What do information retrieval (IR) and information literacy (IL) have in common? At a fundamental level, they are both concerned with enabling users to locate and retrieve information, and thereby to meet their information needs; and the deployment of IL is partly dependent on IR systems. To a large extent, there is therefore a common purpose, but both concepts approach this from rather different perspectives. Given current and growing concerns about ‘post-truth’ and the tension between information and misinformation, it is perhaps timely to reflect on how approaches to IR and IL can feed off each other.
Readers of this article will know that IR is founded largely on the elaboration and use of search, retrieval and visualisation technologies. IL, on the other hand, is concerned less with the technical aspects of how information is stored and accessed, and more with the cognitive processes that can help individuals to reach reasoned judgements about information, as well as with the set of skills required to perform information-related tasks.
We live in a world awash with a deluge of information of hugely varying type, format, origin and quality. The nature of this information ranges from the enriching to the misleading, and to the downright dangerous. People’s ability to access and use this information for their benefit can serve to expand their knowledge, capabilities and worldviews, and consequently are fundamentally important for the development of healthy, democratic, inclusive and prosperous societies. But to be able to make the most of the information that they encounter, individuals need to deploy know-how. This includes an ability not just to search for, discover, access and retrieve information, but also to retrieve, sift, interpret, evaluate, analyse, manage, create, communicate and preserve it.
A crucial aspect of these abilities is the nurturing of a critical mindset towards online information. The huge growth in social media usage –and the associated development of social media practices and habits – creates particular challenges; the speed and ease with which online information is shared is both positive, in terms of the social and democratic opportunities that it enables, and negative, with regards to the spread of misinformation and abusive behaviour. The topicality of these matters hardly needs to be stated. In this context, the ability to appraise information and its sources critically, and to understand the dynamics of information sharing, become hugely important.
These capabilities are the essence of IL, and are critical for individuals to function as learners, employees, employers, and also as citizens. Indeed, they address a global challenge: in its Alexandria Proclamation, UNESCO affirms that IL “empowers people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational and educational goals. It is a basic human right in a digital world and promotes social inclusion of all nations”. But individuals do not become information literate spontaneously or merely through interacting with an increasingly sophisticated array of technological devices. Enabling IL requires a training and education effort at different life stages and in different contexts. It also calls for an increased awareness across society, not least among policymakers and educators, about the relevance and importance of such capabilities.
So is there a shared agenda or shared interests between IR and IL communities? Are there stakeholders jointly to engage with and to persuade? Is there value in developing common approaches to questions of mutual concern, highlighting the complementarity (but also recognising the differences) between IR and IL? These are questions worth reflecting on, because the relationship between individuals, society and information is arguably more important and complex than it has ever been. There is an enormous challenge in seeking to ensure that people and communities have the know-how and confidence to find information, handle, share and create it judiciously and rationally. It is surely the case that both IR and IL, from their contrasting perspectives, provide valuable approaches to such a challenge. It is timely to engage in a joint reflection to help make the case for a society where information chimes with enlightenment, betterment and knowledge, rather than unreason, ‘post-truth’ and fake news.
Stéphane Goldstein is Executive Director of InformAll, which, through research, analysis and facilitation, promotes the relevance, importance and benefits of information literacy in the library world and beyond. He is the author of reports, articles and other material on the relevance and applicability of IL to a range of settings. He is also the Outreach & Advocacy Officer for the CILIP Information Literacy Group – firstname.lastname@example.org .
 UNESCO (2005), ‘The Alexandria Proclamation on Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning’ – http://www.ifla.org/publications/beacons-of-the-information-society-the-alexandria-proclamation-on-information-literacy