iSci– Library Skills for a 21st Century Education

Many years ago, as I worked through my undergraduate degree program at the University of Western Ontario, I grew to appreciate how important library and information literacy skills were in helping me to make effective use of my time at university. I chose to pursue a MLIS mostly because of the exciting predictions for the future, where computers and automation would have a profound effect on library services, but also because I felt I needed to top up something I had fallen short in. The university experience is at its core about developing the skills to research, to engage in self-directed critical analyis, and to create new knowledge. Understanding library science is central to that mission. I often thought when looking back that I would have done so much better if I had done parts of my MLIS program before starting university.
At a poster session at OLA 2010 I learned about the new Honours B.Sc. Integrated Science (iSci) program at McMaster University. This program is a novel approach to science education that incorporates the teaching of library and information literacy skills. These skills are important in the 21st century. The problems of today require a 21st-century scientist who has "a skill set that allows him or her to probe and explore problems, to find and critically evaluate information, to work productively as a member of a team, and to effectively communicate research findings to others." And that means library skills development must be deeply incorporated into an undergraduate program.
An article in Educause Review presents the details of the iSci program:
The iSci program has an embedded Science Fluencies Librarian. With timely information literacy training, students are allowed to appreciate the importance of library and information science. Learning how new knowledge and skills are created has always been at the core of the university experience, and integrating library skills into the program of study provides a great opportunity to experience university more fully. I would greatly have appreciated elements of iSci incorporated into my undergraduate program– and in fact I would have liked more opportunities from my school library and public library to learn information literacy skills prior to going to university.
Libraries, information literacy and the creative class
I see with this extension of library and information science skills into an undergraduate program an opportunity to rethink the role of the public library in the community. While promoting the development of the core literacies, especially at an earlier age, is a central mission of public libraries, I believe libraries have to position themselves in the community in much the same ways as the librarians in the McMaster iSci program. In addition to preparing young adults for the research-oriented focus of university, public libraries can promote information literacy skills in the community wherever there is activity that involves the creation of new knowledge or skills. Entrepeneurs, artists, writers, musicians, engaged citizens with deep civic or historic knowledge– these are the community forces for the creation of new knowledge, the "creative class", as Richard Florida calls it, and an engine of the economic well-being of a community. The core information literacy skills– knowing how to research, to evaluate, to analyze and to communicate are valuable skills to impart in and of themselves. Public libraries are the people’s university– the place where opportunities for life-long opportunities abound, and where librarians are present to engage the public and assist them in the development of these essential 21st century skills.
 Who’s Your City? by Richard Florida. The subtitle is "How the creative economy is making where to live the most important decision of your life."
A neglected core competency
This quote from an article in Educause Quarterly (v.33, no.1 2010) called Information Literacy: A Neglected Core Competency, by Sharon A. Weiner, explains the problem succinctly:
Our educational system should first expose students to information literacy and critical thinking in elementary school. Students should develop information literacy as a "habit of mind" that enables them to be sophisticated information finders and users by the time they reach college and then the working world. However, other priorities have prevented this from happening. This is an injustice to our young people, but it is also a problem for our society. Reports from employers indicate that we are not training our young people to be as successful in their jobs as they might be, or to have the ability to adapt to new jobs. Without information literacy competency, they will have difficulty in making informed decisions about their personal lives in critical areas such as health and finance.
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