The New Information Literacy Framework and James Madison by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

Today, the first draft of a new Framework for Information Literacy has been released for comment. ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force  has been charged with revising the info lit standards. (For the record, I am a member of this committee but I do not speak on behalf of the committee here.) The task force’s work address the recommendations made by a previous review group . The task force is working on a product that I believe will be qualitatively different than the existing standards.

The “Old” Standards

The current (old) ACRL Information Literacy Standards were monumental when they were completed in 2000. They had a significant impact on libraries and on higher education by coalescing conversation around information in meaningful ways. Over the years, many of us have been critical of the Standards and highlighted their shortcomings, and I think that we must recognize the important role they have played in shaping information literacy instruction.

However, any of us who have spent time working with the current standards recognize that they pretend to be something that they are not. They, in effect, do not actually set up standards. They do not create a single set of outcomes that all students across higher education could be measured against. They are a detailed set of indicators and outcomes that are intended to measure a set of skills that are so broad and far reaching that the standards could not possibly be successful. There is no single set of measures for the vast degree of information literacy applications that exist. I don’t mean to say that the old standards are not important because they were, but we should recognize that the old standards are not standards in the same way that there are reading, math, or spelling standards.

The New “Framework”

Recently, I was listening to an episode of WNYC’s show Radiolab which I thought was pertinent to the Information Literacy Task Force. The episode featured historian and writer Joseph J. Ellis who was discussing the Constitutional Convention of September 1787 which Ellis wrote about in his book, American Creation. The framers of the Constitution were struggling to find agreed upon answers that would help them form a national government. The founding fathers could not agree on fundamental questions such as, “Who is in charge?” Hamilton and his followers argued to disband state governments and focus on strengthening a centralized government. Jefferson and his followers wanted no central control at all.

James Madison, who eventually wrote the basic document, had a great epiphany. At first Madison was very disappointed that the convention didn’t seem to solve anything. The Constitution didn’t present any answers. Ellis notes, “[Madison] starts to think differently. He starts to say, ‘oh yeah’…this could work precisely because it’s unclear. And he found what he calls a ‘middle station’…The Constitution is not a set of answers. It is a framework for argument. This is a document that allows us to continue to discuss and debate the core issues that we face…” (You can listen to Ellis’ discussion on Radiolab at, “Sex, Ducks, and The Founding Feud” Thursday, December 19, 2013,

Now, I am not trying to equate the Information Literacy Task Force to the Constitutional Convention. (Although it may be fun to try to figure which Task Force members would be Washington, who would be Franklin, and who would be Madison.) But, I am drawing the comparison in that we are attempting to create a new way of thinking about information literacy that does not present *your* campus with answers. Let me say that again – the Task Force is not writing outcomes for your campus. I am not sure how we could actually do that. I do not believe it is possible for us to write all-inclusive skills for all instances of information literacy across the diversity of higher education.

The new information literacy framework outlines threshold concepts that differentiates the novice from the expert researcher. The thresholds may appear different within different disciplinary swansonphotocontexts. They may appear to be different for different institutions. This is a dramatic change from the past standards. The task force is presenting a novel approach that will take some adjustment for many. It is my hope that these concepts open a point of conversation between faculty members and librarians. Since the new framework does not outline skills to teach, but, instead, thresholds of understanding and dispositions for action, librarians and faculty can explore how student’s develop as information literate learners within the curriculum. This is move past the one-shot session toward more meaningful pedagogical exchange.

More importantly, for our profession, I hope that this document is never a completed document. This Framework should not be in existence for 14 years before it is revised. If the next revision occurs in 2028, then we (as a profession) will have failed. We need to consider such questions such as: How do these thresholds grow and change? Do new thresholds appear and old ones disappear? Are there different thresholds for undergraduates and graduate students? Our goal should be to engage in an ongoing conversation about where these thresholds exist.

I see this Framework as a bold step in the right direction, but it is by no means a perfect or definitive step. There will be many critics. But, to me, that is the point. This will not be a finished document. You should try to poke holes in the Task Force’s work. You should voice your opinions and push us to a better understanding of what we do (click here to go to online survey). I do not know any other way that this Framework will be improved.

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book,Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at@t_swanson.