The ‘F’ word: information literacy, ‘find’ and other verbs

Another short piece written for the UKSG Newsletter back in September. Thanks to editor Andrew Barker for letting me reproduce it here (and in a downloadable form over here), and for being brave enough to indulge my long-cherished desire to write about ‘the F-word’ : )

Autumn! Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, of Welcome Week and freshers’ flu, of hoarseness and voice loss from back-to-back induction sessions. The opportunity to welcome a new group of learners into the academic community and let them loose on knowledge ought to be joyful and exciting – but somehow the joy gets lost in the pressure to condense Everything You Need to Know About The Library into a single front-loaded session, usually in a lecture theatre, and sometimes into a five-minute ‘introductory’ slot that may be the only timetabled contact you have with a new cohort of students.

Every new academic year I struggle with the ever-present temptation to just focus on the basics, which in a five-minute ‘library slot’ means how to find your stuff. My struggles centre around the verb: as a passionate proponent of what Cottrell and Cohen call “real deal information literacy” (2012), I have issues with the fact that ‘find’ often comes across as the primary verb for what you do with information in an academic context.

It’s fairly frequently noted that in our disintermediated information world finding things is easy: it’s exercising critical evaluation of such a volume of material from such a range of sources that’s hard. In this regard it’s interesting that while classic models of information literacy such as SCONUL, ANZIIL and the original ACRL standards all include the concept of ‘find’ (sometimes as ‘access’ or ‘gather’) as a key action, it’s a verb that scarcely appears in the eight pages of the ANCIL curriculum. Instead, ANCIL uses verbs like ‘distinguish’, ‘critique’, ‘identify’, and ‘reflect’ to model the learner’s relationship with information – all of which involve doing something to, or with, the information found.

In the library world, where much of our focus is naturally on systems for organising and locating information, we can sometimes be fooled into thinking that the learner’s interaction with information is a kind of quest narrative that centres on seeking and culminates when the desired material is found. This is a seductive construction of academic information practice, placing the library and its search tools at the heart of scholarly creativity and incidentally ensuring that our role as gatekeeper retains its hieratic status. Again, this perception of information enshrines ‘find’ as the primary information activity: as Spiranec & Zorica have commented, “within IL standards information is usually treated as an object to be located and used by the individual” (2012).

But if the only message we have the chance to communicate to our students is that their relationship with information centres on finding information objects, we’re doing them a major disservice. At some point we need to make clear to learners in higher education that what really matters is what you do with the information once you’ve found it. Too much focus on ‘find’ implicitly communicates to students that their encounter with information is simply a matter of tracking down published artefacts, when in fact that encounter is about “Making meaning within unfamiliar discourse” (Wingate, 2006).

What it comes down to is that in library sessions we have a choice in how we present the concept of information. We can describe a book or a journal article as an artefact, a published and describable entity: you look for it, you find it, you’re done. Or we can describe information in terms of its contribution to knowledge, as a point of view expressed and negotiated within the academic discourse: you find it, you read it, you start answering back to it. The academic community’s relationship with information is not to absorb without question – it’s entirely the opposite. The whole purpose of HE is to develop in students a critical mindset: the weighing, sifting, questioning approach that isn’t cowed by expertise or silenced by authority.

Yet given the active, constructive, negotiated nature of this relationship with information, isn’t it interesting that our ‘induction’ weeks in general chiefly consist of telling our students things? Paradoxically, this first week of student life in higher education has very little to do with being introduced to the values and practices of the academic community, with a view to enabling each individual to negotiate and express an identity within that community. In fact, ‘induction’ is possibly the worst label there could be for an introductory experience that chiefly consists of directional wayfinding and basic know-how – finding the lecture theatre, managing to remember your username and password, learning where to get cheap pizza. This preliminary orientation phase isn’t really designed to foreground advanced intellectual content or knowledge construction: it’s about finding and finding out. Thus it deals chiefly with declarative rather than procedural knowledge – knowing what, rather than knowing how (Ambrose et al., 2010, 18).

Now it’s clearer why focusing on ‘find’ is such an overwhelming temptation in Welcome Week: it makes a good fit with the rest of what’s happening. ‘Find’ sits very well within a basic orientation-and-wayfinding phase; after all, there’s not much you can evaluate, construct or negotiate about either where the lecture theatre is or what you do to look up a book on your reading list. Finding information, in fact, bears the same surface and preliminary relationship to the information encounter that finding the lecture theatre does to attending (and attending to) a lecture. Therefore at some point we need to find a way to clearly signal to students that a shift from ‘find’ to ‘use’ will be necessary in order to engage with academic practices and succeed in their studies.

To do this we need to move away from telling, because although all these things that we tell our students are useful and good to know, in the act of telling itself we construct and subtly impose a transmissive model of learning in which we possess expertise that students must acquire. At some point we ourselves need to model a different relationship both with information and with our learners, to recognise that each is taking part in a fluid and negotiated process of knowledge construction. In short, we need to let them know the information experience doesn’t end with ‘find’: that find is where it starts.

As librarians, I believe we can still do more to reframe our thinking away from our search products and from the perception of information as artefact, and more towards alignment with the academic practices of the community we work with and in. Rather than merely demonstrating resources, we need to be able to articulate how use of those resources might support the academic journey as an ongoing process of making sense, constructing meaning, creating conceptual relationships and even negotiating one’s own identity within a community of practice.

The advent of discovery systems has given us a game-changing opportunity to model this realignment in how we talk to students about information. When you can introduce your library’s search tool in under five minutes you have the chance to reclaim interface demonstration time and use it to talk instead about the conventions and values of academic information communication (see e.g. Coonan, 2014). So I’m hoping that even if I spend only one of those five minutes flagging up the shift from finding to using, from transmitting to constructing, from telling to questioning, that I’ll still have managed to help students perceive a different relationship with information and with what it means to ‘be academic.’

Only once the introductions are over does the real practice start; and only when the practice starts does the induction to the community begin. And it’s at this point in the student’s journey that ‘real deal’ information literacy – the making of meaning – replaces ‘find’; and at this point, if we have the chance, that we can stop simply telling our students things and invite them to start constructing meaning for themselves.



ACRL (2000) Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education (This document is now superseded by a threshold concepts approach: see

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, Calif.: Wiley.

Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework [ANZIIL], 2nd ed. (2004).

Coonan, E., ed. (2014) Teaching, not telling: proceedings of the 2nd Information Literacy and Summon Day.

Cottrell, Janet & Cohen, Sarah Faye (2012) Real deal information literacy: designing and implementing meaningful instruction and assessment.

SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: core model for Higher Education (2011)

Secker, J., & Coonan, E. (2011) A new curriculum for information literacy [ANCIL].

Špiranec, S. & Banek Zorica, M. (2012) ‘Changing anatomies of information literacy at the postgraduate level: refinements of models and shifts in assessment’. Nordic Journal of Information Literacy in Higher Education 4

Wenger-Trayner, E. (n.d.) ‘Communities of practice: a brief introduction’.

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with “study skills.” Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457–469.

[All URLs accessed 30 September 2014]


3 comments so far

  1. […] Inspired by (and not as well written as) Emma Coonan’s recent blogpost: The ‘F’ word: information literacy, ‘find’ and other verbs […]

  2. ganski on

    Hi Emma, this article resonates with the curriculum I have been using for the past 3 terms for the freshmen writing and research course (see:
    Motivated by course goals, findings from the Citation Project (, and impact of discovery systems, the curriculum aims to move students beyond finding to the domain of using. It’s been a big shift for my staff, and we see evidence of students struggling with information inside and outside of the classroom.
    I hope you will continue sharing how you are helping students think about using sources.

  3. […] spécialiste en compétences informationnelles à l’université East Anglia, auteur du blog The mongoose librarian qui m’a fait réfléchir aux formations à la recherche doc que l’on délivre en […]

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