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Defining Digital Literacy

When I was invited to serve as a member of the Digital Literacy Task Force in the spring of 2011 I was thrilled that OITP was forming a group to focus on the issue of digital literacy. I knew that digital literacy was a growing area of discussion not just among librarians but among policy makers and others concerned with the digital divide, 21st century skills and participatory citizenship.

Because of the short turn-around time for the Task Force and limited opportunities for in-person meetings we put our digital literacy skills to work for virtual meetings beginning in May 2011. One of the first action items the Digital Literacy Task Force agreed upon was the need for a clear definition of digital literacy. Because the Task Force is comprised of librarians from different types of positions in different types of libraries we all had a different perspective on digital literacy issues. We wanted to ensure that all librarians were talking the same talk when it came to the definition of digital literacy. We also knew that digital literacy is a hot topic not just among librarians but among policy makers across the country. The problem was there was no universal definition for digital literacy.

As we worked on a definition we considered definitions being used by other agencies, what foundation literacy means and the needs of 21st century citizens. We soon realized we had a need for more than one definition. In the age of Twitter and sound-bites we needed a succinct definition to share in appropriate venues. We also needed a longer fully developed version for getting into the depth and breadth of the issues.

After careful consideration we agreed that digital literacy is:

the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information requiring both cognitive and technical skills.

This definition is also in a forthcoming primer that looks more deeply into the necessary skills, the need for digital literacy, the digital divide and the role of all types of libraries.

Bobbi L. Newman
OITP Digital Literacy Task Force member


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Marijke Visser

Marijke Visser is the associate director and senior policy advocate at the American Library Association’s Washington Office. She is involved in all stages of Libraries Ready to Code, E-rate, and Connect Home projects. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Peace and Global Studies/Sociology and Anthropology from Earlham College in Indiana. Before joining the ALA in 2009, Marijke earned her master’s in Library and Information Science from Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.


  1. Suzi W. Suzi W.


    That’s wonderful! And a very good definition.

  2. While I understand that a lot of effort went into creating this definition. I do not believe that this definition really says anything. Essentially, it’s just switching out print literacy for digital literacy. As someone who is actively working in digitization projects, and born digital products I have to question (based upon this post) whether or not this board is actually comprised of people who have completed an actual digitization project (not just PDFs and scanning). If not, than that’s definitely problematic. I’ve got a longer critique on my blog:

  3. Hi Alex
    You can see the roster of Task Force members on ALA connect here and learn more about the charge of the task force.

    The task force is a diverse group of people who worked hard to address this complex issue from many angle and come up with a definition that works for all.

    Digital literacy is about many things, not just digitization projects. As I stated this short definition is accompanied by a not-yet-released 6 page primer which delves more deeply into the issues.

  4. Suzi W.
    Thank you! The task force worked hard to encompass all the many aspects of digital literacy into this short definition.

  5. I define DL as “the skills and concepts necessary for success as a student and after graduation as a citizen and a professional.”

    I am building and teaching from a collection of modules for an undergraduate (or high school) DL course. The top level outline is:

    Application development
    Content creation

    You can see the modules at:

    And get more on the scope of the course at:

    What is the URL for your primer?


  6. Hi Larry
    Thank you for sharing the links, and your definition with us. Your definition seems very broad and not necessarily tied to technology or a digital skill set, but rather all skills necessary for success, which would include other forms of literacy, correct?

    The primer has not been released yet, we will post it as soon as it is available.

  7. Will Stuivenga Will Stuivenga

    My problem with the definition as stated, is that it is grammatically vague:
    “Information literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” What requires the cognitive and technical skills? The antecedent is vague. It could narrowly refer to the word “information” that just precedes it, or to the word “ability” or perhaps even to the entire phrase “the ability to find . . . and communicate information” but precisely which it refers to is unclear.

  8. I don’t disagree with the digital literacy definition, though how does it differ from information/data acquisition from a book, DVD, database or podcast? Where do you draw the line?

  9. Regardless of specific definitions, and there are many, in essence we are all talking about the constantly changing suite of skills, attitudes and attributes necessary to live functionally and fully in the Digital Era. Combining the word literacy with the word digital helps to link the new and evolving to something old and familiar, but it also attaches a drag chute to the meaning. I find it useful to think of it this way: Digital literacy is not about being literate in a digital way; it is about being digital in a literate way.

  10. Mary Hastler Mary Hastler

    This is really great discussion and very helpful to the task force of which I am a member. Using traditional words and linking literacy and digital creates a definition that is understandable and, at this point, generality may not be a bad thing. Great feedback!

  11. Lisa Hinchliffe Lisa Hinchliffe

    It is great to see such interest in this topic. As a member of the task force, I realize the challenges of coming up with any definition and also believe that what really matters is what we DO about digital literacy development. There is an important role for librarians in this critical social issue.

  12. Richard Moore Richard Moore

    digital literacy is:
    the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information requiring both cognitive and technical skills.

    Where is “digital” in that def? That was a valid def of research skills 100 years ago.

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