April 24, 2018

Standards, Frameworks, and the Work We Need To Do | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara FisterThe great debate has come to a truce: the new Framework for Information Literacy has been adopted but will not replace the familiar information literacy Standards, at least for now. This probably frustrates people who strongly support (or oppose) one or the other, but it gives us a chance to work out some sticky issues without anyone feeling that they lost.

I’m more or less in the “act locally” camp with Meredith Farkas. Librarians work in an interstitial place on our campuses in which local conversations and goals matter and where stuff gets done (or doesn’t). An Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) document can inspire us, but what ultimately counts is how well the library can integrate the kind of learning we believe is important into existing and emerging curricula.

The intersection of local and disciplinary goals is an interesting place at which we negotiate our identity and purpose. What is it we are trying to do when we promote the importance of this thing we call “information literacy”? What role do librarians play in it? To what extent is information literacy ours to define and teach?

One extreme position is to say, “This is our discipline, so we must be the ones who take full responsibility for teaching it.” Another extreme is to say, “We have no authority to inject our disciplinary values into other people’s courses.” What I’ve seen most in practice is a muddle of both: it’s our job to teach information literacy, and we refer to our disciplinary guidelines to see whether we are succeeding, but since we have no authority, we’ll just try to sneak it in where we can, usually in a single meeting with a class whose professor’s goals may be quite different from ours. We may want to convey a concept like “scholarship is conversation”; they may say, “Show them this database, and can you also talk about plagiarism and APA style?”

Ideally, we meet with faculty ahead of time and help them design good assignments, or work with entire departments to place information literacy instruction strategically and sequentially into the curriculum. But it’s always going to be a joint venture. Our Standards or Framework may be useful and inspiring but  not a multilateral treaty that will govern these negotiations.

My belief is that librarians don’t teach students how to be information literate. This isn’t a failing; it’s the nature of the thing we want students to learn. It has to be learned in multiple contexts, because information always comes in contexts that matter. It has to be learned over several years, because it’s complicated and needs lots of practice. It’s experiential learning that involves skills, dispositions, feelings, and varying degrees of intrinsic motivation. You learn how information works by encountering, using, and creating it. Having good guides helps, but this kind of learning only happens in the doing.

I don’t mean to say our commitment to teaching is a sham, or that the time we spend in classrooms is wasted. My entire professional life would be pointless if I thought librarians’ instructional role didn’t matter. I’d argue that we have a singularly important teaching role on our campuses: we’re the guardians of an intellectual common ground where all disciplines come together. We enable connections for students who take courses in multiple disciplines and wonder why a primary article required for a biology assignment looks like what their history professor calls a secondary source. We design our libraries to be inviting places in which our students feel they belong, right in the middle of innumerable ongoing conversations that they have the right to join. And we help them in that process.

But it doesn’t stop there. The bridges we need to build for our students are not just among academic disciplines. They are between academia as a whole and the world that most of our students will live in once they graduate, where they won’t need the discourse conventions of their major but will still need to interpret, use, and create information. As members of a discipline uniquely focused on the importance of being able to understand information, we have the potential to remind our nonlibrarian colleagues that the experiences our students have in college must prepare them to participate not just in academic discourse but also in a world without departments and majors—where evidence and ethical argument still matter.

National Standards and Frameworks help, but the real work happens at home, over and over again, as we collaborate with faculty across the disciplines to make the library a valuable site for experiential learning that sticks.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. Lisa Hinchliffe says:

    I think accuracy in language is important – the ACRL Board “filed” the Framework. It was not adopted – that is a different act and not the one that the Board took. The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (Sturgis) that ACRL uses is clear on the difference (p. 187-188 of the version you can “Look Inside” on Amazon).

    • Sorry, I wasn’t aware of the specific wording. “Filed” sounds … circular? That’s disappointing.

      Whatever the board action was, I’m grateful to the members of the task force who worked incredibly hard to produce what I feel is a very strong and compelling document. That’s not a slam on those who worked on the Standards. They were important and a stride forward in 2000. But I find this approach more interesting and a better representation of what I think information literacy is about.

    • Lisa Hinchliffe says:

      This was my opening statement in the open hearing on the Framework: “Thank you to the Board for this opportunity to share my thoughts in the open session. I want to express my appreciation to the Task Force for their dedication, commitment, and engagement and their effort in undertaking this work. It is indeed the case that their work has prompted the most engaged conversation we have had at the national level about information literacy in a long time.” So, I could not agree more in being grateful to the task for doing hard work. Nonetheless, the Standards are an adopted document and the Framework filed.

      I wish the task force had not presented the Framework to the Board as being contrary to the Standards. They are easily aligned and compatible – just as other disciplines have both threshhold concepts and overall articulated learning goals. I hope we will find a way over the coming two years (Board timeframe) to a version of the Framework that can indeed by adopted. Indeed, that was my intention in what I recommended to the Board in my remarks.