Information Structures: Information and Digital Literacy Explained

Information Structures


Select, use, produce, organize, and share information employing appropriate information formats, collections, systems, and applications.


Information structures are often invisible in everyday life, but we couldn’t find information without them. When searching for information, it’s easy to focus on the content and ideas. It is less common to think about information in terms of its organization into a recognizable format (e.g. a blog, a press release, a scientific journal article), or the labels, tags, and indices that act as content shorthand and provide us with directions for navigating complex information environments. It’s also less obvious to think about how information circulates through systems like databases, powered by sets of operational rules called algorithms. Yet, the more we understand some of these structures, the easier it becomes to find the most appropriate information rather than the most convenient information within the first results of a Google search. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education explains that knowledge of information structures help students, “recognize the significance of the creation process, leading them to increasingly sophisticated choices when matching information products with their information needs.”

Rubric Translation

According to UNM’s Information and Digital Literacy rubric

0=No Evidence

No strategy for finding, selecting, or using information is evident.

  • The student does not reference outside sources (formally or informally) in their research assignment. Potential barriers include 1) the student is unfamiliar with the required information format(s), and/or 2) the student does not know how to access the appropriate format because they are unfamiliar with the information system.


Basic features and functions of common information formats, collections, systems, and applications are articulated; the ability to search collections and systems using keywords and simple search strategies is demonstrated.

  • The student understands the basic features and functions of some information structures. The student is able to find and use a narrow range of formats based on simple search strategies using systems they are familiar with (e.g. uses free web sources found via Google). In terms of library collections and systems, the student is mostly able to use the library’s prominent Catalog Search, but they do not venture beyond this tool. Students favor familiarity and ease of access for their information needs. While the student relies on formats they have experience using, they do not understand the concept of information formats and struggle with unfamiliar formats. The student relies on superficial visual cues from information to make judgments about value. Additionally, the student may intellectually understand that there are many formats, collections, and systems, but they are not confident about how to use them.


It is evident that information formats, collections, systems, and applications that best match the relevant information needs have been selected and used; the ability to search collections and systems using advanced iterative search strategies and techniques is demonstrated.

  • The student’s developing knowledge of information structures has opened up a broader range of possibilities for their research. Aware of the limitations of searching a single system, the student searches across relevant systems using more advanced search commands until their information needs are met. The student can investigate the scope, content, and organization of systems (e.g. uses the library A-Z database list to find collections suited for their information needs). The student is gaining familiarity with more information formats, but the nuance of unfamiliar formats may still be a barrier. Bits and pieces of the organizational hierarchy of information structures are known (article/journal/database/library), but they don’t fully understand how they fit together. Overall, students in the developing category have gained flexibility and choice in the research process.


Applications to create and organize useful content into appropriate information formats and systems are used; there is recognition and explanation of how information is communicated using distinct formats created for a purpose; a recognition that information systems organize and disseminate formats themselves is evident.

  • The student conceptually understands information formats, collections, and systems, and they have a basic understanding of how they work together to organize information. This conceptual understanding, built on a foundation of experience and information literacy competency, allows students to transfer and apply their prior knowledge of information structures to unfamiliar situations. In terms of information formats, the student can identify the purpose of sources (e.g., original research articles in the sciences are intended to communicate the results of original research). The student also knows how information formats are produced, organized, and disseminated. The student can differentiate information formats, recognizing how their use and importance vary depending on the context of their information needs. In terms of social systems, the student leverages specialized services available to retrieve information needed (e.g., interlibrary loan/document delivery, professional associations, institutional research offices, community resources, experts and practitioners). Additionally, the student is aware of issues related to privacy and security in the system they are considering using and weighs the cost-benefit of using the system.

Theoretical Considerations

  • Encourage flexibility in choosing sources
  • Encourage scaffolding in source use and attribution
  • Encourage reflectivity
  • Note which sources were retrieved from the library
  • If images are allowed, discuss Creative Commons licensing search option (e.g. within Google Image or Flikr)
  • Help students understand bias exists in all formats and certain people are selected as “authorities”
  • Resist equating perfectly-cited sources to the student's understanding of the source’s context

Concrete Considerations

  • Be specific about format and system requirements in assignments. Help students understand why certain formats are best suited for the assignment.
  • Embed relevant library research guides in assignments to help students discover collections.
  • Include links to information literacy online learning objects, like the Introduction to Information Formats.
  • Connect with Subject Librarians (students and instructors)
  • Seek information literacy instruction opportunities for students (library instruction sessions or research clinics)
  • Have students compare the same topic through different formats (i.e. how does a newspaper’s coverage differ from a scholarly article?)

Editing a Wikipedia article

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia. Maybe this seems obvious, but encyclopedia articles are a specific information format. If a student is going to edit one, they will need to be aware of the format’s conventions. There is plenty to consider, for example, understanding that a Wikipedia article is not a collection of random data, a dictionary, or a persuasive essay. Instead, students must write a neutral summary of what's already known about a topic using reliable, published sources. In addition to contributing appropriate edits, students could write a format reflection about Wikipedia articles’ purpose (why does this thing exist in the world and who made it), process (how is it created, both intellectually as well as physically, including quality control processes), and product (what typifies its final form, how do we recognize it, what elements are expected).

Stand-alone assignment

  • Annotated bibliographies already ask students to evaluate sources, so a simple enhancement would be to have students specifically identify the format they chose and explain why that particular format is most appropriate for their information need.
  • Research logs offer students a place to capture their search strings and the collections they used as a means to search strategically and stay organized. Here are common fields to include in a research log:
    • Search notes: Used to identify issues that you want to remember. Could be on the search strategy or about the results.
    • Database: Note the search engine (e.g., University Libraries, Google Scholar) or database (e.g., PsycInfo) in which you do the search
    • Search Strategy: Note your search string (so you can rerun the search if you need to)
    • Article(s) Selected: Note the article(s) you found (either with a short title or by the full citation)