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Magazines > Searcher > September 2009
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Vol. 17 No. 8 — September 2009
Information Literacy Training for All
The Outliers
by Lark Birdsong, Birdsong Research

The Information Literacy Initiative at the University of Washington Information School is a funded, active organization that began in 2007 after the successful training of a group of youth labeled “at-risk.” In the course of thinking about providing this kind of training, I came across bq’s editorial in the September 2008 issue of Searcher magazine in which she discusses the concept of “outliers.” At that time I had just started another information literacy class for women without homes at The Gathering Place, a day shelter for homeless women in Denver, Colo. I wanted to define the population I was working with and the term outliers stuck and helped me focus on the population the Information Literacy Initiative currently serves.

In this article, the term outlier refers to people at the end of the curve for receiving information literacy instruction who are getting little or none. These individuals do not fall into specific race, class, age, gender, or other demographic categories. They are individuals who did/do not receive training in K–12, college classes, or formal information and technology education services and need additional training. They can be older or middle-aged individuals whose school or training just didn’t include information literacy. They can be youth whose school system did not address the challenge of building information literacy. They can be businesspeople starting or running a business, retired adults, or people without a home of their own. These groups and more have landed on the outside of information literacy training and need help.

The Beginning

In 2007, I started a research program in an after school training program with 6th grade youth who were labeled “at-risk.” Using the Big6 process by Mike Eisenberg and Bob Berkowitz, the students named their program Research Rocks, where the students picked their topic and identified their questions in a five session research project, which I taught. Using the library and other sources, students formulated the questions, gathered information, analyzed and cited results, and, at the end, concluded and presented their final project results. Participation was voluntary, and of the 12 who started, 11 remainedandcreated skillful research projects. This was a seed that set me on a course to find a home for an information literacy initiative for outliers so I could expand my work to others.

The Information Literacy Initiative Home

At the outset, training was provided through my company with the help of a foundation and no outside financial contributions. In order to continue working with this population, I needed a longer-term solution that would allow donors and foundations to make tax deductible contributions. I explored different homes for the Information Literacy Initiative, and the University of Washington emerged as the best place to house it. An important factor was Mike Eisenberg, a professor in the Information School at UW and an information literacy expert.

Once discussions were underway, it did not take long to get consensus, as the Information School professors and Mike Eisenberg have a great set of entrepreneurial bones. After a few discussions, it became apparent that the Center for Information & Society (CIS), which is housed within the Information School, was the best place for the Information Literacy Initiative. CIS is currently under the direction of Karine Barzilai-Nahon and Chris Coward.

According to its website [], “The University of Washington’s Center for Information & Society(CIS) studies the design, use and impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on individuals and communities around the world. Our research focuses on disadvantaged and underrepresented populations ....”

After a conversation with Karine Barzilai-Nahon, Mike Eisenberg, and Harry Bruce, the dean of the Information School, the initiative came to be housed in CIS at the Information School in the latter part of 2008, and I started down the fundraising path.

Who Are the Outliers?

The Initiative has grown from the Research Rocks youth group to include women without homes, entrepreneurs/business owners, adults older than 50, and individuals looking for employment. We aim to provide information literacy training to aid them in finding and using the information that is required to efficiently and effectively meet their goals and needs. These individuals are reached in larger numbers through various nonprofit organizations. None of the trainees are in an academic setting or school classroom.

In 2008, simultaneous to the fundraising, I started to teach at The Gathering Place on a weekly basis. In addition to teaching, I also culled data to help provide direction and add to the existing data from Research Rocks on the outlier populations and how best to teach them.

Homeless women’s shelters are full of women in transition. Not knowing how many women will show up to the first class or how many will return each week is an issue. Success in retaining students requires thinking on how to present topics to returnees and still help those who have arrived for their first class. My classes have evolved into a steady core of returning women, women who have come to some classes and moved on after having their information needs completed (getting a job through their job search) as well as new individuals arriving every few weeks. Generally the classes are at capacity each week, with each woman having a dedicated computer to work on as she practices her information literacy skills.

The Information Literacy Initiative has also partnered several times with the Boulder Public Library (BPL), helping business owners, entrepreneurs, and job seekers learn information literacy concepts while finding answers to their questions. The trainings have focused either on business or employment. For these classes, I collaborate with BPL’s business librarian, Eladia Riverae, who presents content available at BPL. My portion of the training presents information literacy concepts as part of the selected topic, adding additional quality sources and available social media. When we are working with business owners and entrepreneurs, Boulder’s Small Business Development Center joins the collaboration. Surveys show a high level of satisfaction by attendees.

A second class for youth was initiated in March and April 2009 and linked to an opportunity to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. If the participants, who were all from the Colorado I Have a Dream (CIHAD) program, attended all research classes they would qualify to go on the trip. Program coordinator for CIHAD, Erin Larrabee, and Eva Tune, service fellow, provided support with the classes as well as transportation to and from the library for the kids. I prepared the curriculum and taught the research classes. Each student received a research notebook with materials on information literacy concepts and a research question. The group was divided into three subgroups, each with a different question to research. Using the Super3 research process and additional concepts developed with the INPFAC model discussed below, the students started their research.

We met at the Denver Public Library on a weekly basis. During a portion of one session, Denver public librarian Megan Kinney showed the group library databases, books, and websites related to the Sand Dunes. At the final class, each group presented their question and the answers they had discovered. For the presentations, they used poster boards, physical objects, and photos. Pre- and post-surveys were administered to determine the effectiveness of the training and to highlight what did and didn’t work. It was determined that 88% knew the Super3 steps to researching, and that 100% knew the types of sources available, the availability of library databases, and that the reliability of information on a webpage varies. However, only 44% understood how to conclude a research project effectively. In the future we will focus more on that aspect.

The final phase of the research involved actually experiencing the Sand Dunes for themselves. Erin Larrabee shared some of the reactions and responses from the participants that highlighted the success of the research project. One student stated, “I’m so glad we did those research days. I had no idea how big the Sand Dunes were going to be, and it made me realize that learning can be fun — especially when I get to see my hard work pay off.” Erin stated: “I witnessed their excitement and how they were putting together conclusions about what they had researched once they got to the Sand Dunes and were able to experience them hands-on. This program demonstrated the learning process going full circle, and it was so incredible to watch the kids experience learning in this way. This program proves that with the right amount of resources and individualized attention, students will become excited about research and information literacy.”

Upcoming Work With Adults Older Than 50

September through November of 2009, we will conduct a class on information literacy training for adults who are 50-plus as part of a collaborative effort between three parties. The host site for the class will be the Denver Public Library; participants will come from an organization called The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Denver (OLLI); and I will provide the training. This series of classes will use information literacy to explore health and financial content. It will also include on-the-fly sessions where attendees can bring up topics of interest and apply the research concepts they have learned.

The Curriculum and Model Used to Teach the INPFAC Model

The concept of information literacy has several definitions, but the one that resonates with the group receiving training is from the American Library Association:

To be information-literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. Producing such a citizenry will require that schools and colleges appreciate and integrate the concept of information literacy into their learning programs while playing a leadership role in equipping individuals and institutions to take advantage of the opportunities inherent within the information society. Ultimately, information-literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand.

The model used to present the training is based on the Big6 by Mike Eisenberg and Bob Berkowitz. It is tailored specifically to the training I do with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations and their employees. The model is titled INPFAC. The acronym stands for IN = Information Need and staying IN focus; P = Plan; F = Find; A= Analyze; C = Conclude. This model hasn’t been tested with any academic research. It stresses easily understood language. IN emphasizes determining the existence of a need for information to begin with (aids in reducing information overload) and, once an information need is determined, the need to stay IN focus. Most people, including myself, have a tendency while searching for information to get diverted. This diversion can end up giving us information overload and an unfocused search, which reduces efficiency and wastes time. Not that there’s anything wrong with curiosity, just not when you’re working a task.

Information can be so “seductive” these days. INPFAC helps attendees stay on topic and in focus. Additionally, during class, as the attendees find information and jump into a question, it helps to ask them if they have done their A (stands for analyze) before I provide input on their question. As trainings progress, participants begin to unconsciously apply the model’s concepts to any information need.

Each group receives a different emphasis depending upon their needs. Entrepreneurs and business owners being trained through a public library or small business development center focus on authoritative business sources, search tips, analysis concepts, and techniques to manage their information needs. Other groups receive customization based upon their needs. More discussion on INPFAC is available at

The Curriculum


The Information Literacy Initiative is in the process of determining its strategic future and how to impact a larger number of individuals with quality information literacy training. A business plan addressing the areas listed below is under development.

  • Executive summary
  • Overview
  • Concept
  • Objectives
          Immediate — Jan. 01 – Dec. 31, 2009
          Years 2010 Through 2013
          Long-Term — 2014 and beyond
  • Market analysis & competitive position
  • Curriculum content development
  • Operations
  • Marketing strategy
  • Financial reporting, budget projections, and costs
  • Organization, people and governance, ownership

Once developed, the training will move beyond limited geographical areas to a larger footprint. The intended population will still be individuals who have not received training in a school or university setting and are in need of additional information literacy.

Example of One Class

1. Email Setup and Management

2. Learning Outcomes Desired
Understand purpose of email and email functions for:

  • Email defined: To communicate electronically on the computer []
  • Purpose: To stay in touch, communicate easily, lower cost
  • Email rules
  • Compose
  • Save
  • Drafts
  • Send
  • Deleting
  • Archiving
  • Spam
  • Folder management
  • Signatures
  • More …

3. Tools

4. Measurement
After reviews of key areas, ask each student to click on the areas and measure how many can get there without assistance. Revisit with students missing accurate identification of task. Have all students set up a membership folder and a signature, then sent an email to instructor showing signature?

More …

Over time an information literacy curriculum has evolved that is geared toward individuals in a nonacademic, nonschool environment who desire lifelong learning skills. Specific training has been added as user needs become apparent. For example, the women at The Gathering Place were confused about email. So I added email literacy training to the curriculum. This user-driven curriculum meshed with another way of thinking about information literacy by Ron E. Bergquist, a professor at the University of North Carolina, and enhanced the ALA definition of information literacy. Bergquist suggests that a comprehensive definition of a full information literacy curriculum would be broken down this way:

Comprehensive Definition

• In a narrow sense, it includes the practical skills involved in effective use of information technology and information resources, either print or electronic.

• In a broader sense, it is a new liberal art which extends beyond technical skills and is conceived as the critical reflection on the nature of information itself, its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural and even philosophical context and impact.

Full Curriculum

Tool literacy. The ability to use print and electronic resources including software

• Resource literacy. The ability to understand the form, format, location, and access methods of information resources

Social-structural literacy. Knowledge of how information is socially situated and produced. It includes an understanding of the scholarly publishing process.

Research literacy. The ability to understand and use information technology tools to carry our research including discipline-related software.

Publishing literacy. The ability to produce a text or multimedia report of the results of research.

By cycling back to the American Library Association (ALA) definition and adding in Ron Bergquist’s insights, I have been able to develop a content-rich curriculum adjusted for this population. In the classes provided, many levels of information literacy are achieved in areas needed by the users: email, use of a mouse, USB stick, search or analysis techniques, social media, use of a library database, and more. Attendees learn how to find, use, analyze, organize, and manage their information needs; gain competency on a computer; and understand how to use their public library online. They learn social computing opportunities that can benefit their lives and a process (INPFAC) that makes it easy to understand and tie all the information literacy concepts together.

An example of one class outline for email literacy is listed below. Each topic has a “Desired Learning Outcomes, Tools and Measurement” section. Outcomes, tools, and measurements are added to or deleted as I learn new information. I may or may not use all the tools or teach all the desired outcomes; it depends upon the users’ needs. I use the measurement section (as well as surveys) as a gauge for me on my teaching effectiveness.

Currently the curriculum encompasses 40 classes. Examples of the concepts taught include social media, effective use of search engines relative to information needs, analyzing content, finding tips, the computing cloud, and more. Each attendee has a computer, and the formal part of the class usually lasts 2.5 hours. I stay as long after as possible to provide individual attention. All the individuals I work with are in a nongraded, nonacademic environment.

Why Does It Matter?

Many individuals lack sufficient training in information handling or they may feel overloaded and unable to handle the amount of information they have. Information sources and media have changed drastically, making new training necessary for many. Some older adults have been left out of the internet revolution. This impacts their access to information about healthcare and financial assistance, as a large number of these resources reside online these days. Once they have specific information literacy training, they can evaluate an online information source, perform an effective search, and determine what sources of information are authoritative for financial and medical needs. For these populations, information literacy is a crucial but too often little-taught skill that can serve as a valuable lifeline. In becoming information-literate, they learn how to navigate the computer and library to locate credible sources of information, to understand the role bias plays in evaluating information, and to effectively use these skills in work tasks and everyday life situations.

Information literacy training has become necessary with so much information so available to so many people. Being left out of these new methods and media can also leave an individual behind in many ways. Job seekers need training on the use of newer online social networking tools such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Retrieving quality videos and podcasts and more can enhance their employment options. Many people who have lost their jobs have also lost access to computers and connectivity and must rely upon public computers. They need training to learn how to save resumes and cover letters in the “computing cloud” so they are retrievable from any computer as well as how to perform an efficient and effective search since time is limited on public computers.

Business owners and entrepreneurs operating on a shoestring need to know how to perform searches efficiently to find quality information that can help them keep up on their industry and competitors. Similarly, disadvantaged youth are also in danger of being left behind if they are unable to navigate the information world and have not received information training in their schools.

The Aspen Initiative discusses the benefits of information literacy for adults and a healthy democratic society, noting that “ the need to address information literacy as a societal issue is strong and immediate.” The report stresses that “a healthy democratic society requires literate citizenry to take advantage of educational opportunities, manage their finances, participate in government, secure jobs, manage health care and make choices that otherwise affect their lives.” The world of information is large, and at the individual’s level, quality information, found in an efficient manner, is needed to make people’s lives work.


Information Literacy Initiative

Searcher Magazine


Birdsong Information Services

Center for Information & Society

The Gathering Place

Boulder Public Library

Small Business Development Center in Boulder, Colo.


Colorado I Have a Dream

Denver Public Library

Osher Life Long Learning Institute

American Library Association (ALA)


Aspen Institute

Ron Bergquist

Lark Birdsong provides training for effective web and online search, selection of quality sources, and organization of information to small and medium-sized businesses and individuals. She has an M.B.A. in finance and accounting, a master’s in education, and is nearing completion of an M.L.I.S. degree from the University of Washington. Contact her via email at or visit her webpage [] or weblog [].
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