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For the last six years, I’ve worked as a public librarian and enjoyed serving my community by answering reference questions, hosting programs that bring the community together, and connecting people with resources. Recently, as I’ve been studying for my Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, I realized there’s another critical aspect of my service that can help lead to the “dawning of the light of unity amongst men” 1–information literacy.
In case you’ve never heard the term before, information literacy is the set of skills that enables us to investigate reality and discern truth. As a librarian, I can help people develop information literacy skills by teaching them how to find, evaluate and use information. But outside of my work, how do I develop and practice my own information literacy skills, and help others in my community do so, and why is it important?
Baha’is have an obligation to investigate reality diligently and freely. In fact, Abdu’l-Baha has explained to us that humanity’s “rational faculty” 2–the ability to reason–sets us apart from animals, and is part of our Divine nature.
“The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature.”Abdu’l-Baha 3
The Universal House of Justice even goes so far as to say that “the rational faculty” is “God’s greatest gift to humankind.” 4
Not only is the ability to investigate reality a Divine gift, we are counselled to investigate truth. Baha’u’llah said, “One should not ignore the truth of any matter, rather should one give expression to that which is right and true,” 5 and Abdu’l-Baha elaborated, “…every individual member of humankind is exhorted and commanded to set aside superstitious beliefs, traditions and blind imitation of ancestral forms in religion and investigate reality for himself.” 6
If we do not investigate truth for ourselves, we may be blindly submitting to the will of another. As the Universal House of Justice put it, Abdu’l-Baha called people “to free themselves from blind submission to dogma…” 4 Without doing our due diligence in investigating the information we receive, the popular ideas we are constantly exposed to online or in our communities, we run the risk of just blindly imitating another’s understanding.
But, what harm is it really if I just read a headline, or hear a report from a friend, and accept it as true without checking it out for myself? Here’s where it gets really interesting. Baha’u’llah’s aim is to unite the world, and there is guidance throughout the Writings telling us some of the ways we will bring it about. For one, Abdu’l-Baha says “all religions and nations of the world will become one through investigation of reality.” 6
Baha’u’llah also tells us justice is a key to unity.
“The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men.”Baha’u’llah 7
And that part of justice is being able to “see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” 8That sounds like independent investigation to me.
Naturally I hope you’ll go to the source and explore this concept for yourself, but in my understanding, it sounds like investigation of reality will be a crucial part of bringing about unity. Suddenly, information literacy seems like a pretty big deal!
It makes me think of the process of consultation as just one example of how this might work. Consultation is a great instrument in the pursuit of justice and unity. And how can we consult if we don’t start with the mindset of seeking truth, regardless of personal opinion or preconceived notions? It is the practice and skill of information literacy that allows us to analyze the information presented in light of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation and discern the truth throughout these consultative processes.
We may stop there and think, “Ah! Okay. Now I know what to do to bring about unity. I’ll investigate reality for myself!” But how do you go about doing that? We need education and practice to develop information literacy skills. It isn’t an innate part of our intuitive knowledge. We know we have the capacity for “intellect, comprehension, the power to grasp the realities of things and the ability to penetrate the truths of existence” 9 as Abdu’l-Baha explained. However, He also tells us that humanity “is free to move in either direction: towards light or darkness, towards ignorance or guidance” depending on whether we move towards our higher or lower natures. 2 This implies to me that we have to actively pursue the qualities of our higher nature–we must educate ourselves and practice these qualities.
“’There are’, Abdu’l-Baha remarked, ‘some who imagine that an innate sense of human dignity will prevent man from committing evil actions and ensure his spiritual and material perfection.’ On the contrary, He pointed out, it is readily observable that human development depends on education.”The Universal House of Justice 4
I feel it’s a blessing that Baha’i communities all over the world are already engaged in educational activities that help us develop information literacy skills. While the ways information literacy skills are embedded in children’s classes, the junior youth empowerment program, and the Ruhi Institute courses is too big of a topic to recount here, I’ve been reflecting recently on how these activities help us learn to read reality, to read for understanding, and to reflect and consult together. All of these skills have certainly helped me develop information literacy, though I didn’t know that was what it was called until recent years.
Analysis of information is a habit. I believe that we must work to build this muscle until it becomes second nature if we want to live up to Baha’u’llah’s command to investigate truth for ourselves. Whenever information comes our way–which is all the time, whether it be from a friend or the media or a silly meme–we must practice analyzing it to discern the truth for ourselves. This is a lifelong endeavor, as well. Our understandings will evolve over time, so we must never stop investigating truth–if we stop being open to new understandings and information, we will become dogmatic. But with diligent practice and the tools already being built in Baha’i community life, such as constant study, consultation, action and reflection, we can develop the information literacy needed to help us in our quest for unity. As the children’s song We Are Drops says, “it’s a way of life for you and me.”
- Tablets of Baha’u’llah, Ishraqat
- Abdu’l-Baha, Light of the World, #29
- Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, #18
- The Universal House of Justice, letter dated 26 November 2003 addressed to the Followers of Baha’u’llah in the Cradle of the Faith
- Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Tarazat pgs. 38-39
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 433
- Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 66
- Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, from the Arabic, #2
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pg. 139
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