The Communications Revolution: America's Third Century Challenge

Lee G. Burchinal

Originally presented in The Future of Organizing Knowledge: Papers Presented at the Texas A & M University Library's Centennial Academic Assembly, Sept. 24, 1976 (College Station, Tex.: Texas A & M University Library, 1976)

Presented online with an introduction by Andrew Whitworth (SEED, University of Manchester, UK) and additional contributions from Prof Burchinal.

PDF version of the speech (312 Kb). This link is repeated at the end of this introduction.

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As part of the research needed for a book on the theory of information literacy (IL) [*], in early 2013 I set out to track down some of the earliest texts on the subject, dating from the 1970s. To understand a subject fully it is important to investigate its origins. Certain assumptions about the world, values and ways of thinking and forming knowledge will underpin any text, and in turn, responses to that text (Bakhtin 1981). I had been working on IL since around 2004 but had never gone back this far in time, to examine the initial claims about what IL should be, and why it was needed, and try to appreciate, post facto, how these had influenced what IL became. A lack of attention to IL’s origins is apparent at the present time. It is the received wisdom that the term “information literacy” was first used by Paul Zurkowski in a report delivered to the US National Commission on Libraries and Information Science in 1974. Citations to this paper are now common on writings on IL, yet in a few informal straw polls I took among audiences while at conferences and seminars in 2013, very few people claim to have read it: no more than around 10% of this convenience sample.

A discussion of the contribution of Zurkowski’s paper to IL, and Library and Information Science (LIS) more generally, would form a substantial text in itself, so a brief summary is useful here, to put the later commentary into context. Zurkowski considered the contribution of what he calls the “Information Service Environment”, seeing it as an essential pillar of (US) economic success. The pre-digital “Reading Services Environment”, comprised of entities such as public libraries, educators and private interests (including publishers, donors, etc) was (Zurkowski 1974, 23):
 a healthy, dynamic institutional framework for harnessing the nation’s pluralistic resources to the task of creating a reading literate society and a competitive marketplace of ideas… it is in the public interest for all concerned to continue to build on this mutuality of interest in extending information literacy to all segments of society…

Zurkowski noted how the rise of ICT was bringing about changes in the balance which existed in the Reading Services Environment, particularly between libraries and industry, who may subsequently have been in a state of competition when it came to information provision. Part II of Zurkowski’s paper highlighted the emergence of “information banks”; large electronic databases, machine-readable files and so on. He named several companies offering these services, including Standard and Poor’s and the New York Times. Parts III and IV discussed the evolving relationship between libraries and industry, describing the new products and markets that were opened up by the development of these information banks and new media for storing and transmitting information.

Zurkowski suggested that to maintain the good, pluralist work of the Reading Service Environment, policy changes were required that acknowledged the way ICT was shifting the relationships between publishers, readers, libraries and information providers. This is the key passage (ibid, 23):
With the introduction of new information processing technologies the line between marketplace and subsidized functions in some respects has become blurred. The process of achieving information literacy involves defining that line clearly and realistically, and in defining an institutional framework for the Information Service Environment. In our age of information overabundance, being information literate means being able to find out what is known or knowable on any subject. The tools and techniques and the organizations providing them for doing that form this institutional framework.

As the Information Service Environment is only accessible to those who have achieved information literacy, at the end of his paper Zurkowski therefore reiterated the need for the Commission to establish a programme aimed at achieving “universal” IL within ten years, which he says will  (p. 27):
...involve the coordination and funding of a massive effort to train all citizens in the use of the information tools now available as well as those in the development and testing states….

Essentially, Zurkowski’s liberalist position was that as the US government’s role should be to sustain conditions of free market competition, and as informational resources were taking a form which a minority of the population were equipped to handle at that time, more information literates needed to be produced, to sustain the nation’s economic competitiveness and political liberalism. But beyond this, Zurkowski offered no position on agency. No particular mention was made of learning: “education” was a section heading at the end (p. 27), but this was a short conclusion. There are no references to specific educational institutions, whether universities, schools or training companies, nor pedagogical approaches. Libraries are mentioned in the paper as an essential part of the “Information Services Environment”, but not as teachers of IL.

Coupled with Zurkowski’s economic liberalism there was his political liberalism, his emphasis on a plurality of voices and options, freedom of expression, and individuals’ rights “not only… to speak, but also to be heard” (ibid, 25). These gave his appeal for IL a universalist character, positioning it as something which is fundamental, not just to the health of an economy, but to a political system and decision-making in society as a whole. Details of agency or pedagogy may have been absent but the higher-level position was clear: information literacy is for everyone, it is a fundamental aspect of communication, a shaper of possibilities. The rise of the digital information bank required us to attend to the way we shape knowledge -- and perhaps, to change the way we do so, if old means of knowledge-formation became no longer appropriate and/or the institutions and other structures which support these processes were no longer fit for purpose.

An excellent review of the early days of IL was written by Behrens (1994), and following her summary of Zurkowski, the next contribution she examined was Burchinal’s. Her discussion of it was brief, but when I read it, it suggested to me that here was a paper that, unlike Zurkowski’s, dealt more with how these institutions should change. The citation for Burchinal indicated that the contribution came in a speech delivered to a 1976 symposium at the Texas A & M University library. (1976 was the US Bicentennial, hence the title of the speech: “The Communications Revolution: America’s Third Century Challenge”.) As I began the search for a copy of the speech, I expected it would be the point at which the contribution of the library to IL was first mentioned directly, and that IL would be explicitly discussed as something that was an educational concern, something that could be taught.

I turned out to be half-correct with this assumption. But it was a while before I could confirm this one way or another, because tracking down a copy of Burchinal’s text proved time-consuming, even with the assistance of the library at my institution, the University of Manchester. I was informed that the British Library, the UK’s main deposit library (that is, one that receives a copy of all texts published in the country), would not allow the document to leave the reference section, which implied they held the UK’s only extant copy. I was prepared to travel to London for the day to consult the text but in the end there was no need, as a photocopy turned up some six weeks after I had made my request. In the first place, then, this digitized version of the text -- presented with the approval of both Professor Burchinal and Texas A & M University -- has been made available to facilitate scholarly investigations of the earliest published statements on IL. (Links to a PDF of the speech are available at the top and bottom of this page.)

Burchinal’s speech has been infrequently cited since, and then, not always correctly. Pinto et al’s recent (2013) reference to it calls it a contribution from “journalism”, which is at best misleading. Strictly, the speech should not be claimed by LIS either, despite having been presented at the Texas A & M library conference in 1976, the US’s bicentennial year (hence its calling the communications revolution “America’s Third Century Challenge”). Burchinal was a sociologist at Iowa State, with many 1950s and 60s publications on the family, marriage and parenting. The reason why he addressed the library conference was his involvement in the creation of ERIC, the Educational Research Information Center, which became one of “the world’s most authoritative, computer-based, knowledge-exchange services” (Dentler 2002, 120), and an exemplar of an information bank.

Having contacted Prof Burchinal to seek permission to republish the speech, I also took the opportunity to ask him one or two questions about his work in the 1960s and 1970s, including whether he had met or worked directly with Paul Zurkowski. He answered:

...yes, Paul Zurkowski, with whom I frequently exchanged views, often met in [Washington] DC and at various professional meetings or trade shows. He certainly influenced my thinking at the time, particularly as I was a newcomer to the information field.

My prior career up to 1965 had been as a university researcher in social systems and later as a research grants manager in the Office of Education (DoE, now Department of Education) at the federal level. In 1965, I was hired as the assistant director of the Division of Research, DoE, and, as result of Congressional hearings following passage of President Johnson’s vast expansion of social programs, including education and educational research, I was given responsibility for developing a system to guarantee access to the substantial increase in reports expected to come from the doubling of the previous research appropriation. After becoming acquainted with the NASA technical report system, which was a star agency then, I took preliminary planning for a centralized system typical of the S&T [Science and Technology] systems of the day, such as operated by NASA, Atomic Energy Commission, National Technical Information Service, and Department of Defense, and designed a decentralized system, which became ERIC, because I thought that… a federally run, centralized system would incur severe opposition from the states-rights advocates, whereas the clearing houses, which would be responsible for selecting, abstracting, indexing literature in their specialized areas and located at universities or professional association offices, would be far more acceptable.

As I think back, inspiration for ERIC came from two main sources: one was my graduate training in sociology, which included the admonition that doing research is only the first part of scholarly responsibility and that equally important was following through with dissemination not only to the scientific community, but also to the broader public which then was the primary source of funds for research (through grants from federal agencies); the other was a quote from Thomas Jefferson, who has always been a hero of mine for his lofty statement of the rights of free men, and not withstanding his retention of slaves and his involvement with Sally Hennings, one of his slaves. In fact, when I became absorbed in ERIC I kept a famed hand lettered quote of Jefferson on my office wall. It read:
            The lost cannot be recovered
            But let us save what remains;
            Not by vaults and locks  
            Which fence them from public eye and use,
            In consigning them to tastes of time
            But by
            Such multiplication of copies
            As shall place them
            Beyond the realm of accident.

…. I drew much from Paul Zurkowski, with his zeal for the value of information and its power and his prolific writing and speaking on the subject. I was also influenced by a professor from University of Michigan, Dr. Fred Goodman, who I had inherited as a consultant when I became responsible for ERIC; he had been a consultant to the Division of Research and provided valuable suggestions as we designed the ERIC system. After ERIC had become an obvious success and even gained international recognition, Fred commented that he had been concerned that I had staked my federal career on what was then a novel and untested approach to developing an information retrieval system.

Also, coming from a scholarly background, I read leading information thinkers of the time including Bell, Machlup, Parker and I should add Professor William Paisley, School of Communication, Stanford University.

While Burchinal’s speech shares several common concerns with Zurkowski’s paper -- the need to prepare for imminent changes in the informational environment, wrought by digital technologies -- it ends with a more specific appeal to education as the realm in which IL could be nurtured. The bulk of the speech offers evidence for claims that the information industries had, by 1976, become the largest and most significant economic sector in the US economy, larger than manufacturing, agriculture and services combined. Costs of communication were dwindling in real terms, and there were other drivers, such as a need to conserve energy (pp. 10-11). Burchinal correctly anticipates a future in which more jobs and personal experience -- banking, purcashing, and communications with friends and work associates -- will use terminals (p. 11). He acknowledges that some universities, in engineering, science and business administration, have begun to instruct students in computer operations, and LIS instruction is also “in healthy ferment” (ibid). But more is necessary, he said: and here he repeats Zurkowski’s call that “we should set about systematically to create ‘information literacy’ for all adults in the nation, so each can function effectively in our emerging society” (p. 11).

At this point Burchinal does two things differently from Zurkowski: he defines IL more precisely; and he suggests an institutional location for the work of creating IL. IL (p. 11):
requires a new set of skills. These include how to efficiently and effectively locate and use information needed for problem-solving and decision-making. Such skills have wide applicability for occupational as well as personal activities. Part of such competency includes comfortable use of a computer terminal for sifting through available information from various data banks to select useful data for resolving the problem at hand.
Burchinal therefore includes digital literacy as part of IL, but only a part. He defines it similarly to his contemporary Nevison (1976; see Whitworth 2009, 84-5), as being able to use a computer, although with less of a focus on programming and more on information searching.

Whereas Zurkowski’s argument was presented in libertarian discourse, Burchinal uses more instrumental language. The project to create IL should be “systematic”, and IL itself is about “effectiveness” and “efficiency”. Specifically, this is an educational issue. Universities who do not address this will be mistreating their graduates and damaging their prospects (p. 12), not only in occupational life but personal and home life too.

A significant passage then follows (p.12): “As these technologies become more common, elementary schools will take over the responsibility for creating information literate citizens. Universities, however, can ill afford to wait. Also university experience as in so many fields, can become the basis for subsequent school programs.”  Burchinal therefore clearly sees the teaching of IL in universities as a transitional stage. Universities may come to offer similar assistance as they do to primary and secondary teaching in other subjects (training teachers, researching pedagogy, offering advanced curricula), but the bulk of IL education should eventually take place in schools.

What is not mentioned, despite the audience for the speech, were libraries. By email, Burchinal noted that:

At the time of my speech, I vaguely recall feeling that libraries were not vigorous proponents of the “information revolution”. My failure to mention libraries may have reflected this view. Of course, all that changed rather quickly and dramatically with libraries becoming strong supporters of information tools.

Actually, basic IL instruction has become unnecessary as technology has become easier to use (when did companies last use the phrase “user friendly”) and children down to the preschool level, at least in the US, have become avid users of all kinds of PCs, tablets, mobile devices and expert in using their content, whether computer games, finding information on web sites, or working through school assignments. Advanced instruction is now offered in schools and from many other sources.

Behrens’ review (1994) goes on to describe how IL was adopted by the ALA (American Library Association) as a response to libraries’ omission from key educational reports of the 1980s, particularly A Nation at Risk. Advocacy by Patricia Senn Breivik, in particular (see Breivik 1985), forcefully asserted the essential worth of the library to any educational mission, with IL seen as the point at which libraries could add most value, by bringing to bear their existing expertise in user education. The outcome of this campaign was the ALA IL standards (1989), which have gone on to shape the domain of IL in significant ways, both directly (for example, in their updated form, ACRL (2000), being used as criteria by which some US educational institutions are accredited) and indirectly (contributing to the idea that setting standards is the best way to instantiate IL in an educational system). Whether this move was beneficial for IL as a whole has been the subject of vigorous debate, not returned to here but see Andretta 2005, for example. It is evident from Burchinal’s speech, however -- and his comment above -- that he saw responsibility for this educational task as diffusing more widely through society.

At the end of his paper Burchinal also points out that:
we need to give attention to preparing individuals who can anticipate and develop appropriate data teleprocessing and related telecommunications systems for whatever needs to be done -- in managing economic activities or providing educational and community services. The only real limit to the development of the automated systems is the shortage of people who can comprehend them, develop them, change them, and anticipate the consequences of their operations. As such systems become more sophisticated, people with the necessary perspective and understanding become scarcer. We may be deceived by the ease with which we can train technicians to do specialized tasks required by computers and information processing networks. What is critically needed are  people who understand these new systems and how they can be applied to economic, health, educational, and community requirements. Individuals with these skills command a premium in the emerging post-industrial society.

Though he does not specifically encompass this educational task under ‘IL’, a clear link is drawn between them. Proficiency with information tools is not therefore just a matter of use of the tools, but of understanding them; the assumptions that have gone into them, their potentials and possibilities. At the end, then, Burchinal’s appeal is akin to Zurkowski’s. Optimizing the possibilities offered by new information technologies requires a holistic educational program that goes beyond mere basic ICT skills into a deeper understanding of how information production and processing are changing transactions throughout society; and that this program should extend beyond universities and schools into professional education.  

Read with nearly forty years’ hindsight -- that is, nearly 40% of the way through “America’s Third Century” --  the speech may seem to only hint at the present shape of IL. Taken as a single document it is merely a small, early step in the long and still ongoing task of defining IL as a genre (Bakhtin 1986), and had it not been cited in Behrens it may have been lost, not only by this author but others. However, read as a contribution to a wider, collective project, and looked at in combination with not only Zurkowski’s paper but also contemporary works by Hamelink (1976) and Owens (1976) -- which both offer a more political view, in different ways -- Burchinal’s speech offers a valuable insight into the evolution of IL.  I hope that this version of the text, with this commentary, will serve as useful resources for scholars of not just IL but the history of LIS and education.  

[*] Whitworth, A. (forthcoming, 2014): Radical information literacy: Reclaiming the political heart of the IL movement, Oxford: Chandos. A discussion and comparison of Zurkowski, Burchinal and Hamelink’s (1976) views on IL will form chapter 1 of this book.  

PDF version of the speech (312 Kb).

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American Library Association (1989). American Library Association Presidential Committee on
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