Information Literacy and Records Management

February 9th, 2018

George Despres, CRM
Program Director for University Records Management, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

A 1989 report by the U.S. Presidential Committee on Information Literacy states that “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.” Sound familiar? Info literacy has largely become the preserve of the library community, with a focus on teaching scholars and citizens to navigate and to differentiate the published information that confronts us. Google-search “information literacy,” and review the first several results pages to see what I mean. With little, if any, coverage of this topic in our professional discourse, I only recently made this connection myself thanks to a librarian’s presentation on it.

A keen sense of info literacy is required to execute records management and info governance functions with ethical outcomes. Like records management, info literacy has considerable social justice implications. Also, as I’ve suggested, fact denial and fake news—land mines under the librarian’s definition of info literacy—should be serious concerns for the RIM and IG professional communities as well, given our core principles of integrity and transparency. We need to be info literate, and the employees of our firms do, too. And our firms, themselves, at a corporate level.

We should incorporate the term “info literacy” with our work, because the current application of “info literacy” constrains its broader implications. Should “info literacy” exclude caution when handling sensitive info and PII? Should it exclude responsibly destroying or deleting redundant, obsolete, and trivial (ROT) info? Should it exclude intuitive and functional folder naming to enhance knowledge sharing? Should info literacy exclude emailing a link to one copy of a document rather than sending a two-MB attachment to twenty people? Should it exclude avoiding rogue apps, weak passwords, and phishing attempts? Should info literacy exclude documentary version control? Should it exclude info-intelligent employees within the enterprise? I don’t think so.

Without detracting from its scholarly and civic value, info literacy should be extended to our enterprise mission scope. For example, typical library guidance for evaluating web sites lists the following five criteria: accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage. Again, sound familiar? These criteria certainly pertain to quality records in the context of the accuracy of the content, the authority of the author/office generating them, the desire for unbiased information flow (insofar as one can be “objective”), the currency and freshness of the content, and the coverage or scope of the subject matter. All of these properties will enhance organizational efficiency in an enterprise records context—for example, refreshing stale corporate intranet content for currency.

The selective aspect of info literacy is huge. Researchers in the MIT Sloan Management Review have observed that successful executives assemble and maintain a “personal knowledge infrastructure,” that we’re transitioning to “an attention economy,” and that “knowing what to pay attention to” will outperform the act of simply acquiring more info. Some degree of info literacy would be assumed in any such undertaking.

We can augment what “info literacy” means. In his book Infonomics, Doug Laney emphasizes that few institutions have full inventories of their information, and that many organizations fail to monetize it or treat it as an asset. This challenge represents yet another dimension of info literacy that we should pursue further by assessing and valuating our info holdings.

While back-end technology may automatically address many info literacy challenges in the future, now is now: today’s AI and natural language processing, though improving, is not yet that of our children’s generation. And while we aren’t going to make “records managers” out of everyone, the notion, promotion, and adoption of info literacy should be pursued. We’re already doing and advocating for info literacy: we just need to re-brand, expand, and own the phrase for our enterprises. We are its champions, too.

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