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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2018

13 - Digital literacy


Any attempt to constitute an umbrella definition or overarching frame of digital literacy will necessarily involve reconciling the claims of myriad concepts of digital literacy, a veritable legion of digital literacies.

Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (Lankshear and Knobel, 2008, 4)


As the quotation above illustrates, understanding digital literacy, and similar ideas, can be complicated; we will give a simplified account, picking out the most important aspects, without attempting to cover every definition or perspective.

Digital literacy refers to the ability to use information effectively, in all formats, in a largely digital information environment This is a vital ‘life skill’ for anyone in today's world. All those aiming to work as an information specialist must have a high level of digital literacy themselves, and will be expected to help others achieve the same.

‘Digital literacy’ is a relatively new term, describing a set of knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to handle information effectively in a digital age. The term was first popularized by Paul Gilster, in a book of the same name, published in 1997. There have been – as we shall see below – several terms used to refer to these skills and competences, but we believe digital literacy to be the most appropriate.

Although, as we shall see, the library and information community has made substantial contributions in this area, so have other disciplines, particularly computer science and education. Gilster himself epitomizes this eclectic mix: originally a specialist in medieval literature, he has been a flight instructor, a fulltime writer on internet topics, and most recently a blogger on developments towards interstellar exploration (Gilster, 2011).

There are various detailed definitions and explanations of digital literacy, but in general we can say that:

Digital literacy is the set of attitudes, understanding and skills needed to find, communicate and use information effectively, in a variety of media and formats.

While it relies on an underpinning of basic literacy and of ICT skills, it is more concerned with understanding information resources, and their expression in various formats, and with the ability to evaluate, synthesize, organize and communicate information effectively. Although much information is in digital form, an important aspect of digital literacy is knowing when to use a non-digital source: printed sources, people, etc.