Seven Faces of Information Literacy in Higher Education

Information literacy is usually described as the ability to locate, manage and use information effectively for a range of purposes. As such it is an important ´generic skill´ which allows people to engage in effective decision–making, problem solving a nd research. It also enables them to take responsibility for their own continued learning in areas of personal or professional interest.

Whilst there is growing advocacy for information literacy in higher education, comparatively little in known about how it is experienced by those who use information. The various faces of information literacy described here are drawn from the experienc e of higher educators in two Australian universities. They provide a picture of information literacy that is very different from the lists of skills and attributes that are usually found in literature on the subject.

As a phenomenon, information literacy includes the full range of experience, and students need to be enabled to experience information literacy in these ways. They also need to reflect on the variations in experience which they encounter and understand which forms of information literacy are relevant to different situations.

Learning to be information literate could be seen as coming to experience using information in these ways.

Fuller descriptions of the categories and the research from which they were derived are available in Christine Bruce (1997) Seven Faces of Information Literacy, AUSLIB Press, Adelaide, South Australia.

Category one: the information technology conception

Information literacy is seen as using information technology for information retrieval and communication.

At the heart of this experience lies the importance of information technology for information access and personal networking. Information technology is the focus of attention and information is viewed objectively, as something outside the individual. One of the major roles of technology is to make that information accessible, or to bring it into awareness. Technology also plays a vital role in allowing the information user to stay informed and to manipulate information that has been located. In this sense the relation between people and information may be described in terms of depending upon technology to enhance access to information.

To summarise, category one identifies a way of experiencing information literacy that is dependent upon the availability and useability of information technology. Information literate people, when viewed this way are those who scan the information environment to attain a high level of information awareness. It is possible to experience information literacy, according to this view if one is a member of a community which supports the use of technology. Where the ability to use information technology rests with individuals, information literacy becomes an unachievable goal. In the next category, the attention of the information user shifts from information technology to information sources.

Category two: the information sources conception

Information literacy is seen as finding information located in information sources.


Here information literacy is experienced in terms of knowledge of sources of information and an ability to access these independently or via an intermediary. It is knowledge of information sources which makes it possible to retrieve the information which is contained within them. The sources may be in a variety of media, including electronic. The sources may also be people. Different orientations to the problem of information retrieval give rise to three subcategories:

  • knowing information sources and their structure
  • knowing information sources and using them independently
  • knowing information sources and using them flexibly, either independently or via an intermediary

Category three: the information process conception

Information literacy is seen as executing a process.


In this category information processes are the focus of attention. Information processes are those strategies implemented by information users confronting a novel situation in which they experience a lack of knowledge (or information). As the way in which the information is to be used is very much a consideration in this experience, information use forms the next level of awareness. Information technology is not an important feature of this experience. It is therefore located in the outer field of awareness.

Essentially, information literacy is seen as the ability to confront novel situations, and to deal with those situations on the basis of being equipped with a process for finding and using the necessary information. The precise nature of the process, h owever, varies from person to person. Effective action, problem-solving or decision-making is the outcome of the experience.

Category four: the information control conception

Information literacy is seen as controlling information.


In this experience information control is the focus of attention. There are three subcategories reflecting different forms of control:

                    • control of information is established using filing cabinets.
                    • control of information is established using the brain or memory via various forms of links and associations.
                    • control of information is established using computers to allow storage and retrieval.

Information organisation, in this context, is about storing information, usually documents, in a fashion which ensures easy retrieval. All the information is selected on the basis of its likely value for future use in research or teaching, for example. The primary concern of this conception is bringing resources under the controlling influence of the user. Information use, therefore, forms the second level of awareness.

Information literate people are seen as those who can use various media to bring information within their sphere of influence, so that they can retrieve and manipulate it when necessary.

Category five: the knowledge construction conception

Information literacy is seen as building up a personal knowledge base in a new area of interest.


In this and subsequent kinds of experience, information use becomes the focus of attention. Critical information use, for the purpose of constructing a personal knowledge base, is the distinguishing feature of this conception. Information, in this expe rience, becomes an object of reflection and appears to individual users in unique ways; it takes on a ‘fluid’ or ‘subjective’ character. The information user is involved in evaluation and analysis, whilst the information presents itself uniquely to the us er.

The idea of a knowledge base in this category goes beyond that of a store of information; it involves the adoption of personal perspectives. This is achieved through critical analysis of what is read. Most importantly, the knowledge base of the discipl ine is not changed or added to in any way.

Category six: the knowledge extension conception

Information literacy is seen as working with knowledge and personal perspectives adopted in such a way that novel insights are gained.


Information use, involving a capacity for intuition, or creative insight, is the distinguishing feature of this experience. Such intuition or insight usually results in the development of novel ideas or creative solutions. The knowledge base is recogn ised by participants as being an essential part of this way of conceiving of, or experiencing, information literacy.

Information use remains the focus of attention here; it is, however, no longer aimed at knowledge construction, but rather at knowledge extension. A capacity for intuition is seen as necessary for allowing information to be used in this way. The knowl edge base differs from that in the previous category in that it includes knowledge gained through personal experience.

Creativity, or intuition, is about how novel insights are gained. Although people describe this as a mysterious process which they cannot explain, some describe it as an activity of the mind. The way in which it is explained by participants pro bably depends upon their own world views. What is more important is that ‘new knowledge or information’ is recognised as the outcome, and intuition is recognised as the contributing factor to effective information use.

Category seven: the wisdom conception

Information literacy is seen as using information wisely for the benefit of others.


Wise use of information, involving the adoption of personal values in relation to information use, is the distinguishing feature of this conception. Wise use of information occurs in a range of contexts including exercising judgement, making decisions, and doing research. Wisdom is a personal quality brought to the use of information. Using information wisely presupposes a consciousness of personal values, attitudes and beliefs. It involves placing the information in a larger context, and seeing it in the light of broader experience, for example, historically, temporarily, socio-culturally. When information is seen within a larger context and one’s own life experience it can then used in qualitatively different ways. A consciousness of personal values and ethics is needed to enable information to be used in this way. For some respondents information technology was a negative influence on this kind of experience.