Writing and Information Competency in Small Bytes

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Writing, Information Competency, and Critical Thinking in the Age of Information


There is so much to know in the world. How can we begin to know it all? What do we need to know? How do we make sense of it? How does it affect what we do in our lives? How can we use it effectively? How can we use it wisely? At California State University, Fresno, the Summer Bridge Writing Component is an introduction to what becoming known as information competency. It is designed to help you understand in information is, why you need it, and how you can find it. It goes beyond that to show you how this information must be interpreted and analyzed before it is used. Finally, it points to ways to communicate what you have found to others.

Writing and Information Competency in Small Bytes is designed to begin your involvement with developing research and communication skills essential for a university education. Our goals are to help you understand your purpose, to help you figure out what you need to know, to learn ways to find this information, to begin to think critically about this information, and to encourage you to communicate this information effectively in accomplishing your purpose. Plainly, if you work through this material, you should learn some useful things about research, about thinking clearly, and about writing. This website is designed for students at Fresno State, especially for new students, but if anyone else will benefit from it, we cordially invite them to do so and to do good in the world.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Vartan Gregorian, past president of the New York Public Library and currently president of Brown University, spoke of the awesome prospect of visiting a library for the first time:

In the British Museum, sitting there and seeing those millions of books--suddenly you feel humble. The whole of humanity is in front of you. What are you trying to do? Is it worth doing? What are you going to say or add or write that has not been said and written about? It gives you a sense of cosmic relation to the totality of humanity, but at the same time a sense of isolation. You have a sense of both pride and insignificance. Here it is, the human endeavor, human inspiration, human agony, human ecstasy, human bravura, human failures--all before you. You look around and say, "Oh my God! I am not going to be able to know it all." One gets thrilled and frightened at the same time in the presence of a library because it reminds one about one's past, present, and, most, of the possibilities of the future. (181)

His recollection is striking because so many of us in our encounters with libraries shared his sense of awe and wonder, not to mention his apprehensions. Because of the scarcity and value of books and other printed materials, libraries have always been repositories of wisdom and knowledge; librarians sought out, copied, collected, and stored what was known in the world. In today's increasingly technological world, a library remains a central feature of human society, especially in universities. Beyond the books and magazines and journals and government reports within the walls of the library, the library is a link to the information in the rest of the world as well.

In a recent book, Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman offered "Five New Laws of Library Science":

    1. Libraries serve humanity.
    2. Respect all forms by which knowledge is communicated.
    3. Use technology intelligently to enhance service.
    4. Protect free access to knowledge.
    5. Honor the past and create the future. (8)

Crawford and Gorman have added something to the world with these five laws, for they give us a way of looking at what libraries are and what they should be. But where did these laws come from? In writing their book, they reflected upon what they knew, upon what they did in their professional work (indeed, Gorman is Dean of Library Services at California State University, Fresno), and upon what they had read. They found inspiration in a 1931 book, Five Laws of Library Science, by an Indian librarian, S. R. Ranganathan, but saw that the original statement needed to be restated or "reinterpreted" for today's libraries and their likely future.

We can learn things from this example. New knowledge is linked to knowledge that came before. As you confront genuine problems in the world, in your personal life or in government or in work, for many reasons you will feel a need to solve them and you will find that you need information to help you do it and that you need to communicate with others. As scholars, throughout their book Crawford and Gorman followed conventional rules for using and acknowledging their sources--sometimes to illustrate a point, sometimes as proof in an argument, sometimes to aid their readers find more about a topic than they plan to tell.

It has been said that the average person is exposed to more information today in a week that Thomas Jefferson was exposed to in his entire lifetime. Thomas Jefferson was of course the third President of the United States of America, but what did he order to be written on his tombstone? "Thomas Jefferson, Founder of the University of Virginia." Clearly he valued education. Lucia Stanton described his collection of books:

Jefferson assembled three different collections in his lifetime -- one of which became the core collection of the Library of Congress. His first, which he valued at 200 British pounds, was lost when his house at Shadwell burned in 1770. After the destruction of the federal library in the war of 1812, Jefferson offered his own collection -- then over 6,700 volumes -- to the government. In 1815 he sold to the Library of Congress what he considered "the choicest collection of books" in the country for $23,950, considerably less than its value. Contemplating his empty shelves, Jefferson immediately commenced a third collection and owned over 2,000 volumes at his death in 1826.

Today's Library of Congress has grown considerably:

In 1992, the Library acquired its 100 millionth item. The collections now include approximately fifteen million books, thirty-nine million manuscripts, thirteen million photographs, four million maps, more than three and a half million pieces of music, and more than half a million motion pictures. The Library's collection of more than 5,600 incunabula (books printed before 1500) is the largest in the Western Hemisphere and its collections of maps, atlases, newspapers, music, motion pictures, photographs, and microforms are probably the largest in the world. In addition, the Library holds newspapers, prints, posters, drawings, talking books, technical reports, videotapes and disks, computer programs, and other audio, visual, and print materials. (Cole)

The Henry Madden Library at Fresno State has over 772,324 books, 141,482 periodicals, and over a million microforms. These resources are not innumerable, because the librarians know exactly how many things the Library possesses and exactly where each thing is. That is the incredible thing about libraries today--there is so much to keep track of.

The problem for people living today is the same. Every day we are bombarded by information from everywhere. The information sources compete vigorously for our attention. Newspapers, radio in our bedroom to wake us up, television morning news at breakfast, talking with other people, radio in the car on the way to work if you're not listening to an audio-book, computers and telephones and magazines and mail (letters from friends and junk from practically everyone else) and cellular telephones and flyers on your windshield and motion pictures and billboards and--well, you get the idea perhaps. At one time people argued over whether the Moon was made of green cheese or not, but in 1968 the Apollo astronauts not only stood on the Moon itself but even focused a television camera on the Earth. In the 19th Century news of the death of Queen Victoria took months to reach all parts of the British Empire, but the death of President Kennedy in 1963 reached almost all of the world's population within 24 hours. Samuel Becker summarized evidence that within thirty minutes of Kennedy's death, 2/3 of the adults in the United States had heard of the shooting; that four hours later 99.8% of the country was aware of it; and that within twenty-four hours 99% of the people in Athens, Greece, knew it (Becker 412).

There is not only a lot of information in the world today, but it literally travels at the speed of light. The advent and diffusion of new communication technologies have accelerated and changed communication. As Frederick Williams wrote in The New Communications, "Although the whys of human communication remain unchanged, our ways of gathering and exchanging information, instructing our selves and others, entertaining or being entertained, moving others to belief or action, interacting in groups, making decisions, or managing organizations are changing considerably" (xiii).

The ubiquitous presence of information affects nations and individuals alike. Wilson Dizard observed,

Heavy infusions of information historically have had a disruptive effect on societies. The current flood of new data, increasing at a rate of about 10 percent annually, is unprecedented in any age. It is unclear how much of this is useful information, contributing to social productivity and maintenance, and how much simply adds a potentially unmanageable physical and psychic burden to what Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) and other analysts characterize as "information overload." (222)

The problem for students in today's university is that they must not only live and work and survive within this overloaded information environment, but that they are as students pro-actively involved in an information industry. It is the job of universities not only to introduce students to this information, but even more to develop within them the skills and motivations to make even more information and to find out how to use this information wisely and effectively.

There is a huge difference between information and knowledge. Information is all around us, but what is worth knowing? Peter Drucker pointed out in the 1960s that moving information around in business is not enough--there is a difference between informating and communicating. Knowledge is the result of human intellectual activities, which evaluate information and give it meaning, transforming it into something useful. Crawford and Gorman make an emphatic point about libraries:

Let us state, as strongly as we can, that libraries are not wholly or even primarily about information. They are about the preservation, dissemination, and use of recorded knowledge in whatever form it may come . . . so that humankind may become more knowledgeable; through knowledge reach understanding; and, as an ultimate goal, achieve wisdom. The collection and absorption of data (discrete facts, numbers, etc.) and information (organized data) is often contextless and spasmodic. It may have a utilitarian purpose (usually brief) but has no enduring meaning unless the information so acquired is fitted into an intelligible structure of knowledge. (5)

"Information Competency" is a label that grows out of our attempts to make sense of all this information. The California State University system defined this concept in 1996 in terms of core competencies, each of which is addressed in the materials, examples, and exercises, which follow in this website. We help you understand and use information and the technologies of information at all stages of the process, from clarification of your research purpose to asking questions to finding and accessing sources of information, to critically analyzing and using information to reach conclusions, to the process of creating and writing itself. Among the critical things you need to know is how to manage your time and the tasks in research and writing. As you might expect, the things this website is designed to help you learn touch on things that are dealt with and amplified upon in courses across the university.

Click here to a navigation guide to the information competencies.

In the following sections, each of these stages in the process will be discussed. This process will become familiar to you as you proceed through your university education. It may not be an exaggeration to say that everything in the university involves you in one stage of this process or another. Our aim is to give you an overarching understanding of this essential process. Among the skills and understandings you need to acquire are the various ethical, legal, and socio-political issues surrounding information and information technology, such as using and citing sources, ownership and intellectual property, and authorship.

Link to First Competency

Link to Table of Contents

fstlogo.gif (4428 bytes) Writing and Information Competency in Small Bytes
John A. Cagle, Ph.D.
Summer Bridge Program
California State University, Fresno

1998 by John A. Cagle, Professor of Communication, California State University, Fresno.

This information competency website was designed by John A. Cagle (Department of Communication) and Ross LaBaugh (Librarian) as part of a grant from the California State University.  It continues to be under construction.