The Information Literacy Standards/Framework Debate

As a vote looms over the new Framework for Information Literacy, plus ça change,

January 22, 2015

For many months, a task force has been drafting and circulating a new document to replace the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, which were adopted in 2000 and, like all ACRL standards, had come up for review. Members have been encouraged to provide feedback through several public drafts. Now that the new Framework is coming up for formal adoption at the end of this month, critics are mobilizing. A group of librarians from New Jersey has posted an open letter which has attracted over 300 signatures criticizing the new Framework and arguing that we should keep the Standards and map them to the Framework. Others argue this isn’t possible, that this is a significant shift in perspective. For starters, the first of the frames, “authority is constructed and contextual,” is arguably incompatible with standardization. 

Though I expressed some reservations about the new Framework when the first draft was shared, I am enthusiastic about the concepts they identify and the idea that these concepts are complex and intertwined, combining both the experience of doing things (knowledge practices) and the development of habits of mind (dispositions). Is it going to be hard to figure out how to promote these concepts in our own teaching and how to figure out whether students get them? Of course – as it always has been. Trying to Frankenstein the two documents together won’t help with that.

Since I’m nearly as old as dirt, I can put this into historical perspective. I got quite excited about the Standards when they first appeared  because they seemed to finally make it clear that information literacy wasn’t something librarians taught, it was something the whole campus had to be involved in. I was so excited, I got myself invited to be on a panel at the 2001 ACRL conference where early adopters talked about their experiences. Before the conference, I had an opportunity to share the Standards with a group of faculty at the end of a week-long immersive workshop on enhancing research skills developmentally across the curriculum. They had a lot to say.

The Standards were too step-by-step. They didn’t include the words “originality” or “creativity.” There was too much emphasis on producing products using other people’s ideas. The lists of performance indicators and outcomes were like a Tayloristic time and motion study. Students who performed well on multiple outcomes might not be able to integrate them effectively while students who failed at the outcomes might do brilliant research.


I was a little nervous reporting this barrage of skepticism at the conference, but Patricia Iannuzzi, one of the driving forces behind the Standards, used it as a chance to say clearly and unequivocally that the Standards were meant as a starting place, that each library should adapt them to fit their local cultures and needs. They weren’t set in stone.

In the years since then, two things seem to have grown up around the use of the Standards that are antithetical to the conversations I remember when they were passed.

  • The Standards are for libraries to live up to, not for higher education more broadly.
  • The Standards are national norms, and their value is in their authority as national norms.

(I suspect these two notions have been enforced by the way assessment efforts since 2000 have been tied to proving the value of an academic unit to its institution in an age of austerity. This puts departments in competition and makes cross-campus and interdisciplinary work, which has never been easy, even harder.)

From my perspective, the new Framework recalls the original spirit of the Standards and deepens our thinking about what students need to learn. They also move us beyond a sequence of components that looks suspiciously like a “how to write a paper in college” to concepts that are more challenging, sophisticated, and durable post-graduation.  

Any librarian who has been involved in instruction wrestles constantly with the bridging the gap between simplicity and complexity. If we focus too much on how to get stuff done, we run the risk of encouraging a linear process, a smash-and-grab collection of sources that will subsequently be mashed into a paper full of patchwriting. If we focus too much on concepts, we run the risk of losing students who are understandably concerned about getting stuff done. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, where students aren’t defeated by practical tasks but where they see the bigger picture.

I think we’re searching for that sweet spot ourselves as we talk about the shift from a stepwise outline of moving from “identifying an information need” and “accomplishing a purpose” with a dash of “economic, social, and issues” thrown in at the end to something more ambitious and fuzzy. Though, like Jacob Berg (who published an interesting reflection on this debate as I was composing this), I don't think replacing the Standards with the Framework would drastically change what we do at my library - we developed our own student learning outcomes independent of the Standards many years ago - I support the new Framework and see in it the spirit in which the Standards were created.



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