Moving Beyond Standards: A Response to the Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Ian Beilin, Instruction Librarian and Assistant Professor at New York City College of Technology, CUNY, and Nancy Foasberg, Humanities Librarian and Assistant Professor at Queens College, CUNY.

We would like to answer some of the points made in the widely distributed Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

The main argument of the letter, that the Framework should be used in tandem with the Standards, is based on a misconstrual of the basic theory upon which the Framework rests. It is important to acknowledge that one of the main stumbling blocks for the Framework has been the confusion generated by the language and theory of threshold concepts. But one of the clearest messages that the Framework drafts have conveyed, in our view, is that the use of common standards is problematic and prevents the kind of deeper, active and potentially critical learning that the teaching of information literacy demands. This critique applies to all standards, not just the ones enshrined by ACRL in 2000. So it doesn’t make sense to suggest, as the letter does, that the Standards can be used in tandem with the Framework or that they can be “mapped” on to the Framework. The two documents rest on wholly different foundations. As Troy Swanson recently has argued quite emphatically and eloquently, “The IL Standards and the IL Framework Cannot Co-exist.”

The open letter refers to the Framework as a “theoretical document.” In fact, both the Framework and the Standards are theoretical in nature, as is any document that sets out the kinds of teaching that we value and the outcomes we desire for our students. The difference between the two documents is not in their theoretical nature but rather in the theories to which they subscribe. The Standards understand information as a commodity external to the student; something that can be obtained and subsequently “used.[i]” When we look at information in this way, we are thinking of information literate students as consumers who must choose among many options, like shoppers selecting goods from among those placed before them in the market. The Framework instead aims at a more social understanding of information and information literacy. Most notably, it uses the explicit metaphor of a conversation, but it is also interested in the ways that authority is constructed and the ways that information artifacts are produced. Research is thus framed as an interaction among people rather than a choice among artifacts.

Because it hinges on the production of information within communities, this understanding of information literacy is inherently less friendly to universal standards. The open letter assigns great value and importance to the idea of generalized standards for education – partly because such standards have become commonplace and have been invested (both literally and figuratively) with great importance by educators, administrators, and perhaps most importantly, accreditors, politicians and funding sources. The letter claims that the word ‘standards’ “sets uniform goals and acceptable levels of achievement.” But for many educators and librarians, especially in today’s climate of forced austerity and cutback threats, the words ‘uniform’ and ‘acceptable’ are not ones we would choose to describe our pedagogical goals. Moreover, the letter claims that “Many states are adopting “common core” standards for K-12.  Our president & our governors are initiating conversation about curriculum change around the “common core standards” and major media outlets are covering this issue in depth.” And a little later, “The concept of standards is widely understood as a level of quality to be attained.” Again, these defenses, at least for a good number of academic librarians, read more like indictments. The idea of common core standards, much less their actual implementation, has come under intense scrutiny and critique as equally as it has been trumpeted and supported, and one cannot claim the existence of any consensus on their acceptability or appropriateness, either for K-12 or higher education.

The letter asks “Are we going backwards to insist that each locality ‘interpret’ the Framework according to their own standard?” This, it regrets, will mean the loss of a universal, prescriptive set of information literacy standards for all of US higher education. The letter seems to put forth the view that guidelines for information literacy instruction can be just as standardized as other aspects of library activity, such as collections. Indeed, this mindset was part of the philosophy of the Standards, in its claim that information literacy “is common to all disciplines, to all learning environments, and to all levels of education” (“Information Literacy Defined”). However, as this list of disciplinary standards suggests, librarians have long recognized that information works differently in different contexts. In fact, there is no universal skill set that comprises information literacy independently of disciplinary and local contexts.

The letter expresses alarm at the prospect of localized information literacy assessment, perhaps motivated by the fear that accreditation agencies and other higher education organizations will ignore libraries unless we can produce something fixed and solid like a list of standards that retain an aura of authority. A careful reading of the Framework and of the theory upon which it rests shows that a standardized approach does not reflect how learning actually takes place, or should take place, in libraries or any other learning environment. Instead of a set of skills which can be used under any circumstances, the Frames present several ways of becoming more attentive to the contexts of information and achieving a good understanding the communities in which the information was produced and will be understood. Under the Standards, “knowledge can be organized into disciplines” (Standard One, 2.a.), but the Framework understands knowledge as originating from various communities (which may include academic disciplines). These communities do not simply organize information but rather determine how it establishes its authority, oversee the processes through which the information is produced, and ultimately pass judgment on its contributions.

Thus, to insist that the Framework be interpreted locally is the only way to meaningfully assess the kind of information literacy in which this document interested. Rather than positing some universal skill set which applies to the use of all kinds of information in every conceivable community, we must be attentive to the needs and goals of students and faculty in our own local contexts, which are unlikely to align perfectly with the goals of a prescriptive document drawn up by a national professional association (even a very active one like ACRL).

Finally, the letter bemoans the presence of ‘jargon’ in the Framework, which is made doubly bad, it claims, because this jargon isn’t even taken from the LIS field, but from education and psychology. This problem is also presented as a threat to librarians’ alleged established respect and status within academia: forcing librarians to make themselves understood once again to colleagues beyond the library would set us back. Here again the letter expresses a conservative, backward-looking disposition which does not consider that our field and our practice, like the rest of academia, should be expected to move forward, to evolve and to put into action the results of research not only produced by ourselves, but throughout academia and beyond (and yes, that includes theory!). If we value intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning, we should not turn away from ideas that may improve our pedagogical practice. In fact, were we to avoid theory, we would lose one of the great opportunities of such a revision—the chance to carefully examine what we do and the philosophy that underlies it.

In other words, we really do need to acknowledge that ‘scholarship is a conversation’ and revitalize information literacy. The ambition of the Framework is to produce a more honest document reflecting the true beliefs – and practices – of instruction librarians. The Framework creates IL guidelines that can actually serve as an inspiration for creative, individual, yet carefully directed IL instruction – that is, just what most of us strive to do every day!

[i] Many writers have made this point before us. A review of critiques of the Standards can be found in Kimmo Tuominen, Reijo Savolainen, and Sanna Talja, “Information Literacy as a Sociotechnical Practice,” The Library Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2005): 328-345, doi: 10.1086/497311

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