Information Literacy and the Engaged Campus
Giving students and community members the skills to take on (and not be taken in by) the Internet.
By Patricia Senn Breivik

From the November 2000 AAHE Bulletin


Concerns regarding the growing digital divide are as near as today’s newspaper or the latest TV clip of a presidential hopeful. But where most politicians see the problem as one of access to computers and the Internet, a growing number of leaders in higher education see it more as an issue of literacy — information literacy. With more and more computers available in libraries and other public spaces, educators are looking beyond the short-term problem of hardware and wiring and are focusing on ways to help students acquire the information literacy abilities necessary to become information-savvy consumers.

The American Library Association’s Presidential Committee has defined information literacy as "the ability to know when information is needed, [and] to be able to identify, locate, and effectively use that information for lifelong learning and problem solving." This popular definition was transformed into student learning outcomes for high school students by the Association for Educational Communications and Technologies and the American Association of School Librarians in their 1998 publication Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning. Building on that effort, in January 2000 the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) articulated a set of six standards suitable for all college and university graduates. These Competency Standards are as follows:

  • The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
  • The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.
  • The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.
  • The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.
  • The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.

A thorough reading of the new ACRL standards with their performance indicators makes it clear that information literacy competencies cannot simply be taught. Rather, students must be given repeated and orchestrated opportunities throughout their undergraduate years to acquire the competencies and learn about the full range of available information resources.

Helping students acquire these competencies will require partnerships in curriculum development and assignment-giving between faculty, who are subject experts, and librarians, who are information experts. Historically, one of the strongest advocates for the importance of this type of partnering has been the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a regional accrediting agency. The agency recently began a multiyear initiative to promote dialogue and collaboration among faculty, administrators, librarians, and information technology personnel. These groups will come together to discuss how an awareness of the relationships among learning outcomes in the disciplines, general education, and information literacy can enhance teaching and learning.

Sharing the Knowledge

AAHE’s Board has endorsed the ACRL literacy standards and recognizes that information literacy is an essential ingredient in current and future undergraduate learning environments. But for campuses that seriously incorporate information literacy into their mission and priorities, the payoff could be far wider because the potential value of an active information literacy program goes far beyond curriculum issues. Given the rapidly changing knowledge and technology base of the Information Age, information literacy is also an important element for success in other key movements in higher education. Information literacy, for example, can be a powerful tool in the linking of campuses to their communities.

Colleges and universities have long been known as producers and disseminators of information. Now these roles can be enhanced by promoting learning that ensures that people can take advantage of the information resources available to them. Such efforts can and should include both improving the ease of access to information and educating people to evaluate and use information effectively.

Two Plans, One Goal

Wayne State University in Michigan and San Jose State University in California are making significant efforts to expand campus information literacy efforts beyond the campus and into the community.

Wayne State University
Wayne State University (WSU) is a Carnegie Doctoral/ ResearchExtensive university. Under the guidance of the Detroit Area Network (DALNET) consortium, the university has been managing an online library system for the benefit of its own libraries as well as 20 other academic, public, and medical libraries. When a major system upgrade became necessary to better serve DALNET’s 500,000-plus users, the DALNET Board decided to develop a user-friendly system for accessing not only library resources but also information generated by local agencies; thus, creating a Southeast Michigan information hub. The intent was to encourage local interest groups and agencies that produce information to share with the public, especially in the areas of health care and economic development, to allow item-specific linkages to their websites that could then be found in traditional online library searching. DALNET’s well-designed structure for mounting full-text resources is also available for use by agencies that cannot afford to design their own Web pages.

This tying in of usually hard-to-find local information to the libraries’ national and international resources provides one-stop information shopping. For example, people logging into the DALNET system from their homes, offices, or any one of the libraries to do an online search on the topic of small business planning would find information on library holdings, full-text journal articles, and other electronic databases — as well as reports and other resources posted by the Michigan Small Business Development Center and regional economic development agencies. The new system also presents a new avenue for faculty and students disseminating information from their research. For example, information collected by students as part of urban nursing class assignments could be organized by faculty or research assistants and then made available on the site over the online system.

Shortly before DALNET launched its new system, WSU opened a new undergraduate library. The very attractive library quickly became a location of choice for not only WSU students but also many campus neighbors, including young people and senior citizens. Both campus and community members use the resources and technology of the library and take advantage of drop-in computer and Internet workshops.

In addition, undergraduate librarians launched a collaborative initiative with WSU feeder high schools. The intent of the partnership is to help high school students acquire the information literacy skills that they will need to succeed at WSU. Many of the students in the feeder high schools come from families in which no one has attended college; and it is hoped that students who develop better information management skills and have the opportunity to use the undergraduate library will be more likely to attend college. Funding for the WSU/high school partnership project is provided by a local bank, whose personnel believe that helping students improve their information literacy abilities will produce graduates (and future employees) with lifelong learning/problem-solving skills. The project initially involved two high schools but is now being expanded.

San Jose State University
San Jose State University (SJSU) is a Carnegie Master’s (Comprehensive) university with approximately 20,000 students. In 1997, the challenge facing SJSU president Robert L. Caret was an inadequate library building and little hope of getting a new one through normal funding processes. Since the downtown San Jose Main Library was in a similar situation, Caret joined forces with Susan Hammer, then-mayor of San Jose, and the two decided to leverage their resources to build a joint library. Although many campus and community members expressed concern over the joint venture, support for the project grew and eventually gained financial support from the city, university, and state. The $177.5 million joint effort is scheduled to be completed in time for the fall 2003 semester.

The foundation of the joint effort is the shared commitment to preparing young people for lifelong learning and meeting students’ lifelong learning information needs, all in one facility. The intent of this endeavor is to integrate academic and public library services (except where there is a pressing customer service or efficiency reason for not doing so). A multifaceted planning process is now under way with the goal of making the services in the new library better and more extensive than either existing library currently offers. (Benchmarking efforts are already under way to ensure an adequate measurement of current practices against which to measure future services.) When it was determined, for example, that reference questions at both libraries were fairly similar and therefore two reference desks would not be necessary, it allowed librarians to reallocate resources and design a multitiered reference service that will be more flexible and more responsible to varying user needs.

This unique collaboration of two major libraries is seen as a catalyst for further partnering. For example, another identified promising area for collaboration is between the local history collections of the two libraries and the resources of other nearby historical organizations. Other collaborative efforts will focus on ongoing relationships with local high-tech firms, for which San Jose State University is the major source of employees.

Starting with a growing campus commitment to graduating information literate workers, to showcasing new information resource products as part of reference services, this integration of a university library with a major public library will create a new model of campus/community engagement.


Some years ago I wrote a book with E. Gordon Gee, then-president of the University of Colorado, entitled Information Literacy: Revolution in the Library. In it we challenged presidents and academic officers to take a new look at their libraries as a means of advancing campus priorities in learning, research, and service. If we were writing that book today, we would certainly call attention to how concern for the growing digital divide can be addressed, at least in part, by engaged campuses that are promoting information literacy both within the curriculum of their campuses and within their service missions to their communities. Whether making information available in more easy-to-use packaging or assisting people in improving their abilities to access, evaluate, and use information more effectively, information literacy opens some exciting possibilities for further engaging campuses with their communities.

National Forum on Information Literacy
AAHE is a founding member of the National Forum on Information Literacy, a broadly based umbrella group of more than 80 organizations committed to individual empowerment in the Information Society. The Forum meets three times a year in Washington, DC. For more information about the Forum and its members, and to access recent national reports on information literacy, see

Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education
This document is available online at To order a print version, contact the Association of College & Research Libraries, 50 E. Huron St., Chicago, IL 60611-2795; 800-545-2433 ext. 2521;

AAHE’s Board Endorses Information Literacy Standards
During its spring 2000 meeting, AAHE’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to endorse the Association of College & Research Libraries’ "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education." Explained AAHE Board member David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, "With societal well-being so dependent on how its citizens find, review, and use information, institutions must help students become information literate, in the fullest sense of the term, as set forth so well in the ACRL standards."

This is only the second time that AAHE has endorsed a policy position. (The Board approved the AAHE Statement on Diversity in April 1999.)

Patricia Senn Breivik is dean of the San Jose State University Library and chair of the National Forum on Information Literacy. Contact her at