Reframing our standards_

(introductory warning/apology to non-academic librarians—A lot of today’s post is going to read like ACRL inside baseball, because, well, it is. However, if your work touches on assessment, accreditation, accountability to stakeholders, or instruction program design, it may still be worth your time.) 

The Association of College and Research Libraries Information Literacy Standards are dead!

Long live the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy!

I’ve had the dubious joy of following this debate from afar for the last two years. The framework and the discussion surrounding it were an integral part of my literature review for my dissertation (linked here), and the Framework eventually became my theoretical framework for my exploration of the search mediation experiences of community college students. Because I planned to use the framework in my dissertation, it seemed appropriate to watch from afar, rather than engaging in the debate. (plus, you know, I was busy with Work + a PhD). When the Framework was filed in January 2015, then accepted a year later, I suspected it was a matter of time before the standards were shoved out the door with the proverbial gold watch. That said, continuing talk from folks like Lisa Hinchliffe about how the standards and the framework could exist together in a “constellation” made me second guess myself—or at least think it would be a more gradual transition than I initially thought.

The Standards and Framework didn’t totally seem like a natural fit to me (they seem to arise from two different epistemological stances in some ways), but they certainly weren’t diametrically opposed in the way much of the early debate seemed to presuppose they were. A constellation, at least for a few years, seemed like a reasonable approach. Librarians who wanted to charge ahead and create their own new program standards based on the Framework could more easily do so. Those who felt that the existing standards worked well for their institutions could continue to do so, at least in the short term.

And then about a week after I came to that happy conclusion, the ACRL board rescinded the Standards, because of course they did. 😉

Upon reading all of this (particularly the #acrlframework hashtag, three key questions seemed to emerge, related to the bureaucracy surrounding the framework, implications for accreditation, and implementation of the framework in the real world. I want to briefly cover the first two for contextual purposes, and then focus more deeply on the third question (implementation), as it’s the part of the situation that most closely touches on this website’s purpose to help librarians improve themselves and their libraries.

  1. If these two documents were part of an information literacy “constellation” did ACRL really have to sunset one of them?

Theoretically, no. ACRL can have as many different guiding documents on information literacy as they please. In fact, all that constellation talk made some folks think they were considering just such a solution. But practically speaking…there was too much controversy and confusion with the status quo for this tension to remain for long. In any case, once the decision to file the Framework was made in 2015, the die was cast. The framework was the future, the standards were the past. Most likely the only question was how long the transition period would last. Per Donna Witek, the original recommendation was a sunset 18 months after adoption. It turned out to be 18 months after filing, but the practical upshot (and the sunset date) was the same as the initial proposal.

All that said…

If the ACRL knew that they were going to supersede the Standards at annual (this isn’t the sort of situation where you wake up in the morning and randomly put something on the agenda), why in the name of all that is sacred do you NOT simultaneously launch the toolkit and sandbox you’ve been promising for the last 18 months? Instead, all we got were vague promises about a “fall” debut of these resources. For the record, I get why the ACRL wanted to rip off the Bandaid—we’ve probably gleaned whatever value there is to glean out of a professional debate about the standards/framework and it’s time to move on. I’ll be OK, because I’m in the rare position of having spent the last two years of my life thinking about Information Seeking theory in general and the Framework specifically, while also not really having a horse in this fight. However, if ACRL wasn’t ready to launch the tools that will help people make sense of this somewhat intimidating document and apply it to their contexts, then in my opinion they should have held off till midwinter. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, since I’m not on the ACRL board. (Thank Heaven for small favors)

  1. What about accreditation (i.e. professional power)?

The second main thread of concern relates to the impact losing the standards may have with accreditors or other stakeholders. The argument goes as follows: The ACRL Standards are accepted and known by major accrediting bodies, and are part of how we make sure our information literacy efforts (and by extension the library) are valued by stakeholders. I’ve already noticed the chatter on this point settle down, as many librarians have noted that their accreditors care less about what structure they use to design their in-house information literacy objectives than that they have objectives that are grounded in something. So if I thought this point was just about accreditation, I could move on.

HOWEVER…I don’t think the initial angst about the implications of the framework for accreditation is actually about accreditation. It’s about our profession’s continuing existential dread that we are or could be seen as obsolete (see this website’s tagline 😉 ), and that the only way we can assure our continued significance is if some external governing body says that we’re significant. And frankly, that’s a crock of, um, excrement. If libraries do what it takes to remain a significant resource to internal patrons and stakeholders, accreditors will consider us significant whether we call our information literacy infrastructure standards or a framework. And if the people in power don’t see us as significant, all the finely crafted policy documents in the world won’t make a lick of difference. I don’t pretend for a moment that libraries have total control over how they’re perceived within the institutions they serve, but there are factors far more pressing to our relevance than whether we call the infrastructure that guides our information literacy efforts “standards” or a “framework”.

The theoretical and curricular tools we use as librarians are just that—tools. Our authority and legitimacy as professionals doesn’t flow from them, it flows THROUGH them. Holding a hammer doesn’t make you a master carpenter. And frankly, if we can’t design learning outcomes and performance standards that make sense for our institutions based on a theoretical framework of information literacy that is relevant to our context, then maybe it’s our moment (and our responsibility) to learn how. And with that, let’s move on to the last and biggest question, one that has remained unanswered in some very important ways for 18 months.

  1. OK, Now What?

The last I checked, this website is titled “Better Library Leaders”, not “Better Pundits of ACRL Politics and Policy”. Thank goodness. So with the context out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this problem for most information literacy practitioners–application. For this section, I drew a lot on Emily Drabinski’s excellent presentation on the infrastructure of information literacy. She managed to take a lot of nebulous things that were swimming in my head and express them clearly, only she did it better and a few months ago. 😉 (If you wonder why I’m using my PhD as a practicing library leader & slightly ranty blogger/podcaster rather than as a theorist, that’s a large part of the reason why.)

I suggest you read Emily’s post in full.  However, the gist, and the basic premise on which I’m building this section of the essay, is roughly the following: The Standards and the Framework are both standards, in the sense that they provide a conceptual structure within which we can design our information literacy practices. Neither tells The Truth about Information Literacy, but rather provides guidelines within which we can create information literacy goals, curricula, and pedagogies that make sense for our individual contexts.

After a lot of reading and reflecting, over the last two years in general and this week specifically, it seems like information literacy librarians have three options in the age of the Framework. First, you can keep using the ACRL Standards. As people all over the #acrlframework hashtag have said using various colorful metaphors, I seriously doubt the ACRL is going to come into our libraries and yank them out of our hands. Second, if you are uncomfortable with the framework but either don’t want to stick with the standards or can’t keep using them for political reasons, work off another set of standards brought to us by some other governing body with an imposing acronyms and a lot of PhDs on the board (says the PhD). Though I’m not personally as familiar with it, several of the essays I’ve read this week recommend the AAC&U VALUE Rubric as an alternative.

Third, you could actually take the plunge and use the ACRL Framework as your starting point. Now, I don’t pretend it’s a perfect description of Information Literacy (no theoretical model is or can be, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something). However, I find it a useful way to look at the problem of teaching students Information literacy. Within this third option, you have two basic choices. Choice one is to take a closer look at the descriptions of each threshold concept. Each contains “knowledge practices” and “dispositions” that could be wordsmithed into program standards or learning outcomes with very minor tweaks. The other alternative is to roll your own standards within the guidelines of the Framework. The threshold concepts are by and large broad enough that you can build off them in quite a few different directions. All students should leave college understanding that, say, authority is constructed and contextual. The standards students will need to meet to pass that threshold in their own contexts will depend on their information needs, school, degree program, etc, so what an information literate person looks like may vary widely. When the phenomenon of information literacy is viewed through the lens of the Framework, that intellectual diversity is a feature, not a bug. As I sip my morning coffee and make final tweaks before posting, I see that Lisa Hinchliffe has shared a link to Project CORA, an open access storehouse of information literacy assignments, many of which are tied to the Framework. It also wouldn’t surprise me if there are some LibGuides out there that cover the same ground.

Long story short…

If you and your students still get value from the Standards, keep the Standards.

If you and your students get value from the AAC&U rubric or whatever other thing you use to teach and assess information literacy, then use that.

If you and your students get value from a DIY system of outcomes built atop the Framework or a different theoretical model of information literacy, then do that.

If your boss tells you that you HAVE to use either the Standards or the Framework, use them. They both get you to the same end point, and you can even use them to justify teaching most if not all of the same things. However, I’d also start updating my resume if I were in this situation, because that’s the kind of “leadership” that can run a library into the ground.

At the end of the day, we are debating two different, flawed, and generally effective ways to skin the same cat. Just remember what I said in response to question 2–our authority doesn’t come from the tools that we use to teach students how to navigate the information landscape. It comes from their success as information literate students, workers, and most importantly citizens. Pick the format that resonates with you, and with your students, acknowledge that both are ultimately arbitrary, and move on to what really matters.

Final Thoughts

Personally, I think it’s a feature, not a bug that the ACRL is no longer regulating standards, but rather providing a flexible framework atop which we can BUILD our own standards and learning outcomes. That said… As a person who wears 3-ish hats on a regular basis (coordinating Instruction, coordinating Assessment, managing student workers, plus 2nd in command duties that vary widely from “negligible” to “Minding the store for a week”), I get the involuntary butt-clench that comes from the notion of taking on new stuff, especially with nebulous timelines for more assistance from ACRL on putting this into practice. One can’t just copy & paste the ACRL standards into a strategic plan any more. And I’ll be blunt, but as a state chapter president and a ACRL member (heck, as an instruction librarian) this situation irks me. ACRL knew they were going to drop the standards at Annual, and they also knew the level of existential dread this prospect struck in many parts of the information literacy community. I get that there are a lot of moving parts, but they should have simultaneously launched a training program—or at least a timeline and a price tag for a training program. The Toolkit + Sandbox solution coming in the fall will probably be decent enough as far as it goes, but I suspect some folks are going to need way more hand-holding and more training, which of course will send more money to ACRL. I’ll be interested to see what guidance ACRL has to offer us as we try to design our own program and course outcomes, and I suspect that I’ll have ideas along those lines as well. Watch this space. 🙂

PS—Comparing the end of the Information Literacy Standards to Brexit is both silly and offensive to the people actually impacted by Brexit. Whichever side of this debate you’re on, just…STOP. Seriously. We don’t need any help looking like melodramatic squabbling pedants this week.


Useful Links:

If you want to know more about the framework and the debate surrounding it, there are PLENTY of excellent blog posts and think pieces out there right now. I recommend:

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