Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Arkansas State University

Information Literacy: Define

Information literacy is the set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information."


Before you can even begin to search for information, you have to figure out what you will be looking for. For many students, this seems like an unnecessary, waste of time step. Why can't you just immediately start searching? Technically you can start searching for "whatever looks good." However, you'll find that it actually takes longer to scroll through hundreds and hundreds of results to find that "right" one than it does to take the time to define the task before searching.  You'll also receive stronger results and be less frustrated. Even if you ask a librarian for help, we can help you better if you can clearly articulate what you need. If you don't know, don't expect us to know.


What is the assignment, task, problem, etc?

The first step in information literacy is realizing that you need information. If you're lucky, your professors will give you an assignment with clear cut guidelines.  However, in most cases it's up to you. Think about your topic, how long the assignment needs to be, what format the finished product will be in (paper, powerpoint, etc) and who your audience will be. If your professor doesn't tell you how many resources you need, a good rule of thumb is one resource per page of your paper. A ten page paper will equal about ten reliable sources.

What is your topic?

The better defined your topic is, the easier it is to find information on it. Don't use broad subjects and hope that you can come up with a good paper. You will be overloaded with information. On the other hand, using extremely narrow topics will give you too little information.

Porridge Example - Just Right!

Look it Up!

If you know absolutely nothing about the topic, look it up in an encyclopedia to gain some background knowledge before doing your in-depth searching. Encyclopedias are excellent introductions to a new subject, and believe it or not, so is Wikipedia. Doing this will help you figure out the right resources to use for your research!

What type of information do you need?

Do you need historical information? statistical? case studies? Knowing what you need will help you pick your resources. For example, books are really great for historical content but journal articles are better for the latest trends and research. Also, journals are better for scholarly research than popular magazines such as Sports Illustrated. On the other hand, Sports Illustrated may work perfectly for short, casual assignments.

What keywords should you use?

Have you ever tried to type a full sentence into a search box? Chances are, it didn't turn out so pretty.  Most search engines don't handle "natural language" all that well. Think about the important terms and use just those - these will be your keywords. Another way to think about keywords is what would be the hashtags for your search. For example, for the search "what is the distance of the moon from the sun," your hashtags, or keywords, would be "moon," "sun," and "distance." Those are the important words and that's all you need to search - those three words.

What don't you want?

Figuring out what you don't want is just as important, and sometimes more useful, than defining what you want. For example, you ever try to go out to eat with someone and no one can decide where to go? When you're in the situation, start naming off the things you don't want. It's easier to pick where to go with a smaller list that both people like.


Research is a dynamic process. You may start off thinking you want to write about one thing, but come across an article or book that helps you narrow your results or changes your focus completely. For example, you start researching horror movies and you find an article about how zombie movies reflect social risk and disease pandemics and decide that's really what you want to write about. And that's ok! The more fluid you are with your research, the less frustrating it can be!