evolution to address the information disorder of the participatory Web. However, concepts of intellectual freedom and censorship as they relate to information literacy, information disorder, and information illiteracy are underdeveloped.

About the Volume

Taylor and Jaeger define information literacy as  

“a constantly refined practice of processing, accessing, understanding, critically evaluating, and using information in ways that are relevant to one’s life. information literacy relies on a social structure that promotes the agency of individuals in their communities and in the legal, political, educational, communication, and economic structures in their lives.” (p. 5)

Throughout the text, they frame information literacy as a lifelong pursuit that transpires within social, cultural, and political contexts. They assert an intriguing argument for information literacy as a fundamental human right, while revisiting familiar tropes of information literacy as “the cure” for information disorder, a claim thoughtfully critiqued elsewhere.

Each chapter concludes with guiding questions, which are useful for formal curricula, professional development contexts, reading clubs, or personal edification. Taylor and Jaeger’s engaging writing style is seasoned with humor, which may occasionally slide into glibness for readers who don’t share their sociopolitical views.2

The volume is organized into four sections. In section 1, chapters 2-5, Taylor and Jaeger explore definitions and standards for information literacy as it evolved over the last half-century. Chapter 2 explores models such as Big6TM, the ACRL Framework, the AASL Standards Framework for Learners, and the emergence of critical information literacy. Chapter 3 introduces various theories of information behavior and cognitive biases, complementary literacies, and the concept of information literacy as a metaliteracy. Chapters 4 and 5 detail how information literacy is implemented in academic and school libraries, and public and special libraries and archives, respectively. Emerging topics in information literacy, including privacy and surveillance, fake news and fact checking, information privilege and social justice, and postmodernism and truth relativism, are all highly salient to teaching intellectual freedom.

Section 2, comprising chapters 6-9, finds Taylor and Jaeger positing their theory of information literacy as a human right in the context of various policy frameworks. The authors argue that “information literacy is necessary as a right for all the other facets of information [access, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, etc.] to be successfully guaranteed as rights” (p. 82). Their claim that access to information (both digital and physical) is insufficient without the knowledge and skills to navigate and utilize information formats, and to seek, evaluate and make use of relevant information, is well supported by anecdotes. However, it is unclear what use it is to be information literate without the intellectual freedom that guarantees such access to information. Further, their own definition of information literacy invokes “relevan[ce] to one’s life” and “the agency of individuals,” both phrases which evoke intellectual freedom. Indeed, their definition positions the lifelong practice of information literacy as an exercise of intellectual freedom. 

Information literacy and intellectual freedom may be complementary rights in the sense that information literacy is a positive right to lifelong education in the use of information, and intellectual freedom is a negative right to be free from restrictions in the information one seeks and expresses. It is unclear why Taylor and Jaeger think that information literacy must be superordinate to intellectual freedom as a human right, except that this underlies their claim that information literacy would benefit from greater coordination or centralization of policy and practice. An intellectual freedom-centered approach would favor the current emergent model of information literacy practiced at the hyperlocal context, which Tayor and Jaeger find inefficient.

Sections 3 (chapters 10-12) and 4 (chapters 13-16) deliver the most interesting fodder for intellectual freedom enthusiasts. Section 3 explores contemporary issues with misinformation, disinformation, and information illiteracy. These chapters revisit well-trod terrain hunting the familiar boogeymen of information literacy, including Alex Jones (who manages to haunt any discussion of information disorder on social media despite his coordinated deplatforming in 2018), “QAnon,” and Trump. These sections lack new insight, and readers seeking a nuanced consideration of how to engage patrons with diverse social and political worldviews will be left wanting. Chapter 12 presents such a Gish gallop of false equivalencies, false dichotomies, strawman arguments, and settled-question fallacies regarding information literacy as it relates to current events, including 2020’s social unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic, that to address them with the nuance they deserve would require an entire volume unto itself. Furthermore, the authors’ selection of examples for information disorder bely glaring omissions, such as the role of social media in fomenting deadly and destructive social unrest which blighted legitimate First Amendment-protected protest during 2020, or the role of corporate media in advancing the false Russian collusion narrative of the 2016 election. It is thus with a hint of irony that I appreciate this guiding question for chapter 12:

“One casualty of our current information society is the loss of nuance—how can we balance a need to question authority (corporate and government alike) with the conspiratorial nonsense that is being spread by malicious or ignorant actors?”

(p. 144)

In section 4, chapters 13-16 discuss librarians as educators and information literacy as a lifelong pursuit. Here, the authors invoke the ALA Code of Ethics article 7 on the distinction between personal beliefs and performance of library work:

“As a profession—regardless of what we each personally believe—the ideal vision of practice is helping to introduce a patron to a range of valid sources on an issue and ways to assess the quality of those sources, and then letting the patron learn and decide for themselves, as close to honest as possible brokers of information.”

(p. 157)

This is a crucial, practical way to incorporate intellectual freedom in information literacy education.

What’s Missing

After reading Foundations of Information Literacy, I’m left wondering: what do Taylor and Jaeger think is the purpose of information literacy? If, as they define it, the purpose is for each person to be able to exercise agency in their use of information in ways that are relevant to their own lives, then it seems that intellectual freedom should have been a much more salient theme in the book. Foundations of Information Literacy provides a sufficient introduction to cognitive biases from a psychology perspective, but offers little in the way of addressing logical fallacies, use of evidence in sound reason and argumentation, and the kind of intellectual dispositions, such as open-mindedness, which we can all cultivate to enhance information literacy through the exercise of intellectual freedom. 

The authors’ call for greater coordination and centralization of information literacy policy and practice smack of the neoliberal policies they critique elsewhere in the book; such approaches are also more vulnerable to corruption and cooptation by governmental or corporate entities that can be hostile to intellectual freedom. Furthermore, the volume lacks consideration of the negative effects of content moderation, fact-check labeling, and censorship on information access and information literacy. While Taylor and Jaeger’s definition of information literacy clearly upholds intellectual freedom, other sections of the book on misinformation, disinformation, and information illiteracy come off as paternalistic. As with so much other library scholarship since 2016, the underlying argument seems to be that if everyone were only sufficiently information literate, then they would think exactly like us, and the world would be a better place.

The volume’s reliance on contemporary examples put it at risk of declaring instances of misinformation prematurely.  The information timeline being a staple of information literacy instruction, library workers and other information professionals should couch our knowledge and understanding of current events appropriately, and avoid hubristic assumptions about our immunity to information disorder. 

The book provides a retrospective on fifty years of the development of information literacy – but what is its shelf life? Fifty years from now, it’s unclear whether this volume will continue to serve as a useful guide to information literacy foundations, or whether it will be relegated to a relic of a time when information professionals abandoned any pretense of objectivity in favor of the politically expedient.

About the Authors

Natalie Greene Taylor and Paul T. Jaeger released Foundations of Information Literacy as a follow-up to their 2019 text, Foundations of Information Policy. They co-taught at the University of Maryland, where Jaeger is a Professor in the College of Information Studies; Taylor is an associate professor in the University of South Florida’s School of Information. Jaeger and Taylor are also co-editors of Library Quarterly.

1 Definitely don’t skip the endnotes!

2 But seriously, read the endnotes!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.