Information Literacy and Communities of Practice

Today, I am going to dig into the concept of communities of practices and what that means for libraries within the context of the new framework for information literacy.

First, consider the following statements:

Information literacy is a social practice.

Information literacy is situational.

The perspective of literacy as a social practice is a way to explain multiple literacies. It also reflects the current understanding of literacy in general.

What does that mean for information literacy? It means that the way we value, interact and create information is driven by the accepted practices of the community in which we belong.

We belong to many communities, meaning that information literacy is also situational. Therefore, we practice information literacy in a lot of different ways — the way we practice it in informal communities (e.g. home environment) is different than the way we practice it in formal communities (e.g. school).

The new framework attempts to define the expectations (knowledge practices) of how information literacy should be practiced within scholarly communities, emphasis on the plural.

Okay, so what are communities of practice?

 “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger-Trayner, n.d.)

Examples of communities of practice at a university:

  • a Comp I class learning the practices of college writing
  • a forensics team honing its debate skills
  • a cohort of pre-service teachers
  • faculty with shared teaching or research interests

Those are just a few examples of the communities of practice found within higher education.

Under the new framework then, one goal of librarians will be to facilitate the development of information literacy knowledge practices within selected communities of practice (e.g. Comp I class). To some extent, this is already being done with current information literacy programs.

Another goal will be to help students transfer their information literacy knowledge practices across communities of practices throughout their academic careers. This is trickier because information literacy is situational, so it looks a bit different within each community (i.e. history vs. science vs. philosophy) even if its practices share common characteristics. This goal can be met through the library. Or more appropriately, the learning commons.

With the new framework, I see the library or learning commons serving as the web that supports the many communities of practice within an academic institution. The librarian’s job will become more important than ever. The library itself will become a sort of meta-community of practice (the mother ship, so to speak), nurturing the information literacy knowledge practices of all sorts of scholarly communities of practice within its physical and virtual walls.

Sounds pretty awesome, right?

So, how can it be done? Here are a couple of strategies:

Cognitive apprenticeship for one, with the librarian as expert and student as novice. And embedded libraries (not just librarians). I’ve written about these ideas before:




Designing Libraries for Inter-activities

Last week, I took my daughter to the Kimbell Art Museum on her birthday (per her request). It’s a nice museum with a great restaurant, albeit small (compared to the Art Institute in Chicago). My experience there is the inspiration for this post.

You know what I love about museums? You can interact with virtually everything — permanent and temporary exhibits alike. You know what else is cool? Museums hire instructional designers to develop their interactive exhibits. I love that.

Why aren’t libraries more interactive? Yes, libraries offer activities, but what about inter-activities? This is the way I differentiate the two: Activities take place in the library space, but the activities themselves are not necessarily dependent upon the space. In other words, something like storytime or 3D printing or gaming events could take place just as easily in the library as in another community space. Inter-activities, on the other hand, are primarily dependent upon the library space. It would be much more difficult to conduct an inter-activity outside the library space.

Here are some examples of inter-activities that I would love to see more libraries embrace:

  • Audio Tours. Every library, big or small, should make audio tours available to their library users. What a great way to introduce the library to new residents or new students! And the audio tour can cover everything from physical orientation to virtual orientation to staff and services and more. The best part? It can be done on the cheap. With tools like Soundcloud and Pinterest, you can create an audio tour that patrons can access on their mobile devices, or on a mobile device provided by the library.
  • Interactive Collections. I’ve seen some attempts to make collections more ‘interactive’ through the use of QR codes, typically pointing a user to a book review or something like a LibGuide. That’s okay, but I wouldn’t quite define that as an inter-activity. An inter-activity should be less “learn more,” and more “learn now.” “Learn now” creates an immediate learning experience. It’s a type of gamification. One example is the use of trivia questions placed at the ends of stack units (relating to the call number area). This piques users’ curiosity and invites them to test their knowledge. The QR code links to the answer, the “learn now” concept. After confirming or finding out the answer, the library user will then be ready to “learn more.” You can provide links to “learn more” at the end of the “learn now” answer.
  • Interactive Displays. What library doesn’t create displays or even exhibits? Often, they’re just a collection of related ‘somethings’ (e.g. books, DVDs, community collections, etc…). Why not make them interactive by integrating library and learning activities into them. Maker activities are a good example of this (and no, it doesn’t have to be 3D printing). Take knitting for example. Many libraries have books on knitting, there are plenty of videos out there on how to knit, and knitting is truly a maker activity. An interactive display that centers on knitting could be set up to include how-to books, a TV or computer where how-to knitting videos can be viewed, and a table with knitting supplies that invites users to sit down and “learn now.” Add in some lovely volunteers who can teach knitting, and voila, you have an interactive display.
  • Library Games. I’m not talking about just providing space to play games in the library, although that’s definitely a good thing. I’m talking about games that require library users to interact with the library. Scavenger hunts are a good example. Better yet, getting your users to design their own scavenger hunts within the library creates even more competition and community building. Library games can serve as a dynamic and ongoing library inter-activity.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg for designing library inter-activities.

I think the most valuable outcome of designing libraries for inter-activity is in its potential to transform the library from a learning space to a learning place. What do I mean by that? Think of space as generic and interchangeable, and place as a destination where people want to go (there’s a philosophy behind this). When libraries become places (physical or virtual) instead of spaces, they free themselves from the shackle of feeling like they are in competition with commercial enterprises.