Many of you who read my blog already know that I came to librarianship from social work, where I was a child and family psychotherapist. As a therapist, one of our major guiding documents (whether we liked it or not) was the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The DSM determined what things were considered “real” mental disorders and what the diagnostic criteria for each disorder were. It’s so important to the mental health fields that we actually had to memorize the majority of it in grad school. Many therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists disagree with aspects of the DSM or the entirety of the DSM. I personally felt like it pathologized a lot of things that were not pathological (like being a bright, energetic little boy), but I still had to use the DSM to diagnose my clients so that we could bill Medicaid for their treatment. I didn’t let it influence how I looked at or treated my clients though because I didn’t have to. Therapists have different views of mental illness, work with different populations, and provide different types of therapy (solution-focused, cognitive-behavioral, narrative, etc.). There is no consensus in the mental health community that a particular approach to therapy or technique is the best (probably because different approaches work for different people and illnesses), and our individual approaches are guided by a mix of theory, experience, and our own personal biases.
Similarly, we librarians work in all sorts of different contexts with different populations. We have different approaches to teaching information literacy and there is no one agreed upon approach that people have found is best. Our approaches have probably been influenced by theory, experience, and our own biases and probably change over time. In that context, where neither we nor our patrons are interchangeable widgets, the idea that any guiding document or vision of information literacy is going to meet everyone’s needs is laughable. Given that diversity, it makes sense to develop a guiding document that is as flexible and as little prescriptive as possible, since we’re not billing insurance for our services.
At least that’s my view of things, but it clearly does not jive with Christine Bombaro of Dickinson College who argues in her Viewpoint article in Reference Services Review that “The Framework is Elitist” (sorry for recommending you read something so long, but it’s an easy skim). Before I get into critiquing the content of the article, I want to say that I was frankly dismayed that an article like this would be published in one of our best instruction-focused peer-reviewed journals. While it is a “Viewpoint” article, it reads like a ranty one-sided blog post; like something that would be published here (I can’t find another one in RSR’s archives that is similar in length or tone). I also find it funny that the article is published in a non-OA publication when so much of the article is about how the education regarding the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (from now on called the Framework) is inaccessible to most librarians who don’t have big professional development budgets.
But let’s get to the meat of it. I think Bombaro would have been well-served by focusing solely on why the Framework was elitist, but her article is a litany of complaints, many of which have nothing to do with elitism. Here are the ones I was able to tease out (there may be more):
- The Framework is not consistent with Threshold Concepts theory
- Threshold concepts cannot be taught
- The Framework is meant to be adapted by the individual institution.
- The Framework suggests that disciplinary faculty must be involved in the teaching of information literacy, which is totally unrealistic
- The Framework is more about validating librarians as scholars than supporting our work with students
- The Framework inspired divisions between “philosopher librarians” and “practical librarians”
- The Framework made her feel foolish because it referenced theory she wasn’t familiar with
- All of the professional development experiences she’s gone to re: the Framework have been given by people unqualified to be teaching how to use the Framework in instruction and assessment
- The Framework both requires us to completely change our instruction programs AND it’s not really so different from the recently-rescinded Information Literacy Competency Standards (from now on called the Standards) anyway (I have no idea how to reconcile these claims, but she seems to make them both)
- The concerns of people who valued the ACRL Standards were ignored and not addressed in a meaningful way by the ACRL Board
- The Standards were rescinded by the ACRL Board without any call for public feedback from the membership
- There has been little in the way of free support for librarians looking for ways to implement the Framework in their libraries
It looks to me like #6 might suggest that some librarians are elitist and #’s 10, 11, and 12 definitely suggest that ACRL is elitist. None of these really suggest that the Framework itself is elitist. In fact, I would suggest that the Framework is the opposite of elitist, recognizing that we don’t all work with exactly the same populations and need to define learning outcomes for our own context.
To me, the ACRL Information Literacy Standards seemed elitist because they proffered a very specific definition of what an information literate person looks like with, basically, a list of diagnostic criteria. To me, a person is successfully information literate if they are and feel they are successful at finding and using information in their lives, and I think that probably looks different depending on the individual. The Standards also viewed information literacy as a mechanical task focused on what we can see, ignoring the changes in thinking and feeling that come with being information literate. Information literacy is about empowerment, and I saw none of that in the Standards. The Framework suggests six basic concepts that are part of being information literate, though they make it clear that there are likely others (and others have created additional “Frames”). The dispositions and knowledge practices, though not totally dissimilar from what we saw in the standards, embraces that a lot of that internal thinking, feeling, and understanding that is not necessarily as visible in a students’ work, but is the real meat of becoming information literate. While I did think it was weird to base our guiding document on threshold concepts, I loved how much more realistic and human (and less mechanistic and elitist) the Framework was versus the Standards.
Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows that there are few things I hate more than the creation of false dichotomies; the rhetorical us vs. them tool. We’ve seen that used a lot in politics over the years, but never more than in this election where Trump has positioned himself (somehow) as being the antithesis of the moneyed, liberal, intellectual elite. Bombaro made her dichotomy quite clear — it’s the “philosopher librarians” vs. the “practical librarians.” This was primarily in the context of discussions on the ACRL Framework listserv, but she used it liberally throughout the document, which I found incredibly divisive. The “philosopher librarians” had more advanced degrees, worked at moneyed libraries, had faculty status, got to take sabbaticals to explore philosophy, and loved to talk about theory. The “practical librarians” did not have PhDs, did not have tons of professional development funding, did not have access to sabbaticals, and were focused on their day-to-day work with patrons. While she hedged and said that librarians could fall into either category or both at different times, she described the “philosopher librarians” in very negative terms, even calling their contributions to the listserv “supercilious.”
I remember reading some of those contributions to the listserv myself. There was a group of mostly (or all?) men who were talking about theory a great deal and one in particular who seemed to suggest that to understand the Framework, you basically had to read a gazillion books about learning theory. I call bullshit on that, but I didn’t find most of the contributions superior at all (especially not Bill Badke who you called out, Christine and who has been so generous in sharing his work and ideas over so many years); they were just geeking out on theory in ways that I never will. The pedagogical theories that I have read have enriched my teaching hugely. I don’t like to talk about theory that much, nor am I nearly as well-read as a lot of my friends who geek out on theory, but I also don’t feel less-than because theory isn’t as much my jam. I might have found some of their conversations annoying or baffling, but we all have things that we’re really into that we want to talk about all the time. I’m sure my colleagues find my undying love of Bruce Springsteen annoying.
I saw a lot of insecurity in what Christine Bombaro was writing (a feeling I know well) and she came out and said that these conversation made her feel “frankly stupid.” While I agree that one of our major guiding professional documents should be easy for anyone to understand, to call the contributions of a whole group of people “supercilious” and to call the Framework “elitist” because you didn’t understand the dialogue on a listserv seems amazingly anti-intellectual. There are loads of things I don’t know or understand well (a-ha! I knew math was elitist!). And I have lots of friends who are deep into pedagogical theory and are also some of the best and most passionate instruction librarians I know. I may be less into theory, but it doesn’t make me in any way less than. I’ve learned a ton from them and they’ve also learned from me. Diversity in our profession is a good thing.
Another thing that bugged me a bit is that while Bombaro seems to have little regard for the “philosopher librarians” there is one whose opinions she seems to hold in high esteem: Lane Wilkinson. Apparently Lane (who is lovely, but holy moly, he writes a lot of high-minded stuff about philosophy) using terms like “agent-relative” and “reductionist” is not supercilious because he was criticizing the Framework. You can’t have it both ways. I feel like Bombaro would have been far better served leaving out her critique of the Framework not being 100% consistent with Threshold Concepts theory. Maybe I’m crazy, but, to me, theory is not some monolithic immoveable thing. It’s not made of concrete. It’s not incapable of being changed, tweaked, and adapted for different purposes. Maybe this is heretical, but I see nothing wrong with taking the aspects of theories that work for us and molding them to our purposes. Then again, I’m the lunatic who teaches the BEAM Model without the M, so you should probably ignore me. Intellectual impurity!!!
I’m no expert on threshold concepts (for that, talk to my dear friend Amy Hofer), but I do think you can teach to threshold concepts and create learning experiences for students focused on helping them move through a threshold. It appears that Bombaro is conflating teaching with learning and also crossing a threshold. Information literacy, because it is so complex and internal, is not easy to learn. It’s not a formula you can memorize nor facts you can digest, though lord knows librarians have tried to oversimplify aspects of it for decades. One hour of dipping them in the information literacy tea is not going to make them information literate, nor are we capable of making students learn at all (that’s their choice). We play our very small role in the big picture of their learning experience and all we can do is hope we have opened their minds a little more to these things. They may cross that threshold days, weeks, months, or years later, or not at all; all I hope is that I helped them come a little closer to it.
And that’s why making sure that our faculty feel equipped to teach information literacy within their curriculum is so critical. Bombaro might call that elitist (because at most libraries collaborating with faculty is really hard to do), but I call it reality. A daunting reality, but the reality we live in nonetheless. At my library this year, we are working on developing a toolkit to support faculty in teaching information literacy. It will contain videos we’ve created packaged with suggested in-class activities, worksheets, assignments, and lesson plans (for those keeping score, yes, I did this at PSU too). We’re also working on our marketing communication to faculty, which right now is rather hit-or-miss. Some of us have also talked about getting funding to pay faculty to attend research assignment design workshops that we would teach. We want to brand ourselves as partners in pedagogy who can advise them in their teaching of information literacy. This is not easy work by any means, but it’s probably actually more important than teaching students ourselves because students will have so much more contact with their disciplinary instructors.
What I read between the lines (or really, in the lines) of Bombaro’s article was that she was perpetually searching for authority. She wanted ACRL to tell her how to use the Framework in her library. She wanted answers from the ACRL Framework listserv that were authoritative, not musings on the theoretical aspects of the Framework and discussions about how “non-experts” implemented it. She wanted to go to a conference and learn the right way to implement the Framework, not to hear from “people who were largely unqualified” (talk about elitist!). Authority, authority, authority. This reminds me of students who just want to be told whether a source is good or not. They must hate it when we tell them “well, it depends on how you intend to use it.” It’s the same here. Context matters. We are all struggling with this stuff; no one is really an expert at implementing the Framework and whoever pretends to be is probably a charlatan. We can learn from each other, but we can’t expect that anyone is going to have all the answers.
What I agree with Christine Bombaro 100% about is her criticisms of ACRL and the ACRL Board. There were so many people who made it clear that they relied on the Standards for their teaching, assessment work, and accreditation, and so many who argued that the Standards and the Framework could coexist. Whether the latter was true or not (and whether or not people REALLY needed the Standards for accreditation, which I always wondered about), the fact that so many dues-paying ACRL members were so concerned about this should have merited additional work and communication, not just time. There were no calls for comment or open discussions with the ACRL membership before the Standards were rescinded by the Board at the ALA Annual Conference this past summer. The lack of openness and transparency was pretty stunning. While I didn’t care much about them being rescinded because I didn’t feel like it would affect my work, I did think it was a foolish move politically for ACRL.
Given the controversy among the membership around the Framework, the ACRL Board should not have filed the Standards without requiring a comprehensive plan for providing accessible (read: free) professional development around the Framework for its members. Bombaro is not alone in her concerns about the Framework and this has left a huge number of academic librarians feeling alienated from their professional home. The Sandbox was a great idea, but it’s still not here and I’m honestly incredulous that they rescinded the Standards before anything concrete really was provided to ACRL members to support their adoption of the Framework. It’s no surprise that people feel like the ACRL Board is elitist; their concerns were ignored!
I won’t tar all of ACRL with the same brush. ACRL Publishing has been an incredible trailblazer in terms of open access and the Instruction Section has done a brilliant and innovative job of engaging members who can’t attend the twice-yearly conferences. There are probably other groups within the Division that are doing a lot for members who don’t have any or much professional development funding. But ACRL as a whole has not exactly done a lot to support members who do not have big professional development budgets. Reading Bombaro’s article started to make me wonder what value ACRL provides me anymore, now that I do not have professional development funding and am focusing my service work at the state level. I pay my dues each year like a robot, but why? I especially wonder why people like Bombaro, who feel totally ignored by and alienated from ACRL now, should keep paying their dues. I wish Bombaro’s criticism had been more focused on ACRL itself, because it’ll be easy for many to write-off her article as a one-sided rant.
Maybe I’m naive, but I still can’t understand why people feel like everything has to change because of the Framework. I guess it should come as no surprise that I really don’t care whether the Framework or the Standards are the “law of the land” because I’m going to do what is best for my students at my institution. ACRL is not our boss, not an instruction cop, nor an accrediting agency that requires us to follow their standards to the letter. The Framework has influenced my teaching, assessment work, and instructional outreach focus, but neither I, nor my colleagues, felt like we had to totally change the way we did instruction and assessment because of this. That might be because we weren’t in lockstep with the Standards either. Bombaro even admits in the beginning of her article that the Framework has enriched her teaching, so she, like me, has found aspects of it that are useful. Take those and run with them! There is no requirement that you change something if it’s working well for your students. In the end, that is all that matters.
Image summary: A screenshot from this YouTube video on logical falacies