Kristin Fontichiaro

Kristin Fontichiaro is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, where she coordinates the school library media program and teaches courses in library and information science.


By Kristin Fontichiaro

Once upon a time, a man looked out at the information technology landscape. He said, “There’s something different about today’s kids. They’ve never lived without Google or the Web or cable TV or cell phones. They click and drag with flair. They’re not like us. We’ll call them digital natives.” And he looked at the adults, those who remembered rotary dial telephones and rabbit ears and life before broadband and said, “You are the digital immigrants. You will never have the fluency that the natives have. You will always be a stranger in a strange land.” And so it was.

The natives displayed magnificent behaviors. Indeed, they could surf the Web, upload photos, exchange texts, swipe and navigate apps, and chat by Webcam. The natives’ speed and fearlessness were known throughout the land. Everyone enjoyed their fun videos, inventive playlists, engaging discussions, and apps-generated effects. The immigrants were proud of their native children.

The years went on. The children grew and the technology grew. And so it was.

Many years later, a woman became ill. Her stomach lurched and churned like a rain stick.

“Send for the children,” cried an immigrant. “Let them search the Web and find us an answer.” The children grabbed their tablets, their smartphones, and their laptops.

Their faces illuminated by their screens, they began to search: “How can a woman’s stomach feel better?” They scanned the first few results. “Nothing here,” they posted to Facebook.

Another went to YouTube and typed, “A woman is sick.” The first three results were videos of a feminist band. “Oh well,” they Tweeted. “Nothing here except for really sick music.”

“Here’s something!” called one. “Never mind. Twelve pages. Wayyyyy too much.”

“And the words are so hard!” replied another.

“Just read the first few words in each paragraph,” said a third.

“Too much work!” said the fourth. “But I’ll post her photo to Instagram!”

Without the help she needed, the woman slipped quietly into the next world.

• • •

From time to time, I imagine a future like that of the woman — attended by natives who, despite their fast navigation, won’t have the sustained processing and synthesis skills necessary to make great contributions.

As we rightly applaud the fearlessness of today’s youth in mastering the latest devices, developing strong interpersonal online networks, and commanding their apps and software to create digital delights, we cannot permit intuition to comprise the bulk of their digital literacy skillset. If we do, we risk a generation of Mowglis, wild children without mentors to help them mature into digital adulthood.

Digital literacy, which includes the abilities to search, read, evaluate, sequence, synthesize, and share, is essential for American citizenship. Children need to be challenged to stretch beyond their digital comfort zone, to tackle more rigorous intellectual questions online, to use robust resources, to read deeply and thoughtfully for meaning, and to synthesize others’ ideas. These are the key skills and processes of the digital age, and they rarely develop intuitively.

As librarians continue to shift from print collections, it is time to reinforce their role as teachers and guides of digital literacy. Melvil Dewey envisioned librarians-as-teachers over a hundred years ago in an 1876 article for American Libraries:

“The time was when the library was very much like a museum and a librarian was a mouser in musty books … The time is when the library is a school, and the librarian is in the highest sense a teacher, and the visitor is a reader among the books as a workman among his tools” (Dewey in Dewey, 45).

This fall’s “Information Literacy for Teaching and Learning” class (SI 641) has wrestled with how those working in libraries, schools, and community organizations can deepen students’ and patrons’ digital engagement, comprehension, and literacy. They have observed student and faculty behaviors, studied K-12 and university lesson plans, learned teaching tips from mentors, taught their classes, developed online modules, and developed strategies to help the inexperienced mature into thoughtful scholars, workers, and citizens. Stay tuned in January when we’ll share our findings in an eBook collection of personal essays about our discoveries.

The road ahead is rich with opportunities to empower our patrons with the robust resources and digital strategies that lead to more nuanced decision-making as adults.

The woman sighed and was content.

Additional resources:

Dewey, Melvil. 1876. “A New Profession.” Reprinted in, “What the A.L.A. Was Intended to be & to do.” Wisconsin Library Bulletin, Feb. 1917, pp. 41 – 50. Retrieved November 15, 2011.

The terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant” were originally coined by Prensky, Marc. 2001. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” 2001. On the Horizon 9(5), Oct.