SJSU Portfolio

Competency #3

Recognize the social, cultural and economic dimensions of information use

The competencies which must be mastered for the MLIS are presented as a list, but are actually a web of interconnected and mutually dependent abilities. In the first SJSU SLIS professional competency we recognize and apply the foundational values of librarianship, one of which is preserving access to information for all citizens. To demonstrate Competency 9, candidates must apply skills and knowledge to improve equitable and effective access to information for diverse groups. In order to achieve Competency 9, librarians must naturally master Competency 3— they must have a strong awareness of the many current issues which affect information access and subsequent use. These issues, as diverse as library constituencies, include social realities, expectations, and structures. They encompass cultural differences such as ethnic background, religious beliefs, historical experience, or age group. Overarching these disparate factors are the economic forces affecting individuals, families, and public institutions.

Society can be studied as the collection of expectations and structures which have power in a given realm. It is vital for a competent librarian to be an effective social analyst, since many questions central to library planning depend for answers on social realities. The librarian must understand what trends or institutions control decisions about resource allocation. Images projected as ‘good’ or positive by the dominant media forms in a community determine what types of behavior are rewarded or punished—a librarian who does not understand community values cannot serve the community effectively. In libraries of all kinds the resources available to users are controlled by the norms and priorities of some influential portion of society. The nature and number of users is also influenced by these social controls. For example, academic libraries in public universities will see a shift in the ethnic or linguistic background of users as state policies in support of social justice require university populations to reflect the makeup of the state’s population. These librarians will see a different shift in user population when cutbacks are made to tuition assistance.

Culture--the set of values, traditions, and assumptions shared by a group, will affect the needs and desires of library users. Foundational research by scholars such as Brenda Dervin, Carol Kuhlthau, or Marcia Bates, which will be discussed in more depth under Competency 10, reveals common information—seeking behavior patterns. Kuhlthau’s (1993) research emphasizes the importance of the affective domain in user searches. Users in the early stage of a search are uncertain and anxious, seeking support and direction. Dervin’s (1998) “sense—making” model acknowledges that information seekers bring with them their own frames of reference and models for resolving difficulties based on past experience and cultural assumptions. Chowdhury (2004) discusses the importance of determining who the users of a particular information retrieval system will be, observing that “the general educational level, awareness of people in a society, etc, are also important determining factors influencing information seeking behavior”(p. 200). A competent librarian in today’s diverse society must be intensely aware of cultural differences among ethnic or national groups, but also aware of differences between age or special interest groups. Not only will cultural background affect user needs and behavior, but multiple cultures may vie for influence within a larger society, and also within a neighborhood library. A public librarian who must mediate between older users seeking a quiet shared reading space and young gamers in search of a competition arena displays her competence through possessing and applying a broad understanding of the underlying cultural realities of each constituent group.

Economics are the force shaping information access today. High level access depends on technology; technology isn’t cheap. The much discussed ‘digital divide’ affects individuals, separating those who can afford and manipulate privately owned technology from users with restricted access due to poverty, lack of education, or geographic location. Public school libraries display this crisis clearly: where some students have personal laptops and wireless Internet at home, others must depend on school—provided computers for all their homework and research needs. Exacerbating this disparity, the number and quality of available computers can vary enormously from one school to another, even within one school district. All types of libraries have responsibility to support equal access to information; economic realities limit improvement in access. A competent librarian must monitor the inequities in and available funding for information access for all library users.

For my first evidence of my competency in recognizing the “social, cultural and economic dimensions of information use”, I am attaching a paper I wrote for Beth Wrenn-Este’s Libr 265 (Young Adult Literature) class. For this assignment we were required to complete a substantial observation of a user group, and then use the data we gathered in a paper supporting a position on an issue of current importance in libraries serving young adults. This paper displays my ability to recognize the social and cultural forces affecting learning and technology use by a particular group of library patrons, and demonstrates my ability to analyze those forces broadly and deeply.

I also submit three different discussion forum postings for Shirley Lukenbill’s Libr 263 class, which studies literature for children 5— 8. For each of these substantial weekly assignments I first studied a work on an assigned social or educational concept. I then located, reviewed, and analyzed a work of children’s literature which illuminated or connected to the issue under discussion. The first posting applies the influential social and economic theories of Urie Bronfenbrenner to children’s literature. Next, I offer a posting connecting Kohlberg’s theories of moral development and Bandura’s Social Learning Theory to contemporary cultural realities as reflected in children’s literature. I demonstrate strong recognition of crucial contemporary information use questions in a third posting examining multi—cultural issues in children’s literature.

I am also attaching an analysis and comparison of two websites: and Powell’ This assignment was completed for Dr. Edna Reid’s Libr 202 Information Retrieval class. In the course of constructing an in—depth evaluation of the elements of these sites, I created several different imaginary users, framing searches and desired outcomes based on the individual methods, desires, and educational background I might reasonably attribute to each. This method reveals my awareness that differing social, cultural, and economic backgrounds will affect users’ experiences in using information—seeking products.


Dervin, B. (1998). Sense-making theory and practice: An overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use. Journal of Knowledge Management, 2 (2), 36-46.

Kuhlthau, Carol C. Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing Corp, 1993.