A New Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), the largest division of the American Library Association (ALA), is made up of academic librarians and information professionals who aim to support and improve higher education and research. The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education set forth by the organization in January 2000 define the information literate student as one who:

  • Determines the nature and extent of the information needed,
  • Accesses needed information effectively and efficiently,
  • Evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system,
  • Uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose, individually or as a member of a group, and
  • Understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding use of information and access and uses information ethically and legally. (pp. 8-14)

Accompanying each standard is a set of performance indicators and outcomes to help assess students’ competency.

The ACRL standards have been widely influential not only upon the teaching LIS professionals perform in academic settings but also in colleges’ and universities’ strategic planning and on the guidelines of accrediting bodies such as the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (2011). Similarly, over the past decade, the standards have formed the basis for other ACRL documents defining information literacy for specific disciplines such as journalism, nursing, social sciences, science and technology, and teacher education. The need for individual fields of study to define their own sets of standards simultaneously attests to the importance of the original document and suggests that it was neither universal nor flexible enough to serve all of higher education effectively. With this implication in mind, it may seem inevitable that a 2012 review should have resulted in a unanimous decision by the review task force that the standards “should not be reapproved as they exist but should be extensively revised” (p. 1). Recognizing that the information landscape is becoming more interdisciplinary, vast, and complex, the task force made eight recommendations for the revisions:

  • simplify the standards for use beyond the ALA,
  • eliminate library jargon,
  • define affective (i.e., emotional) learning outcomes as well as cognitive ones,
  • conceive a new framework that can embrace “complementary literacies” from a variety of disciplines,
  • reconceptualize literacy across formats (print, visual, digital, etc.),
  • treat the student as a content creator as well as a content consumer,
  • treat the student as a content curator, too, and
  • provide a logical continuation of the American Association of School Librarians’ standards. (pp. 4-6)

At the time of this post, the revisions are still in progress. From the most recent draft, released in June, it is clear that the revision task force has attempted to incorporate the review task force’s recommendations, resulting in a document with a new approach, a new tone, and a new title. Replacing the rigid-sounding Information Literacy Competency Standards with a Framework for Information Literacy is a step in the right direction. The title change is intentional, writes the committee, “because [the new document] is based on a cluster of interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation, rather than a set of standards or learning outcomes, or any prescriptive enumeration of skills” (p. 1). In other words, instead of focusing on a list of skills a student must possess and demonstrate, this new framework is built around six “threshold concepts,” conceptual entryways to higher-level thinking in a particular field or discipline. These concepts are

  • Scholarship is a conversation
  • Research as inquiry
  • Authority is contextual and constructed
  • Format as a process
  • Searching as exploration
  • Information has value (p. 2)

It’s immediately clear that the language of these concepts is generally simpler and more emotionally charged than the old standards. Perhaps the two most challenging concepts are the third and fourth in the list. The idea that authority is not absolute encourages skepticism about sources of information as well as consideration of what constitutes authority in relation to one’s particular information need. The next concept, format as a process of production or distribution of information, is meant to help teach students to distinguish among the many types of items they may encounter through a single database or aggregator. For example, a peer-reviewed article is different from an editorial because of its production process, even if both appear in the same list of search results. Finally, the overarching concept for the framework is metaliteracy, or the idea that students should be conscious of their own fluency in shifting among the roles of information seeker, user, producer, curator, and collaborator. On the whole, the approach seems much more qualitative than quantitative. Instead of performance indicators and outcomes, this new framework contains knowledge practices and dispositions. Finally, a pair of appendices provide more in-depth explanation of the concepts and an introduction to the framework—including how to use it—for faculty and administrators.

A third complete draft is expected this month to allow time for one more round of feedback before, potentially, the adoption of the new framework occurs at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in January 2015.

ETA: The ACRL is now seeking feedback on the third draft of the new framework.


Association of College and Research Libraries. (2000, January 18). Information literacy competency standards for higher education. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency

Association of College and Research Libraries Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force. (2014, June 17). Framework for information literacy for higher education. [Draft 2].  Retrieved from http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/?page_id=133

Association of College and Research Libraries Information Literacy Competency Standards Review Task Force. (2012, June 2). Task force recommendations. [ACRL AC 12 Doc 13.1]. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/standards/ils_recomm.pdf

Middle States Commission on Higher Education (2011). Characteristics of excellence in higher *education: Requirements of affiliation and standards for accreditation. (12th ed.). Retrieved from http://www.msche.org/publications/CHX-2011-WEB.pdf