“The narratives of the world are numberless. Narrative is first and foremost a prodigious variety of genres, themselves distributed amongst different substances – as though any material were fit to receive man’s stories. Able to be carried by articulated language, spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and the ordered mixture of all these substances … All classes, all human groups, have their narratives … narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.”

Barthes and Duisit, 1975


The origins of the book

This book came out of two frustrations of ours, but we hope it won’t be a frustration for the reader.

Firstly, we were frustrated by the process of publishing itself. Most of us producing books to feed into the academic and professional publishing industry can’t expect to sell many copies. The publishers understandably, therefore, want as much as possible standardised in the book production process. They can’t spend the time lovingly crafting a book in the vision of the author – it simply isn’t practical.

However, it is practical to self-publish now, which allows us as much freedom as we’d like! We can eschew commercial considerations and the need for financial profits and instead aim to primarily invest our time with relatively few costs we need to cover. Rather than fitting to pre-conceived structures we can include video; audio; images; allegorical stories; maps; whatever fits the message individual contributors want to pass on. As such the (free) electronic copy of this book is the definitive version. The print one is our best possible reflection of the richness available in the electronic copy and includes links to online content, but cannot completely echo the electronic version. 

We aren’t criticising the standard publishing houses. Indeed, we are likely to return to the ‘traditional’ route to publish work in future. However, it is relatively easy for us to self-publish works, especially non-commercial ventures like this where we expect most readers to access the material for free, with only small amount of (relatively cheap) print copies sold. This freedom also allows us to work out some of our frustrations ready for when we return to the strictures of traditional publishing houses.

The second frustration is born out of the use (or misuse) of the concept of information literacy, or perhaps the misunderstanding and misapplication of over strict interpretations.

Information Literacy

There has been much discussion around terminology; definitions and models of information literacy over the years. By and large, however, we don’t have an issue about the term or the definitions that people use.

Sometimes it may make more sense to talk about individual information skills rather than information literacy (that may themselves build up to some form of information literacy), but that doesn’t imply any problem with the term itself. We must also remember that information literacy is a “librarian phrase”. It has meaning to library and information professionals, but that meaning may be different or absent in others. It therefore is often inappropriate to use the phrase externally, but that doesn’t imply that it is not a good and usable phrase within the population it originated.

Definitions vary, but normally have the same key concepts at their core, building up to the meta-concept that is information literacy. They all give a core idea that we can build on, an idea that information literacy is about having abilities and awareness around searching out, organising, using, and communicating information.

So we agree with the phrase ‘information literacy’, even though we may not always use the term when describing it to others. We agree that there are many useful and relevant definitions of information literacy that we could choose.

Our frustration occurs when these definitions are built upon and applied to practice. The individual elements of a definition are taken and questions are asked “what does this actually mean?” or “how can we measure this?”, which are perfectly natural questions to ask. It doesn’t take long, however, before this breaking down of definitions starts to become problematic.

If we look at the sector in which the editors both work, Higher Education, the ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries) division of the ALA (American Library Association) have detailed competency standards which have heavily influenced similar developments across the world. They contain incredibly detailed lists of competencies which they believe build up to produce an information literate student. This is echoed in similar lists for other sectors (for example, the American Association of  School Librarians publish ‘Standards for the 21st Century learner in action’). They feed into standardised assessment tests for information literacy such as SAILS which claim to accurately measure the information literacy of students through multiple choice questions.

Even in models such as SCONUL’s 7 Pillars of Information Literacy, deliberately intended to be descriptive, non-linear, and depending on context, people have built layers of competencies and details descriptors to lay over the top of this base model.

The natural tendency of many educators, librarians included, is to attempt to measure ‘information literacy’ as though it is a fixed, static, clear thing that exists in abstract form.

All of these take a perfectly reasonable idea or definition and abstract it to nonsense, all in the call of making them more useful. Like pinning an insect to a board for display, in fixing information literacy in such detail, they create something lacking in life and meaning. They fix a dead body in place where it can no longer interact meaningfully in any way with its environment.

Information literacy is not a fixed set of skills. Information literacy cannot be measured as a percentage or grade. Information literacy is not independent of context.

Information literacy is completely contextual. What it means to be information literate depends on how we are, what we are doing, where we are doing it. The “information literate” thing to do when “searching”; “organising”; “using”; or “communicating” information is different for a school child looking for information on the English civil war compared to a postgraduate researcher. Even within the same person, looking for information on booking a holiday, finding a builder to do some renovation work on their house, or writing a peer reviewed article will display very different ways of being information literate.

A person cannot have an objective measure of their information literacy, measured by standardised tests and marked out of 100. We cannot carry out pre and post tests around a library workshop and declare a 10% increase in information literacy because they recognise more of the library terminology. We cannot reduce a powerful concept, important for all to develop, into a list of meaningless competencies.

It is easy to make assumptions about what information literacy is, or isn’t, based on our own experiences. One of us recently heard a librarian state that information literacy is dependent upon reading literacy. Unless someone is highly literate (reading fluently), then they cannot be information literate. What nonsense! That immediately assumes that verbal, visual and other sources of information contain zero information and the only relevant containers of information are written texts. If anything, we would argue that written texts are relatively minor sources of information for most people and the ability to navigate, evaluate and make sense of non-textual information sources is a much more relevant aspect of information literacy in most contexts.

The beginnings of recognizing that information literacy is contextual, rather than a static or fixed set of competencies came from Christine Bruce (1997) in her now classic information literacy book, ‘The seven faces of information literacy’, which was based on her doctoral thesis. This initial model, using phenomenography to describe information literacy in terms of the richness and breadth of interactions was a significant departure from previous models that used consensus and the opinions of experts to narrow down the acceptable competencies that compose an information literate person. It has been followed by a small but growing body of relational information literacy research, recognizing the richness of real behavior rather than the primacy of any ‘expert’ view (e.g. Edwards, 2006;  Bruce, C. Edwards, S. Lupton, M., 2006; Boon, Johnson and Webber, 2007; Williams, 2007, Bruce and Hughes 2010, Walsh 2012; Andretta, 2012).

This relational approach is the one driving our approach to this book. Instead of trying to pin information literacy down to readily measured lists of competencies, or detailed descriptions of what it means to be information literate, this book takes a different path. We take pleasure in the diversity of ways we can be information literate. The book displays many different facets of information literacy and we’re pleased the individual contributors have chosen to reflect those facets in ways as diverse as ‘traditional’ texts; fairy story; video; graphics; and deep self reflection on learning journeys. They reflect that as information literacy has many faces, so these faces can be presented in many ways.

There is no right or wrong way to be information literate, there are simply ways that work, or don’t work, for an individual in their current context. This book celebrates it and highlights a small selection of the information discovery journeys people carry out every day.

The Content

Into the woods: teaching trails and learning journeys

These pieces are remarkable individually; collectively they shed new light on the the subtle interplay between information and identity. This holds both for the roles we occupy and the relationships we construct during the processes of teaching and learning - librarian, learner, guide, seeker – and also for identity as our innermost sense of self: how we learn who we are. As Osborne writes, “How do we become ourselves - the self that we know and others recognise?” This unbook opens with the voice of the librarian-guide in dialogue with learners and other teachers, and shifts gradually towards an exploration of how our personal identities are shaped or even constituted by the information we encounter.

The two sections of this book thus offer complementary yet deeply contrasting visions of the information journey. Section One, ‘The Mapmakers’, presents a set of planned routes, suggested and tested by knowledgeable guides: a cross between Baedeker and Bradshaw. In this section, librarians offer a range of thoughtful observations on how learners encounter, negotiate and construct knowledge. Few of these accounts are didactic; they give not a blueprint or template for ‘how to do it’, but rather a topographical record of their learners’ journeys.

The Mapmakers, then, offer the reassurance of well-signposted paths, including a number of ‘scenic routes’ or imaginative ways in which librarians and academics can help their students to choose appropriate sources of information. Delasalle and Cullen’s literature search “travel guide”, a collaboration between learner and librarian, is modelled as an A-Z directory of the information searching process. Gröppel-Wegener and Walton provide engaging guidelines for navigating the information ocean and identifying what you find in your fishing net, enhanced by Josh Filhol’s beautiful and illuminating illustrations. Gröppel-Wegener’s second contribution, which closes the section, portrays the qualitative difference between summary and synthesis through an imaginative, extended playing-card metaphor which enables learners to evaluate and collate their information ‘cards’ and maximise the value of their ‘hand’.

Several of the Mapmakers themselves invoke and interrogate the journey metaphor. Burkhardt and Carbery’s Prezi, which narrates how staff engage students in critical conversations about their information choices, is itself modelled as a learning journey from unquestioned assumption towards self-discovery. Importantly, the authors acknowledge that this journey requires learners to cross the threshold out of their “comfort zone”, encountering information that may confuse or disconcert them. It’s refreshing to see the emotional impact of learning acknowledged in this way, since although encountering new or contradictory information can be a deeply unsettling experience, this dimension is all too often silently omitted from information literacy discourse.

Johnson and Walsh’s exploration of the information approaches of drama lecturers also highlights the affective impact of learning. Their study sees participating academics falling broadly into two groups: those who advocate “following the paths” versus those who suggest “exploring the landscape”. Whereas the ‘explorer’ academics encourage their students to seek out new routes and new views of the subject, the path-following group focuses on getting students safely to a known information destination. Interwoven with the emphasis on safe, stable knowledge is the implication of possible divagation, disorientation or outright danger if the safe routes are departed from.

This shadowy peril is beautifully described by Linda Tolly, who maps the information journey to the template of the hero’s quest. In doing so she highlights one of the most important differences between mapmaking and journeying: the guide is not the traveller. Not even the wisest sage (or librarian) can accompany the learner all the way on the quest, or through the dark forest. The nature of the quest is that the “travels and travails” must be undertaken by the quester, upon whom the adventures and  encounters may have a life-changing effect.


Information and identity: “I am other I now”

Our second section is composed of, and by, Travellers. These authors try less than the Mapmakers to show any objective ‘truth’ about information literacy and show instead more of the process behind an information discovery journey in a way that as yet does not have a fixed ‘lens’ of information literacy imposed. Throughout we glimpse the reflective learning self which simultaneously steps into a new position and observes itself doing so: in James Joyce’s words, “I am other I now”. The result is candid, compelling and deliberately uneven. The authors employ a range of voices, registers and genres, sometimes within the same chapter; narratives are not brought to closure but left open, the linear sequence disrupted;  the learning is ongoing.

We have represented this narrative fluidity and internal counterpoint by using contrasting fonts, but our authors have also broken out of the text-only mode to include video, audio, images, cartoons, and interactive media to both record and communicate their learning journeys. As several chapters demonstrate, the connections and associations we make between concepts are far from being exclusively textual: dialogue can take place by exchanging sound clips, artworks, doodles, dreams.

Going beyond the authority of the written word, leaving the textual path, can itself be an act of subversion that is both perilous and rewarding. As Inês Amado and Ximena Alarcón note, “the issues of migration and dislocation are always present”. The two artists connect across space in a technology-mediated dialogue, which itself exceeds the bounds of the textual, to share visions and dreamscapes which combine sound, video and objects. The students in Dimmock, Hoon and MacLellan’s ‘Memories’ go yet further, connecting across time in exploring how we encode and communicate identity through clothing and across generations.

Penny Andrews and Marika Soulsby-Kermode exchange and explore information in many media, discussing how it both assists and hampers a coming to terms with the true, autistic, self. Antony Osborne narrates compellingly the confusion of trying to construct an identity in the cross-fire of information available from scarce and conflicting sources - medical categorisation, cultural markers, the austerity of legal and judicial language, and the tacit social mores reflected (but never overtly articulated) in media representations of gay men.

There is neither library, classroom nor computer in David Mathew’s study of the (deliberately ambiguous) ‘stable group’, yet here too the close connection between learning and identity is evident. Here learning is entirely practical and extra-textual. Horses, humans, and the author-observer all experience learning as a process of becoming, of extending the identity. Even the dogs are learning to become guardians or gatekeepers: “Zack was teaching Bonnie how to fight and to bark with more aggression”.


The librarian: guide, gatekeeper, barrier?

Speaking of gatekeepers: what is the place of the librarian in these information journeys characterised by the creative, the experiential, the nontextual? A number of guide figures appear in the pages (or pixels) of this unbook, variously depicted as mentor, shaman, guardian and barrier, and helpful or sinister in about equal measure. While the mapmakers tend to represent them in a more positive light, it’s evident that learners and travellers regard the librarian figure with some ambivalence!

Antony Osborne’s redoubtable Mrs Fogg - a classic shusher presiding over a space smelling of furniture polish which contains none of the information he seeks - is surely related to Nick Norton’s librarians, both of whom actually withhold information from library users whom they perceive as using it inappropriately: “No, no, now no. That is not at all what the book is for.” All three are drawn from real life experiences, yet they are strangely reminiscent of the unhelpful bears and robots who staff Bryony Ramsden’s fairytale library. Far from being kindly wizards, sages, or guides, these characters stand uncompromisingly between the learner and information, proffering search ‘tips’ along the lines of “Write a query based on a combination of base 6 numbering and binary ... (ensure interjections are in Assyrian cuneiform or C++)” (Ramsden).

At the other end of the spectrum, however, more positive visions of the librarian’s potential role can be found in Johnson and Walsh’s Cheshire cat, who appears at difficult forks in the path (and presumably fades away, grinning benevolently, when no longer needed); in Tolly’s Sorceress-Librarian, who can gift the power of knowledge but who also recognises that the learner must quest alone; and in Norton’s vision of a person-centred library entity based around the core Rogerian conditions of congruence, empathy and respect for the individual.

All these visions have in common a perception of the librarian as neither gatekeeper or shaman but as collaborator and partner in learning. They also share a vision of the library - real and/or virtual - as a space in which to create and experiment, which fosters “a joyful, playful” attitude to information (Johnson and Walsh), which perhaps even “rebrands as the Zone of Proximal Learning” (Norton).

In the journey into the unknown, creativity and learning both require an exceeding of preset boundaries. To cross this threshold is to shift into the unimagined ‘now’ of creativity. Signposting, guiding, and the desire to reach a place of safety give way to being playful, joyful and experimental: the positive flipside of the affective impact of information.


Stepping off the path

Teaching is developmental - it nourishes, modifies and deepens our practice and our pedagogy - but learning is transformative: it changes the learner, not the practice, and it does so at a profound level. The two processes of teaching and learning may take place at the same time (in a classroom, at an inquiry desk) yet, as Norton points out, they are “simultaneously intimate and entirely distinct”. Terrain that has already been mapped is nevertheless new ground for a first-time visitor, and each newly arrived explorer steps, at every moment, into unknown territory.

The journey metaphor illustrates this slippage between the processes of teaching and learning: the contrast between retracing an established route into knowledge and the unsettling phenomenological experience of constructing the pathway for the first time. “STOP. Wait. Is that right? TRY AGAIN” (Ramsden). “I try again ...” (Cullen and Dellasale).

Our learners go where we cannot guide them. Their learning takes place in unexpected spaces and guises, away from the pathways and into the forest: exploring beyond the ‘safe’, known structure and into to the as-yet-undefined. As educators, we know that these metaphors represent the essence of knowledge creation, and yet we fear for our learners: we can only watch, not accompany. So we must take care that in our zeal to guide learners and help them find the right, safe pathways, we don’t contain and limit or smother their intellectual journeys. We can plot a course for our teaching interventions, but we cannot predict, mandate or define our learners’ journeys through information and connectivity. We can define what a ‘winning hand’ looks like, but we can’t govern the fall of the cards. We can designate the unknown, we can even map out its extent on our charts - but that’s not at all the same thing as crossing the threshold or stepping off the path.

Learning changes the learner. Whether we find the Grail or not, we have still achieved the quest: the journey itself and the information encounters we experience have effected a profound change. And who is to say when the destination is finally reached or where the journey ends? Ramsden’s chapter offers us three endings out of a myriad of possilibities; and this unbook ends with an invitation to you to continue the dialogue. We can continue to make connections between librarian and learner, between knowledge and creativity, through communicating our information encounters.

An anarcho-narrative (un)book

We initially described this book in the call for papers as being an anarcho-narrative (un)book. Our intention was to have a strong narrative element within the book. We feel this has succeeded and it has a strong element of storytelling, text that is largely descriptive rather than prescriptive, hopefully allowing the reader to make up their own minds about many of the elements.

We hope the anarchical strand running throughout it manages to stand out, using anarchy to mean the lowest possible level of organisation, such as suits the reader or author rather than the editors or publisher. Although the print format imposes an element of central rule upon the book we’ve tried to make it as easy to break out of as possible. The ‘chapter chooser’ can help decide which chapters to read next regardless of our ordering of them. The creative commons licencing and authors’ retention of copyright allows contributors to re-use, re-purpose and spread their ideas elsewhere, so you may come across the same content in other places as it suits that material. The free nature of the eBook and its format as ePub rather than PDF makes it as accessible as we can make it, putting the power in the hands of potential readers.

Lastly, the acceptance of a wide range of media, rather than text plus a few images makes this an (un)book, using traditional book conventions in as light a way as we can and putting the power into the hands of our readers wherever possible. So we hope you enjoy / are challenged by / annoyed by / delighted by (delete as you see appropriate!) our first attempt at an anarcho-narrative (un)book.



Andretta, S. (2012). Ways of Experiencing Information Literacy: Making the case for a relational approach. Chandos: Oxford.

Barthes, R., & Duisit, L. (1975). An introduction to the structural analysis of narrative. New Literary History, 6(2), pp. 237-272.

Boon, S., Johnston, B., and Webber, S. (2007), “A phenomenographic study of English faculty’s conceptions of information literacy”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 63 No. 2, pp. 204-228.

Bruce, C. (1997). The seven faces of information literacy. Auslib Press: Adelaide.

Bruce, C. and Hughes, H. (2010). “Informed learning: a pedagogical construct attending simultaneously to information use and learning”, Library and Information Science Research , Vol. 32 No. 4, pp. A2-A8.

Bruce, C. Edwards, S. Lupton, M. (2006). “Six Frames for Information literacy Education”, Italics, Vol. 5 No. 1. Available at: (Accessed 4th Feb 2010).

Edwards, S. (2006). Panning for Gold: information literacy and the net lenses model. Auslib Press: Adelaide.

Walsh, Andrew (2012). Mobile Information Literacy: a preliminary outline of information behaviour in a mobile environment. Journal of information literacy, 6 (2). pp. 56-69.

Williams, D. (2007). “Secondary school teachers’ conceptions of information literacy”, Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, Vol. 39 No. 4, pp. 199-212.