“The Internet Just Is”: Information Literacy and Teens

Ninety-four percent of young adults use the Internet by the time they leave high school. Teenagers are not only wide consumers of online information, but increasingly they are the creators of it.

This reflection on teens and information literacy was written for Prof. Paul McKenna’s seminar “Information Literacy,” which I attended during the Fall semester of 2011-2012 at Dalhousie University, Halifax. During my time in Dalhousie’s Library and Information Studies programme I came into contact with many public school librarians. A common thread between them, in addition to their love for the work, was their continual need to justify their position to school boards.

When I look at our society’s interactions in politics and the media, I see a need for information literacy, beginning with a common understanding of what information literacy is. As educators, parents, neighbours, and consumers of information, we have every reason to want students familiar with proper citation, basic research skills, the potential and limitations of the Internet, and concepts such as intellectual property. Giving students these skills and competencies not only prepares them for the workplace, but certifies our society as one that cares about producing and consuming accurate, authoritative information.

“The Internet Just Is”: Information Literacy and Teens

             In their outline of core competencies for young adult librarians, the Young Adult Library Services Association (2010) states that a young adult librarian must be able to not only “organize physical and virtual collections to maximize easy, equitable, and independent access to information by young adults” but also “formally and informally instruct young adults in basic research skills, including how to find, evaluate, and use information effectively”. YALSA’s astute observation that young people will certainly be using electronic and digital services as a part of their research techniques, and will need to be taught to properly use these resources, is part of a changing information literacy mindset. As a result of a series of focus groups that took place across Canada, Media Awareness Network (2004) found that young adults barely differentiate between the online world and reality as a source of information, stating that for young adults “the Internet just is” (p. 8). Of course, the Internet is much different from reality, with its own gratifications and challenges. While many individuals and institutions argue over the mere definition for information literacy, there is almost universal agreement that a certain level of capability must be achieved if today’s young person wishes to navigate digital sources in an emotionally- and intellectually-healthy fashion.

Information Literacy: Beyond Definition?

            Speaking to the struggle of defining “information literacy,” Jones-Kavalier (2006) proposes that part of the difficulty is the originality of the concept (as cited in Adeyemon, 2009, p. 87). Adeyemon (2009) creates four definitions for digital literacy, but they all point to one facet of information literacy or another, and they could easily be combined into one longer – though less manageable – definition (p. 86-87). While there is much disagreement over a precise definition, common elements in most are that information literacy is concerned the understanding of what sort of information is needed, an ability to seek such information, then to evaluate and effectively use it. While many teenage students are not familiar with information literacy, online databases, or Boolean searches, they are certainly familiar with the Internet and at least some of its advantages and disadvantages, either through personal experience or through the media that has itself become (partially) dependent upon the Internet and digital services.

             Amongst concerns associated with young adults’ use of the Internet is the threat of online predators. Concern not only with the predators themselves, but with government’s misinformed or misguided solutions to such threats is felt keenly when one reads the YALSA’s informational packet on the Deleting Online Predators Act (2006). In the resource YALSA states that “classrooms, school libraries and public libraries are the locations where a major part of [information literacy] education occurs and where professional teachers and librarians are the adults best trained to educate young people to use online environments effectively and safely”. This statement suggests a more proactive approach than the American government’s defensive act of simply blocking access to social media web sites.

Great Informational Expectations

             In their article “Advocating for Young Adolescent Learners in the 21st Century,” Spencer and Toy (n.d.) point to research which indicates that due to advances in Internet technologies “college students are majoring in fields that didn’t exist 10 years ago”. This suggests that there are new fields for which young adults must be prepared. At least a cursory knowledge of software, hardware, and searching and evaluation techniques may be needed in many programs and occupations. Despite an assumed ability on the part of most young adults, the Media Awareness Network found that in attempting to complete homework many young people found that completing their homework was easier when they relied on a few books, rather than the Internet (11). While books are still valuable and effective resources, given that 94% of young adults use the Internet by the time they leave high school (Bachen, Raphael, Lynn, McKee, & Philippi, 2008, p. 292), the fact that many have greater ease searching through books rather than the Internet may indicate a discomfort with digital search techniques. Considering the new technological competencies expected of young adults when entering educational institutions or the work force, young people must be taught to be comfortable with searching and evaluating digital resources.

A Marriage of Practice and Theory

             While online safety and preparation for a young person’s future are crucial motives for teaching digital information literacy in our schools and libraries, they are certainly not the only ones. Bachen et al. (2008) describe the role that interaction with political and news media can have on a young person’s development, instilling in the young person a sense of civic pride and engagement. Bachen et al. express concern that if young adults are not cultivated in information and technology policies they may not be able to hold responsible those policies’ expert creators (p. 296). Therefore, we as information management professionals have all the greater responsibility to ensure that the young adults of today are able to contribute to a national conversation on digital policies. In listing just some of the integral subjects surrounding digital information policy Bachen et al. point to “access to information, freedom of speech, intellectual property, privacy, security, and access to the ballot” (p. 295).

Articulating Information Literacy’s Relevancy

             Unfortunately, government policies at all levels do not necessarily champion information literacy. In a June 2011 press release entitled “Canadian School Librarians and Libraries under Siege,” the Canadian Libraries Association reported that “since the 1980’s Manitoba has lost approximately 60% of its teacher-librarians” due to budget cuts, and that many school districts across Canada lack any professional librarian at all. In this same press release Linda Shantz-Keresztes, moderator of CLA’s Voices for School Libraries Network, laments the loss of teacher-librarians particularly in the context of information literacy, stating that “school library staffing is more critical now than before the internet arrived because of the volume of information, but also because of its complexity”. Without information professionals filling the roles of teacher-librarians students lose the opportunity to learn searching and evaluation techniques, but moreover they are not becoming familiarized with vital information-related topics such as plagiarism and privacy concerns. Shenton and Fitzgibbon’s (2010) assertion that “much depends on the ability of the practitioner to convince learners of [information literacy’s] relevance to their particular situations” (p. 165) is not only applicable to a given learner, but to administrative forces as well.

Adaptation of Curriculum and Information Literacy as Curriculum

             Of course, having a teacher-librarian, or even an information-literate teacher, in a classroom does not mean that teaching information literacy to young people is an easy task, by any means. Great planning and prior research must be accomplished so that the instructor understands the final deliverables, i.e., what the student must take away. Given our grasp of the difficulty in defining information literacy, it can be difficult to say just what students should get out of any information-based class. In their 2010 article Shenton and Fitzgibbon point out that with many school systems existing under the weight of time and curriculum constraints, information literacy is often taught and used in the classroom setting as a means to accomplishing some other province- or state-mandated skill or knowledge, and without urging students to see information literacy as an end in itself (p. 166). During the course of their research Shenton and Fitzgibbon found that “if lifelong learning is the true goal of IL education, information specialists are ideally placed to impart skills that go beyond the ostensibly limited relevance (from a student’s perspective) of academic assignments” (p. 171).


             As a jumping off point for teachers, teacher-librarians, and school administrators, the American Association of School Librarians (2011) has a number of interesting resources on hand that point to not only expected outcomes from students, which focus on an individual-centered approach, but also proper teaching techniques for teachers as well. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2004), which advocates for students’ preparation for university programs and occupations as mentioned above, is another excellent supply of toolkits, guides, and other publications on teaching standards and techniques. As well, Voices for School Libraries has created the online journal School Libraries in Canada (2011), another valuable resource that enhances the reader’s knowledge on the incorporation of good information-seeking practices into school curriculum. The Canadian Library Association has created the text Achieving Information Literacy (2003), a reader that covers the gamut of information literacy standards for children and youths. There are a plethora of resources with which parents, teachers, teacher-librarians, and school administrators can broaden their information literacy horizons; only through their discovery of the issues surrounding the teaching of information literacy to youths can we have a national conversation about how to implement effective information literacy programs in schools. There is also no harm in contacting your local Member of the Legislative Assembly and appealing for greater support for Canadian school librarian and teacher-librarians.

            The conversation about how best to instill good information practices in youths is a question of transferable literacy; this sort of literacy has a place regardless of whether one is talking about privacy issues, safety from online predators, proper citation, as well as the ability to find, evaluate, and effectively use information. Information literacy skills can be incorporated into mandated curriculum, but in order to make a life-long impact students must know the value of information literacy in and of itself. Relying on students to simply figure out for themselves the value information literacy is a gamble, just as much as it is for governments to restrict invaluable resources and persons to articulate information literacy’s relevance, today and tomorrow.


Adeyemon, E. (2009). Integrating digital literacies into outreach services for underserved youth populations. The Reference Librarian, 50(1), 85-98. doi: 10.1080/02763870802546423

American Association of School Librarians. (2011). Information Literacy. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/aaslissues/infolit/informationliteracy1.cfm

Bachen, C., Raphael, C., Lynn, K-M., McKee, K., & Philippi, J. (2008). Civic engagement, pedagogy, and information technology on web sites for youth. Political Communication, 25(3), 290-310. doi: 10.1080/10584600802197525

Canadian Library Association. (2011, June 7). Canadian school librarians and libraries under siege. Retrieved from http://www.cla.ca/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&CONTENTID=11410

Canadian School Library Association and the Association for Teacher-Librarianship in Canada. (2003). Achieving Information Literacy: Standards for School Library Programs in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Library Association.

Media Awareness Network. (2004, February). Young Canadians in a wired world – phase II: Focus groups. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/dal/docDetail.action?docID=10122518

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2004). Home page. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/

Shenton, A. & Fitzgibbons, M. (2010). Making information literacy relevant. Library Review, 59(3), 165-174. doi: 10.1108/00242531011031151

Spencer, J. & Toy, C. (n.d.). Advocating for young adolescent learners in the 21st century. Association for Middle Level Education. Retrieved from http://www.amle.org/moya/PlanYourCelebration/PRResources/21stCentury/tabid/1776/Default.aspx

Voices for School Libraries. (2011). School libraries in Canada. Retrieved from http://www.clatoolbox.ca/casl/slic/

Young Adult Library Services Association. (2006, August 8). DOPA information packet: A resource for librarians & library workers. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/profdev/DOPAInfoPacket.pdf

Young Adult Library Services Association. (2010, January). YALSA’s competencies for librarians serving youth: Young adults deserve the best. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/profdev/yadeservethebest_201.pdf

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