Print Page | Contact Us | Sign In | Join now
Defining Information literacy for a digital age

Information Literacy (re)defined

Stéphane Goldstein talks about the Information Literacy Group’s revised definition of information literacy, which aims to place IL firmly in a broad, societal setting.

When Paul Zurkowsky first suggested the concept of information literacy (IL) in 1974, he framed this simply as abilities to use information tools to mould information solutions that address the problems of individuals.1 Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, but in launching its revised definition of IL in April 2018,2 CILIP has in a sense reconnected with Zurkowsky’s original inference that IL is a means of helping people to address their information needs. In the spirit of his insight, the revised definition places IL firmly in a broad societal setting.

The previous CILIP definition3 of IL dates from 2004. This stated that “information literacy is knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner”. It was articulated around a set of defined skills, particularly relevant to academic and research environments, ranging from understanding information needs to understanding how to store and manage information that individuals acquire. This definition has been widely recognised and used, but since its inception 14 years ago, thinking about IL has evolved. Thus in 2016, CILIP’s Information Literacy Group (ILG) took the view that an update was required, to take account of changing perceptions, to preserve the currency of the definition and to retain its fitness for purpose. In particular, ILG felt that IL could no longer be perceived essentially through the prism of a list of largely academic skills and competencies.

A richer, wider definition

The revised definition is the product of nearly two years’ work, involving consultations with ILG members, discussions at the 2017 Librarians’ Information Literacy Conference (LILAC) and, in November 2017, approval by the CILIP Board. It takes into account the comments and suggestions received over this period and, on the basis of these, it incorporates three significant refinements in comparison with its 2004 predecessor:

  • it places a greater and more explicit emphasis on the notion of critical thinking and on the importance of informed ­members of society
  • it broadens its scope beyond the realm of academia and academic libraries, thereby addressing the needs of different audiences; with this in mind, efforts have been made to ensure clarity of language in the way that the text is set out
  • related to the previous point, it defines and explains different contexts in which IL is applicable
  • at the same time, it eschews the list of specific academic skills which characterised the 2004 version.
  • Addressing these points meant that the new definition had to be richer, more widely-encompassing and arguably more complex than in 2004. In drafting it, a big challenge for ILG was to find a way of expressing this richness, whilst ensuring that the text and presentation of the definition remained engaging, understandable, relevant and – crucially – not off-putting. This has been achieved by setting out the definition in four parts:

    1. A high-level definition, which provides a succinct headline and encapsulates the societal importance of IL: “Information literacy is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to develop informed views and to engage fully with society”. In a few words, this statement sets the scene for the rest of the definition.

    2. A secondary statement which expands on the headline by explaining briefly how IL goes beyond an enumeration of skills by addressing such practices as critical thinking and ethical behaviour. This section of the definition also situates IL in the context of democracy, participation and human rights, and draws attention to the ­relationship between IL and other relevant literacies – notably digital ­literacy, academic literacy and media literacy.

    3. A set of contexts, which explains how IL relates to broad societal settings and situations that affect individuals and communities; and therefore how it can help to address a multiplicity of needs. This is the heart of the definition, and its most significant departure from the 2004 version. The five contexts are everyday life, citizenship, education, the workplace and health.

    These identified contexts are not intended to cover every aspect of life, but they help to emphasise how IL is deployed and adapts to different ­circumstances; and indeed how the nature and scope of IL varies according to the situations that it addresses. Thus for ­instance, the critical judgement deployed when reaching informed views relating to civic engagement is not quite the same as the abilities required to perform everyday online transactions; and within the realm of employment, the large range of different workplace cultures call for approaches to information know-how that vary according to particular working environments. There has been much research, these past couple of decades, into the context-specificity of IL, and it is important that the new definition fully reflects the multi-faceted ways in which IL may touch the lives of people.

    4. A statement on the role of information professionals in advocating, supporting and enabling IL. This also stresses the different contexts in which librarians and other information professionals operate, and the ways in which they can support the needs of different users and communities.

    Raising awareness of IL

    The definition is not an end in itself, nor merely a document to be cited in academic literature, important though that is. It should be seen more generally as a vehicle for raising awareness of the importance and especially the relevance of IL. It is intended to serve as an introduction to IL – an enticing appetizer perhaps – for individuals and organisations who are outside the library or information services world, and who therefore may not have an appreciation of the significance and scope of IL.

    Information professionals, in their dealings with the wider world, might consider being ambassadors for IL, using the definition in their conversations and contacts with clients and interlocutors. And at a more corporate level, the definition is a valuable contribution to CILIP’s own advocacy role. It is timely to spread the word about IL; growing concerns in society about disinformation and “fake news” are leading to a realisation – not least among policymakers – that educational approaches that include information literacy and related literacies must be part of the arsenal needed to address this major challenge. ILG welcomes ideas and suggestions about how the definition might be deployed – please contact us if you have any thoughts. The IL iron is hot, and it is time to strike is now.


    It’s important that the educational dimension of information literacy addresses two things:


      (i) Shift away from a prescriptive, normative view of IL – in which the information professional has access to an idealised “right” answer, and tests learners’ ability to achieve it against a universal set of standards – and towards a relational, contextual stance that sees the individual encountering, constructing, and using information in an agentic way.
      (ii) Acknowledge the role of power and structural inequality in information. When we move away from a “right answer” conception of IL as “using approved academic sources”, people’s critical judgement can be directed to discern how information is used not only to communicate but to obfuscate, to mislead, and to silence.


    Emma Coonan – Research Fellow at the Centre for Innovation in Higher Education, Anglia Ruskin University and Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Information Literacy



    Health literacy is about people having the knowledge, skills, understanding and confidence they need to be able to use healthcare information and services. There are environmental, political, cultural and societal factors that determine the impact of low health literacy; the Health Literacy Centre Europe estimate that this could cost the NHS 3-5% of its budget. It also includes the ability to critically appraise the many sources of information that are available; to be able to navigate through complex health systems; to have the confidence to ask questions and challenge when needed; and to be a partner in healthcare decisions.

    Pip Divall – Clinical Librarian Service Manager, University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust and Health Sector Rep on ILG



    An important element in the definition is to highlight the relevance of information literacy in the context of everyday life. Individuals are bombarded with information in multiple formats which requires the ability to navigate an ever-increasingly digital world while maintaining the ability to use the more traditional print. Critical thinking skills are not just required in academia but in all aspects of life from online transactions; creating digital content; staying safe online and selecting the right information source for the purpose. Public librarians have a vital role in teaching these skills to those who are currently lacking them.

    Jacqueline Geekie – Information Literacy and Learning Librarian, Aberdeenshire Libraries and Public Libraries Rep on ILG



    The definition has a focus on IL and citizenship which was designed to reflect the importance of a critical approach to the information we use in the democratic process. CILIP and ILG’s Facts Matter campaign launched in 2017 at the time of the UK General Election, was a prime example of how the need to “fact check” and seek a broad range of opinions matter at the time of local or general elections. It highlights how being information literate impacts on wider society and on the democratic process. For people to make informed decisions when they vote in elections, it’s vital that they are equipped with the skills and mindset to evaluate information circulated by political parties and to make evidence-based decisions when they are voting.

    Jane Secker – Senior Lecturer in Educational Development, City, University of London and Chair of ILG



    In the workplace, context is of over-riding importance and shapes the practices, ­behaviours and beliefs on the effective use of information. Also, unlike the academic context where a ­student usually employs the whole range of capabilities from searching to sharing information, in the workplace the experience is more fragmented. An employee might only be tasked with finding information which he or she then passes it to someone else to evaluate and in turn they pass it to yet another colleague to share or use. This means that workplace information literacy is completely different to that of academia and requires a variety of approaches. It is likely that it may be subsumed in other employment-related concepts such as knowledge & information management and data management.

    Geoff Walton – Senior Lecturer in Information and Communications, Manchester Metropolitan University and LIS rep on ILG



    1 Zurkowsky P. G., ‘The Information Service Environment Relationships and Priorities. Related Paper No. 5.’, National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, November 1974

    2 CILIP Definition of Information Literacy, 2018

    3 Armstrong C. et al, “CILIP defines Information Literacy for the UK.”


    Contributor: Stéphane Goldstein (@stephgold7 ) is Executive Director of InformAll and Advocacy & Outreach Officer for the CILIP Information Literacy Group
    Published: 25 October 2018

    Related content: CILIP Information Literacy Definition 2018

    More from Information Professional


    In depth



    This reporting is funded by CILIP members. Find out more about the

    Benefits of CILIP membership

    Sign Up for our non member newsletter
    Contact us