Tuesday, July 27, 2004

INFORMATION SKILLS FOR DEMOCRACY: AN EMPIRICAL ACCOUNT This paper is by Clare M. Walker and it was presented at the Library and Information Association of South Africa annual conference, 1999.

From the site:

In the beginning was: the library talk and tour;. the a-v programme with exciting music; the computer demo of the OPAC; the library instructional leaflet; the colour-coded DIY leaflet tour of the library; the tape-guided DIY tour. We have had Readers Advisers, BI (bibliographic instruction), User Education, Reference or Information Skills, Information Literacy.

Underpinning all of these activities and programmes has been implicit the bottom line of understanding the structure and operation of libraries – all libraries. The catalogue, the call or shelf number, the subject index, the differentiated and specialised material formats and locations and services, we assumed were almost self evident, certainly in the broad perspective. What we were really saying was that we took for granted that our users expectations and experience more or less matched the structures we have been building and elaborating for decades.

With few exceptions, students entering university have never confronted such complex information resources, in print, audio-visual and electronic formats. They may be basically computer literate but are unlikely to have an extensive understanding of the purpose and possibilities of a computerised library system of catalogues, call numbers, databases and the Internet. Being able to use an ATM is not, as suggested from time to time, an adequate preparation for using electronic resources, not even in the "one stop shop" approach. The extremely basic level at which students are introduced to the library’s facilities comes as a shock to many professional librarians and academics, and it has even been suggested that this may be insulting. But our users, or would-be users, do not very often have the knowledge, experience or expectations we think they do and what we see in SA, though an acute case, is common to much of the rest of the library providing world. As organised religion has done to retain dwindling congregations, so we have gone through many exercises to increase "user friendliness" and perhaps it is true to suggest that user friendliness has become subconsciously synonymous with democratic access, the antithesis of the "elitist" LIS systems of the old regime. Perhaps the greatest challenge to us in opening the world of information access to those previously excluded, is to steer this narrow course between the Scylla of assuming very little understanding and the Charybdis of information overkill.

This paper describes and questions the starting point of some of our practical attempts to enable the student to launch himself into the exploration of the information universe he may scarcely know exists. Since preparing the abstract on which this paper was to be presented, I have encountered in a small academic discussion group some further questioning of a seemingly "directionist" and "mechanistic" approach – one might call it utilitarian - that epitomises most user education in higher education libraries.

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