The Moral Obligation of Literacy & Access

In my years working as a librarian in the Digital Branch at the Kansas City Public Library, one thing I witnessed over and over again was the need to pair digital access with teaching digital literacy. It didn’t do any good to give patrons access to tools they didn’t know how to use. People need to develop digital literacy in order to use the tools we provide access to.

To resort to metaphor:

When someone is lost, it doesn’t help to hand them a map if they don’t know how to read it.

Then I read Reader Come Home by Maryanne Wolf and came across this passage:

[T]he study was to investigate the effects of providing books and digital access in libraries to underserved children and families. The results ran counter to every hoped-for outcome: simply providing access to digital tools to underserved children could actually have deleterious effects, if there was no participation by parents. The children in that study did significantly worse on tests of literacy than other children did, and the disparities between groups increased after technological devices were introduced. … This study highlights a pivotal and persistent mistake in the use of digital technology for education. The positive effects of digital learning cannot be reduced to issues of access or exposure.

It actually does harm to provide access without guidance. It’s worse than simply not helping. It would be less harmful to not provide access at all.

Given this, I believe we have a moral obligation to provide guidance and teaching if we choose to provide access. We must take on some of the burden of helping our patrons develop digital literacy.

I believe the moral obligation to teach literacy extends beyond just the digital realm. I believe there’s a similar issue with information literacy and access in our culture.

Access to information is the core around which all library services are built. We’re witnessing the effects of a profound lack of information literacy in our society. This tells us providing access isn’t enough. Just as there’s harm done when digital access comes without digital literacy, there’s similar harm done when information access comes without information literacy.

To resort to metaphor again:

I spent some years working in carpentry and electrical shops. One of the cardinal rules of shop safety was never hand someone a tool unless you’re sure they know how to use it properly. If they don’t know how to use it, they could hurt themselves or others.

Information literacy is trickier than digital literacy. Digital literacy is mostly skills building and growing comfort with digital tools and systems. Information literacy is mushier, getting into critical thinking and logic skills, and it sometimes feels like we’re telling people what to think. It feels like we’re forcing people to question treasured beliefs. Teaching information literacy feels rife with pitfalls, especially in our current political and cultural climate.

But we know the harm it does when people have access to information without reliable knowledge of how to assess it.

To resort to metaphor one last time:

Teaching someone to read a map doesn’t mean you’re telling them where to go. Teaching someone how to use a tool doesn’t mean you’re telling them what they should build.

I believe that access without literacy does harm.

I believe that any person or organization that chooses to provide access has a moral obligation to also provide guidance and teaching, to help develop the literacy of the people we provide access to.

It’s not just an access gap—it’s a skills gap. We need to close both.

None of this means telling people what to think or what to do. It’s skills building, it’s growing comfort and facility with tools and systems, and it’s empowering people.

We’re information professionals helming dedicated information institutions in the early years of the Information Age. Our timeless mission is to connect our communities to information.

We have a responsibility to address information literacy along with that access, or we risk doing harm.

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