Over the past several days, a lot of librarians have contacted me regarding the post I wrote on white supremacists in libraries. While the overwhelming majority of the feedback has been positive, there has also been a distinct contingent of librarians who all agree that I am a BAD LIBRARIAN. Libraries are supposed to be neutral and we’re supposed to provide access to ALL sides of controversial issues. Well, let me tell you, I was hesitant at first, but thanks to the dogged persistence of some of my interlocutors and their impeccable logic, I hereby renounce everything I previously wrote. From here on out, I am going to be the most neutral librarian you’ve ever met. I now completely agree that the ALA Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights are perfect documents and that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech is unassailable. I want to express my sincere thanks to everyone who pointed out how wrong I was in believing that libraries shouldn’t facilitate white supremacy.
Now, since I’m new to this whole “both-sidesism,” I’m obviously going to have some questions.
First, I notice that The Turner Diaries by William Pierce is only held by one library, according to Worldcat. Since it’s been hailed as “the Bible of the racist right” I’m deeply troubled that no libraries carry this obviously important text. Obviously, I’m going to buy it now that I’m committed to representing “both sides.” Should I spring for the print or the ebook?
Also, I’ve heard we’re in a “war with Islam.” Sadly, I haven’t added any ISIS propaganda to our library collection (like I said, I’ve been a bad librarian for not representing both sides). So, should my library link out to ISIS beheading videos or host them on our own servers? Again, just trying to be neutral.
Oh, and does it have to be a 1:1 ratio? For example, one holocaust denial book for every history of the holocaust? I’m thinking we may have to weed about 99% of our collection in the D800s to get a fair ratio. But, happy to do it to stay neutral.
And, could you please recommend some publishers in the following areas: alchemy, phrenology, flat earth theory, hollow earth theory, homeopathy, chemtrails, astrology, psychic surgery, and perpetual motion. I’ve noticed that our collections in the sciences are incredibly biased and fail to present both sides of understanding our natural world. (I can’t believe I used to think that truth should be a criterion for collection development.)
And, as an academic librarian, I’m curious how to handle faculty complaints. I’ve already sent out an email letting them know that from here on out we’re committed to presenting both sides of everything. How silly it was for me in the past to select materials based on the needs of my community, rather than the far more noble commitment to neutrality. So, now that faculty are angrily emailing me about spending their department allocations on “stupid shit” (LOL), how do I respond to their obvious biases? The Women’s Studies faculty are especially upset that I devoted half of their allocation to Mens Rights Activist books. I sent a copy of the Library Bill of Rights to them, but they don’t seem to get it. Any pointers?
Also, I have a research consultation Tuesday morning. The student is writing a paper about how “black people were better off during slavery.”* What resources would you recommend to help this student out?
Oh, and I forgot to tell you, a Mexican-American student emailed me earlier today with a question about her paper on DACA. Of course, I sent her both pro-Dreamer articles as well as articles from Breitbart and Infowars that show how illegal immigrants are mostly rapists and drug-addicts. For some reason, she got mad at me. Any suggestions on how to make her see the importance of considering multiple perspectives? (Scholarship is a Conversation, right?!)
And, the university film club has expressed an interest in screening Whose Streets?, the documentary about the Ferguson protests, in the library. Do I need to put together an anti-Black Lives Matter documentary screening in response?
As I pointed out in my previous post, we’ve never actually had a neo-Nazi or alt-right group ask to use our library for anything. Should I be doing outreach to these groups or should I just wait for them to initiate a request?
Thanks in advance for all your help!
Oh, and if you think that these questions are straw-men or pure hyperbole, then, please, let me know which white supremacist books and videos you’ve been buying.** Let me know which alt-right event you’ve sanctioned. Let me know on which issues you’ve nobly affirmed your neutrality. Thanks. Just trying to be the best librarian I can be.
* This was an actual consultation I had a few years ago.
** A quick note: I understand that massive research libraries with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars can collect almost everything and that they do probably collect some racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. materials. Likewise, if the library at, for example, a Holocaust memorial collects Holocaust-denial literature, there is a certain logic to that decision that I won’t deny. But, put yourself in the shoes of a small or mid-sized university library like mine; a small or mid-sized public. When you’re strapped for cash, how do you justify providing “both sides?”
Let me tell you about Walter. You know, the 68-year-old retiree that volunteers at your library. The older white gentleman who’s been faithfully reading to the kids at Saturday Story-Time every week for six years. Kids love Walter. The way he makes silly voices. The knowing grin when the pigeon can’t find his shoe or the mouse somehow gets into the bear’s house for the umpteenth time. The way he reminds them of Santa Claus, maybe. Walter is a great volunteer. He also happens to be a Klan member.
Or, let me tell you about Tyler. The junior political science major that reserves a large study room every Wednesday night from 5:00 to 7:00 for his study group. Always turns the key in on time. Never bothers other patrons. This week, Tyler and his friends are meeting to plan for a road-trip to join a neo-Nazi protest against the planned removal of a Confederate monument.
What about Kelly? She’s the week-end part-timer that covers the reference desk on Sunday afternoons. She’s always there with a smile on her face and an eagerness to help whoever comes to the desk. After her shift, she heads home to write her weekly post for a white nationalist blog.
See, here’s the thing. Librarians are arguing over whether or not to let white supremacists and Nazis and other hate groups into the library. About the library, they say, “you can’t invite into it people who want to publicly announce that they want to drive away some of them with torches and threats.” And, sure, when the alt-right shows up to the circulation desk with their tiki torches, you should absolutely kick their hateful asses out. If a neo-Nazi group wants to rent space for a public memorial service for a Holocaust denier, you ought to push back. If white supremacists are marching down your Main Street, by all means, resist them. Chris Bourg is right: “As an organization, we must condemn white supremacy in all its manifestations.” And we should call out tone-deaf arguments from white guys who think this is all some sort of abstraction about freedom of speech and who want to recite the ALA Code of Ethics as some sort of gospel.
But, odds are, at your library, you’re not going to have to deal with these sorts of things. You won’t have tiki torches at your circulation desk or neo-Nazis rallying by your makerspace. No, you’re just going to have Walter and Tyler and Kelly.
White supremacy is endemic. It’s part of the fabric of this country. And it’s good at hiding in plain sight. For every fascist wearing a Pepe shirt, there are a thousand more who aren’t. And the more we focus on the most egregious displays of hate coming from the alt-right, the more we risk overlooking the hidden hatred that lives right next door. The hate that perpetuates discrimination and inequality. Redlining loan officers don’t carry torches. The high-income hipsters whitewashing Harlem aren’t carrying Confederate flags. George Zimmerman wasn’t wearing a white hood when he shot Trayvon Martin. Remember, after the white supremacists rally, they go home, take off their silly costumes, and blend back into white, suburban banality. And how do the Walters and Tylers and Kellys blend in? Because we let them. We nice white folks let them. To me, that’s more frightening than any rally.
So, while librarians argue on the Internet about whether to punch a Nazi or let the Klan hold a rally in the library, kids are listening to Walter the casual Klansman read about an owl who can’t fall asleep…and they’re loving it.
I don’t know how many librarians followed the recent drama swirling around feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, but I think it serves as a valuable object lesson in the complexity of contemporary research into identity. In brief, Hypatia published an article by Dr. Rebecca Tuvel (Philosophy, Rhodes College) entitled “In Defense of Transracialism” (paywalled) in which Tuvel argues that there are logical equivalences between arguments surrounding transgender identities and arguments surrounding transracial identities (e.g., Rachel Dolezal). Tuvel argues that many of the common arguments for accepting transgender identities can be applied mutatis mutandis to accepting transracial identities. What would otherwise be a fairly dry paper on the logic of identity claims set off a firestorm of outrage. An open letter accusing the article of causing harm received hundreds of signatories, the editorial board of Hypatia apologized, the board of directors for Hypatia disavowed that apology, the open letter was rebutted, social media erupted, the paper was called a “discursive transmisogynistic” act of “epistemic violence,”and there have been dozens of think-pieces on the state of feminist philosophy, on “call-out culture,” on the ethics of scholarly communication, on privilege, and so on, and so on. Read the Wikipedia article if you must. (No, really, it’s an academic scandal worth knowing about.)
I’m not going to weigh in with my thoughts on the affair–who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, I want to look narrowly at one aspect of the scandal that seems to speak to information literacy: the role of identity in information evaluation practices.The imperative to diversity in citations
The open letter that kicked off the whole affair makes four general points. Here’s the fourth claim:
[Tuvel’s article] fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of “transracialism”. We endorse Hypatia’s stated commitment to “actively reflect and engage the diversity within feminism, the diverse experiences and situations of women, and the diverse forms that gender takes around the globe,” and we find that this submission was published without being held to that commitment.
In a later statement, Tuvel herself acknowledged that she had “discusse[d] the lives of vulnerable people without sufficiently citing their own first-person experiences and views.” Of all the criticisms of the paper, this is the one that seems the most widely shared: Tuvel did not “sufficiently engage” with the scholarship written by women of color. Unpacking that a little bit, we can reconstruct an imperative for scholars researching certain communities (keeping as close as possible to the original language):
[The Source Diversity Imperative] Any scholarship or discussion regarding a vulnerable community should sufficiently engage with the first-person experiences and views of members of that community.
Setting aside the vagueness of “sufficiently engage,” that seems reasonable, right? And yet, it’s an imperative that gets ignored with depressing frequency. Like the special journal issue on Black Lives Matter that didn’t include a single black author. Or the way the GOP isn’t including any women on the working group to draft a new healthcare bill that will drastically affect women’s health. There’s even an entire Tumblr devoted to exposing all-male (and usually all-white) panels at conferences. Clearly, people aren’t getting the message. Is there anything instruction librarians can do to help?What kind of imperative?
Let’s start by assuming the Source Diversity Imperative (SDI). Now we just have to figure out what kind of an imperative it is.
First, SDI could be an epistemic imperative in the sense that it is a rule for proper reasoning. There are a few directions this can take you. Maybe it’s just about making sure you have all the evidence. Maybe it’s more about standpoint epistemology and truth being relative to experience. Maybe it’s that certain topics are off-limits to those who haven’t had certain experiences. Maybe it only applies to some topics? Maybe it applies to all topics? There are lots of possible epistemic justifications for SDI. Rather than argue for a position, I’ll just say that the epistemic approach to SDI is based on the idea that sufficient engagement with the documented experiences of a vulnerable community is a way of expanding knowledge.
Second, SDI could be seen as a moral imperative in the sense that it is morally wrong to discuss vulnerable communities without sufficiently engaging with their views and experiences. You can see this in the way some critics allege that Tuvel’s article caused harm to certain communities. How? I think the basic idea is that by failing to engage with the first-hand reports of a community, the researcher is dehumanizing the members of the community and silencing/subjugating their indigenous knowledge practices. Think of it like intellectual colonialism; ignoring the testimony of the people you are writing about is a form of erasure. It stands in the way of their right to self-determination. I’m not writing a scholarly article here, so I’ll just refer you to Spivak’s seminal paper “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where she takes Foucault’s concept of ‘epistemic violence’ and applies it to the subjugation of indigenous knowledge. Or, pick up Edward Said’s Orientalism for more on the same. Please leave suggestions in the comments too.
Finally, the SDI could be interpreted as a reparative imperative in the sense that it is aimed at correcting an inequality in the scholarly record (i.e., the under-representation of vulnerable communities). The idea would be that we need to engage with certain communities of scholarship as a means of restitution, of sorts, to make up for a history of exclusion. This also includes the idea of correcting the historic under-representation of vulnerable groups in academic positions. For example, librarianship is something like 87% white. By engaging with the testimony of under-represented communities, members of those communities may be more likely to enter or remain in the profession.
Or, maybe the SDI is all of these things. The important part is that the SDI seems to be a fairly widely-held view and, given that the imperative implies an evaluative criterion to apply when evaluating scholarship, the SDI seems to have some bearing on information literacy. Should we be teaching it then?
Well, it all depends on how we interpret “sufficiently engage.” And I’d like to (try to) unpack that a little. But, first, I should acknowledge that there is a version of standpoint theory that says that no scholar from a privileged group should ever conduct research on issues pertaining to marginalized communities. The idea is that only members of those communities are situated in an appropriate epistemic or moral position. While I understand the argument and the sentiment, this view leads to some (arguably) unfortunate epistemological conclusions as well as the (inarguably) unfortunate conclusion of giving privileged classes a convenient excuse for simply ignoring vulnerable communities. This type of standpoint theory is not terribly common from what I can tell, but it deserves mention. As for myself, as a humanist and a pluralist, I think scholars should be allowed to do research that crosses lines of identity, so long as they do so respectfully and in accordance with maxims like the Source Diversity Imperative (and others, of course). And if a scholar begins researching a topic pertaining to a vulnerable community, then it seems that the scholar needs to be apprised of things like the SDI. Likewise, if someone is reading and evaluating articles pertaining to a vulnerable community, then they too need to be apprised of the SDI. Sounds like something for information literacy librarians, right? Let’s look a little closer…Teaching source diversity
Students are routinely asked to write papers on subjects related to marginalized/vulnerable communities. Just this past semester, I helped students researching and writing about Black Lives Matter, the future of DACA, “bathroom bills”, and more. Basically, lots of students writing about topics that pertained to communities quite different from their own. When dealing with these sorts of papers, I taught the SDI as an epistemic imperative by encouraging students to consider the way privilege can distort perceptions and to actively seek out first-hand reports and perspectives. And, even though I reject the ACRL’s Framework thing, I do agree that we have a commitment to “acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations.” So, yeah, we need to teach/encourage students to seek out diversity in their citation practices, but it isn’t necessarily a simple task. Here are a few considerations:
I’m all about brainstorming, and the interesting considerations keep coming. But I don’t want to get too far afield. Let’s bring it back to the central issue: many people argue that personal identity claims are relevant to information evaluation. As librarians, who teach students how to evaluate information, what are our obligations concerning personal identity? There are obvious cases that show a lack of concern for inclusion, like the all-white panel discussing Black Lives Matter. Those are clearly epistemically and morally problematic. But, the interesting questions for me are (1) under which circumstances and to what extent are we required to acknowledge personal identity claims in scholarly research and (2) how should we introduce this imperative to students? I firmly believe that there are good epistemic, moral, and reparative grounds for paying more attention to the diversity of our sources. This is vitally important. I just want to point out that there are areas of inquiry that librarians have not yet sufficiently investigated (so far as I can tell). I mean, I could be way off base here, but I just feel like if we are going to incorporate social justice into information literacy then we need to admit that it’s far easier said than done. As information professionals, librarians need to understand how personal identity plays out in scholarly communication. If we’re going to be allies and advocates, we need to think about how to encourage source diversity. Finally, because I accept the SDI, note that I am intentionally not offering suggested solutions (how could I?) but I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
I just realized that I haven’t shared my slides from LOEX a few weeks ago. So, scroll to the bottom for the complete slidedeck. Of course, it would help to have some context to understand what was going on. So here are my presentation notes, slightly reworked for this post. Also, there were a couple of caveats I made during the presentation:
Anyways. Let’s begin…Introduction
Everyone is talking about fake news these days when, in fact, fake news isn’t really new at all. Fake news is simply a means (among many) of monetizing confirmation bias. And it’s been with us for as long as there’s been news. Cicero complains about fake news in De Oratore. The yellow journalism of the 1890s started a major war. The tabloids in the supermarket won’t leave Bat Boy alone. My contention is that the existence of fake news is not the problem we should be focusing on. I mean, it is a problem, but the more salient problem we’re dealing with is the rhetoric of fake news. The spread of a deep mistrust of traditional media coupled with the valorization of motivated reasoning. Otherwise known as post-truth.Post-truth
We know that trust in the media is at an all time low. And the current rhetorical climate is to blame. When the President of the United States dismisses every criticism as “fake news” and urges his followers to reject any news that doesn’t glorify his (objectively terrible) regime, we’re looking at post-truth. The massive deregulation of the 1990s (cf., the Telecommunications Act of 1996) exacerbated nascent market forces in the media industry, leading media companies to slowly trade journalistic integrity for shareholder value. The distinction between professional journalist and partisan hack slowly disintegrated and the amateur enthusiast was elevated to “speak truth to power” while readers were circumscribed into filter bubble after filter bubble. Remember how participatory journalism was supposed to save the media? Fifteen years later, the new lingo is “don’t read the comments.” Journalism is incorporated, information is democratized, the expert is dead. It’s all post-truth. And if it feels liberating, it’s not. As Habermas warned, the existence of an independent, trustworthy news media is essential to the proper functioning of a democratic society (assuming that’s what you’re into). We’ve only got two ways out; (1) make the news media more trustworthy and (2) help people understand the social nature of that trustworthiness. I’ll set aside the first, only because it’s a different conversation, however, I do want to argue that librarians can help with the second…but it’s not going to be with LibGuides. We can only help if we pay attention to the underlying cognitive processes that lead to the post-truth mindset.Post-Truth Psychology
There are dozens of cognitive biases that contribute to the post-truth mindset. I’ll just focus on a few:
These and other cognitive biases show up in the library classroom. Students are motivated to find articles that back up their thesis statement rather than articles that may help guide and refine their thesis. Students are more skeptical towards traditional news sources that their professor’s may prefer (e.g., NYT or WaPo). Students sometimes lack the domain knowledge needed to make accurate judgments about an information source. Students may react negatively when exposed to potentially controversial topics. All this and more. So what should we do?Post-Truth Pedagogy
If we want to help students learn to evaluate popular sources (i.e., news media) then we have to do our best to avoid triggering the cognitive biases that contribute to the post-truth mindset. Surprisingly, there is virtually nothing in the library literature on avoiding confirmation bias in the classroom. Thankfully, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles in other disciplines, going back decades in some cases. Here are a few ideas that have been proven to work:Timing matters
Cognitive biases set in very quickly and the effectiveness of an instruction intervention decreases over time (Tetlock & Kim, 1987). When working with novice learners, try to get instruction on information evaluation as early as possible, preferably before they have settled on a research question.Accountability matters
Students show more integrative, complex reasoning when asked to justify their decisions to someone else. (Druckman, 2012; Taber & Lodge, 2006; Tetlock, 1983). So, give them as much opportunity as possible to explore their decisions with their peers. Develop activities and mechanisms for peer-instruction. Put another way, lecturing about how to evaluate information is less successful than asking students to explain their search decisions to a peer. When students feel empowered and take ownership over their own search and evaluation behaviors, they are more receptive to suggestions for improvement.Google is not our enemy
Okay, raise your hand if you use a large, multisubject database to introduce students to searching for popular sources. I think lots of us do. I used to. And then one day I realized something. When I wake up in the morning, head downstairs, make breakfast for the kids, and then sit down to read the morning news, I never say to myself, “all right, let’s fire up ProQuest.” Hell no. I go to Facebook. Google News. Washington Post. Local paper. RSS feeds. Twitter. I never get my news from a database and neither do our students. Nor should they. I want to teach students how to evaluate information in a natural setting, not the artificial setting of a database. So many markers of credibility are stripped out when news gets repackaged for databases: size and placement on original page, comments, images, related articles, and so on. So, we examine Google, talk about algorithms, etc.Avoid controversial topics
Polarizing examples encourage defensive rationalization and directional reasoning. This has been proven over and over again. It’s the way we are. Just in terms of the neuroscience, the way I get agitated when I read something praising Trump is the same way a Trump-supporter gets agitated when they see criticism of Trump. The amygdala lights up, adrenaline spikes, and it’s fight-or-flight. When that happens, it can be harder for some students to focus on the lesson’s objectives. Things like curiosity, openness to new ideas, empathy, critical thinking…these are all affected by strong emotional responses. This is why I don’t stand in front of a class and say “all right, let’s all Google abortion” or “how credible is this article on rape culture” or “let’s come up with synonyms for white supremacy.” These implicitly force students to take a side and focus on the issue rather than on the broader critical thinking skills that are the actual focus of the lesson. This isn’t to say that students shouldn’t explore complex social issues; this is just to say that a 50-minute library session for a Freshman composition class isn’t the best place to do it. Or at least, it’s not the place to do it so blatantly. Save it for a class that’s explicitly addressing those topics. Otherwise it comes across like crass, #critlib virtue-signaling. Speaking of which. While I think we ought to avoid using polarizing topics directly, there is a place for indirect engagement with complex social issues. When I teach students about Google, I use an activity almost identical to this one by Jacob Berg and we talk about AdWords and PageRank and SEO and bias and the under-representation of marginalized voices and so on. It’s an approach built upon leading students to uncover these things organically. Like, giving them the cognitive tools to uncover biases on their own. Berg uses Safiya Noble’s example of searching Google Images for ‘beautiful women’ and asking students to discuss why all of the photos are of white women. I sometimes do the same thing, only with the phrase ‘successful person’ and students discuss why it’s mostly photos of corporate white guys in suits. Again, it’s a Socratic, indirect approach (“Why are there no people of color in the results?”) rather than a top-down, direct approach (“Let’s evaluate these results for #blacklivesmatter”).Rethink reliability
But wait! You’re still talking about searching. When do you get to the information evaluation part? When do we get to use the CRAAP test? The answers are: “you already have” and “never.” Rather than leave information evaluation to a silly mnemonic that gets slapped on after you find an article, I think evaluation should be built into the entire search process. And it all comes down to distinguishing between reliability and usefulness. Let’s take a look at the CRAAP test. Here’s an article I used as an example in my presentation:
Is it any good? Let’s CRAAP test it.
The idea here is that the CRAAP test makes a lot of epistemological assumptions that obscure just how difficult it really is. Another idea here is that the CRAAP test has nothing to do with reliability. It’s a test for the usefulness of an article. Reliability comes from somewhere else. Importantly, reliability is a property of information sources not information itself. Authors, publishers, news outlets, etc. can be reliable, not single articles.
Basically, an information source is reliable (credible) to the extent that it tends to produce true beliefs. I highly recommend checking out Alvin Goldman’s work on reliabilism for the full details. But the short version is that, while no information source is perfect, some information sources are more likely to lead to true beliefs. Take a look at this 2012 poll from Farleigh Dickinson University:
Sure, all media is biased. But, some media are more biased than others. And some media are more likely to yield true beliefs. You can measure it. People who watch FOX News display less political awareness than people who listen to NPR. It’s not a matter of FOX News is unreliable and NPR is reliable. It’s a matter of degree. Just like a broken clock is right twice a day, FOX News has some factual reporting (but only outside of their morning and evening “entertainment” programming). But, on balance, FOX News has way less factual reporting than the Washington Post or NPR. And this gets back to the question of accuracy. We can sidestep having to become experts ourselves if we allow that we have better epistemic grounds to trust articles from some publications than from others. I didn’t have time in my presentation, and it gets sort of technical, but if you look at reliability through a Bayesian lens, you can start to really dig into related issues like consistency across multiple courses, the likelihood that a source would report something (e.g., how likely is it for FOX to report something that makes Trump look bad), and other things.Focus on the process
Anyways, the approach I recommend to teaching information evaluation is to get students to the point that they are thinking about evaluation before they even begin searching. Focus on the search process; don’t leave evaluation as an after-thought. Think about it this way. Cognitive biases are often subtle and sub-conscious. Likewise, information evaluation is occuring during the search process but it, too is often subtle and sub-conscious. And that’s where cognitive biases are going to have the greatest effect. So turn searching into evaluating. Show Google works and how results are manipulated. Show them things like the ‘site:’ tag. Talk about truth and fairness in reporting. Talk about media ethics. Talk about consistency across multiple sources. Examine how different sources cover the same event. Again, it’s not about asking “is this article credible?” It’s about getting students to ask “given the source of this article, and given the way the issue is reported elsewhere, can I trust what I’m reading?”Conclusion
Wow. This turned into a 2500 word rant. Sorry about that. The nutshell is this: simply giving students a bullet pointed list of “ways to spot fake news” isn’t sufficient; you need to teach in a way that avoids triggering poor cognitive processes. Time instruction correctly. Include accountability; have students justify their search behaviors to their peers. Avoid emotionally-charged examples. Move beyond acronyms. Focus on the search process, not the search results. Teaching information evaluation is as much about how you teach as it is what you teach.Slides Sources
Cassino, D., Woolley, P., & Jenkins, K. (2012). What you know depends on what you watch: Current events knowledge across popular news sources. Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind Poll. Retrieved from publicmind.fdu.edu/2012/confirmed/final.pdf
Druckman, J. N. (2012). The politics of motivation. Critical Review, 24(2), 199-216. doi:10.1080/08913811.2012.711022
Goldman, A. (1999). Knowledge in a social world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gunther, A. C., & Liebhart, J. L. (2006). Broad reach or biased source? Decomposing the hostile media effect. Journal of Communication, 56(3), 449-466. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2006.00295.x
Gunther, A. C., & Schmitt, K. (2004). Mapping boundaries of the hostile media effect. Journal of Communication, 54(1), 55-70.
Habermas, J. (2006). Political communication in media society: Does democracy still enjoy an epistemic dimension? The impact of normative theory on empirical research. Communication Theory, 16(4), 411-426. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2006.00280.x
Habermas, J. r. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere : an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (T. Burger, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jonas, E., Schulz-Hardt, S., Frey, D., & Thelen, N. (2001). Confirmation bias in sequential information search after preliminary decisions: An expansion of dissonance theoretical research on selective exposure to information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(4), 557-571. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, 6.
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134. doi:10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.1681
Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480-498.
Kuran, T., & Sunstein, C. R. (1999). Availability cascades and risk regulation. Stanford Law Review, 683-768.
Lavine, H. G., Johnston, C. D., & Steenbergen, M. R. (2012). The ambivalent partisan: How critical loyalty promotes democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lenker, M. (2016). Motivated reasoning, political information, and information literacy education. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 16(3), 511-528.
Schaffner, B., & Luks, S. (2017). This is what Trump voters said when asked to compare his inauguration crowd with Obama’s. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/25/we-asked-people-which-inauguration-crowd-was-bigger-heres-what-they-said/?utm_term=.db79a652500f
Seeber, K. (2017). Wiretaps and CRAAP. Retrieved from http://kevinseeber.com/blog/wiretaps-and-craap/
Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 755-769. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2006.00214.x
Tetlock, P. E. (1983). Accountability and complexity of thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, 45(1), 74-83. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
Tetlock, P. E., & Kim, J. I. (1987). Accountability and judgment processes in a personality prediction task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, 52(4), 700-709. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1990
Vraga, E. K., Tully, M., Akin, H., & Rojas, H. (2012). Modifying perceptions of hostility and credibility of news coverage of an environmental controversy through media literacy. Journalism, 13(7), 942-959. doi:doi:10.1177/1464884912455906
Hi. This is not an important blog post. It’s really more of a “I’m writing a paper and I think I’ll post notes here for public comment” post. You can skip it if you aren’t interested in philosophical criticism of a ten year old library science article.
You see, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an article related to some things I wrote back in December on post-truth and librarianship, specifically as the concept of truth relates to information literacy. My basic argument is along the lines that the concept of truth has been increasingly devalued or marginalized in our information literacy initiatives, which in turn has lead to problems understanding and articulating the value of libraries in combating so-called “post-truth.”
Put another way: if librarianship is going to take a stand against “post-truth,” then librarianship needs to take a stand on truth.
Anyway, I’m reading what few articles there are on the role of truth in librarianship and I thought I’d quickly address one of the more prominent articles: “The Philosophical Problem of Truth in Librarianship” by Robert Labaree and Ross Scimeca. (JSTOR). Let me briefly try to address their argument and where it goes wrong. Again, this is really just me annotating an article and copy-pasting from Word. It’s fleshed out a bit more than a simple outline, because that’s just how I write. But it seemed bloggable enough.The Article Labaree, R. V., & Scimeca, R. (2008). The philosophical problem of truth in librarianship. The Library Quarterly, 78(1), 43-70. The Core Claim
Librarianship requires the suspension of truth because “the suspension of truth is necessary for the growth of knowledge.”(p. 63).The Argument
Labaree and Scimeca argue that if librarians adopt a specific theory of truth (like correspondence theory, coherence theory, or pragmatism), then librarians will either intentionally or inadvertently reject information sources that fail to be “true” under their preferred theory of truth.1 They point to historical instances “where educated individuals, such as Bishop Diego de Landa and the Mayan codices, used their supposed objectivity of truth to eliminate or eradicate anything that did not fall into their intellectual or cultural perspectives” (p. 59). Not that it’s hard to come up with other examples where people have rejected or even destroyed information that they judged not to be “true.” I’m sure librarians have rejected information for not being “true” and, as the argument goes, that is especially problematic for at least two reasons: (1) “librarianship has an ethical obligation to challenge attempts to destroy or censor information, regardless of the truth value of that information” (p. 59) and (2) when information is destroyed, it interrupts the natural progression of knowledge.
For the claim that librarians have an ethical obligation to preserve information, that seems fairly uncontroversial. The second claim is wrapped up in a common Kuhnian view of intellectual progress. Kuhn is pretty widely known, so no real need to rehash about paradigm shifts and incommensurability. The work that Kuhn is doing in this article is to bring up the idea that our understanding of major intellectual revolutions (they mention Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Freud as exemplars) is conditioned on our access to the information we have about both sides of the “paradigm.” For example, our understanding of the significance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is entirely dependent on the evidence we have from both before, during, and after the paradigm shift.2 But, if librarians are committed to collecting all and only “truth” then we get problems: prior to accepting the “truth” of Darwinism, should librarians have rejected Darwinian texts? After Darwinism was accepted as “truth” should librarians have weeded the pre-Darwinian texts? These are interesting questions and Labaree and Scimeca are correct that if librarians adopt the view that library collections and services must correspond to prevailing beliefs about the truth, then not only is the historical record in danger, but the advancement of knowledge is in danger as well.
For their proposal, Labaree and Scimeca suggest that we suspend our conceptions of truth and adopt a “historicist” conception3 under which all propositions have to be understood as “historically conditioned” (p. 63). This means that instead of worrying about whether information is “true” librarians should instead ask how that information “became a part of…the social theory of reality” (p. 63). The central claim is that
without [the] suspension of truth in librarianship, the accumulation of past and present knowledge could be compromised. This compromise can take various forms, such as eliminating whole collections or suppressing information that does not share the present majority view, be that view scientific, religious, or political (63).
And, more succinctly, “librarians must suspend the truth value of singular items and artifacts in the historical record in order that the whole truth of any given period of history be accurately analyzed and understood” (p. 66). Accepting Labaree and Scimeca’s argument means accepting the following (modus tollens) argument:
Labaree and Scimeca are committing some pretty basic philosophical errors and I’m a little surprised that the errors in their argument even made it through peer-review.4
First, the entire argument rests on a really dodgy hidden premise, namely, that librarians who adopt a theory of truth are committed to the belief that library collections must correspond to the prevailing “truth.” In other words, if you think it is okay for librarians to distinguish between fact and fiction, then you are committing yourself to eliminating (what you believe to be) false information from the social transcript. But, this is a non sequitur. It runs afoul of the fact/value (or, maybe, is/ought) distinction. From the fact that truth is objective, we cannot jump to the conclusion that truth is all that matters when evaluating information or library collections. Labaree and Scimeca have provided no necessary connection between our attitudes towards how we ought to manage library collections and our attitudes towards truth. For example, I believe something very close to a correspondence theory of truth, but I routinely order books that contain facts or theories that I think are false. There are loads of reasons to collect things we think are false: pedagogical value, popularity, aesthetic beauty, and so on. A simple counterexample: libraries collect the sacred texts of multiple religions, knowing full well that they can’t each be true. Sure, some librarian in some podunk library somewhere might be weeding the Qur’an because “only Jesus is truth!” But that’s not wrong because the librarian believes in truth; it’s wrong because the librarian is a bigoted asshole. For the rest of us, contrary to what Labaree and Scimeca’s argument requires, we can believe in truth without deifying it as the only criteria that matters.
Second, Labaree and Scimeca are only addressing truth insofar as it applies to first-order, subject-predicate, descriptive propositions like “the Earth is round” or “the Earth is flat.” They fail to take into account that theories of truth also apply to second-order propositions about propositions. For example, a realist about truth will say that even though the proposition “the Earth is flat” is not true, the second-order proposition “some humans believe the Earth is flat” is absolutely true. So a book purporting to prove the Earth is flat may contain false propositions about the Earth, but the propositions we can derive from the book (i.e., that this is what people believe) can be true without any difficulty. In a sense, the value of our collections is not merely to be found in the truths therein contained, but also in the truths we can learn.
Third, this historicist approach doesn’t actually ask that we suspend judgment about the truth at all. Labaree and Scimeca fail to realize that on their historicist model, they have not suspended the truth, they have merely pushed truth considerations to the second-order. Consider an example they provide: the proposition expressed in the sentence “Dr. Faust and Don Juan are two archetypes that exemplify the aesthetic level of human existence” is unanalyzable under standard theories of truth. They are fictional characters and, moreover, this claim is tied specifically to Kierkegaard. How could we assess it’s truth? Oh dear! So, they replace it with the sentence “In Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Faust and Don Juan are two archetypes within the aesthetic level of human existence.” How does this suspend the truth? Now we’re asking if it’s true that Kierkegaard said that Faust and Don Juan were archetypes. No truth has been suspended, we simply clarified things. All Labaree and Scimeca are really saying is that sometimes we need historical context to evaluate the truth of a claim. But no theory of truth denies that. What do they think? That all of us who adopt the correspondence theory are going to see a book that says “unicorns have one horn” and say “unicorns don’t exist, DESTROY THIS BOOK.” Probably a bit extreme, but the straw man these authors are building isn’t much more substantial.
Finally, there are the technical issues. Their basic modus tollens argument commits a modal scope fallacy. Their invocation of “mankind’s intellectual development” (p. 66) points to a stadial teleology inherited from Herder and really out-of-touch with contemporary social theory. They give a lit review on theories of “reality” in LIS but then adopt a neo-Pragmatic, ultimately Peircean “social theory of reality” without any justification other than convenience for their historicism. This leads to repeated question-begging as they use a social theory of reality to justify historicism and vice-versa.Are we done yet?
Long story short: there aren’t many extended treatments of truth in the library literature and one of the few that’s out there is, quite frankly, unconvincing. Labaree and Scimeca argue that librarianship should suspend conceptions of truth, but their argument (1) does not establish that adopting a conception of truth is problematic and (2) does not actually suspend any conception of the truth.
For the purposes of what I’m writing (and presenting on at LOEX 2017, if you’re interested), this article fails to prove what it wants to prove and thus leaves the door wide open to reinforce the value of truth in librarianship.
 I’m skipping over their discussions of various theories of truth because (1) they ultimately reject them all and (2) their treatment of coherence theory is such a straw man it hurts.
 I’m not a Kuhnian. I also can’t figure out how Labaree and Scimeca can reconcile their historicist teleology with an essentially non-teleological model like Kuhn’s. I also think that documentation provides a strong antidote to the whole idea of incommensurability that lies at the heart of Kuhnian thought.
 Labaree and Scimeca cite Johannes Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind as the origin of the historicism they advocate. I don’t want to go down the rabbit-hole of German Idealism (actually I do), but let’s just say that Herder is an odd choice to cite. Also, it does a disservice to readers to introduce historicism without acknowledging (1) that there are competing interpretations of historicism, (2) that Hegelianism is probably the more widely accepted version, and (3) that there are numerous objections to historicism (Marx and Popper come to mind). Labaree and Scimeca briefly mention Popper’s objections to historicism, but they don’t describe the objections, nor do they respond to them in any meaningful way. (“Popper sees in Plato’s essentialist analysis of the state and in Hegel’s dialectical theory of history the two foundations of twentieth-century totalitarianism [76, vol. 1, p. 24; vol. 2, p. 193.]. Totalitarianism is the opposite of what Herder intended in his philosophical reflections on the history of mankind” (p. 66). That’s the extent of it and, sorry, but “that wasn’t the intent” is the weakest defense.)
 I’ll grant that I’m not a very good philosopher, so I may be way off base here.
I’ve seen a lot of comments saying something to the effect of, “post-truth isn’t anything new; call it what it is: propaganda!” Or, “post-truth is just a bullshit buzzword for disinformation!” While I understand the impetus behind the “post-truth = propaganda” line of thought, as a librarian interested in how people interact with information, I think it’s important to clarify that they do not actually describe the same phenomena.
As a point of reference for future writing on the topic (and to kill a few hours on the reference desk), consider what follows a helpful glossary on post-truth, propaganda, bullshit, and other contemporary terms of art. Some commentary follows.Glossary
bullshit (n.): a statement or statements grounded in a “lack of connection to a concern with truth” (Frankfurt, 2005)
disinformation (n.): (1) intentionally misleading semantic information; (2) misleading semantic information that has the function of misleading (Fallis, 2015)
fact (n.): an obtaining state of affairs
information (n): “a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson, 1972)
knowledge (n.): justified, true belief
misinformation (n.): inaccurate or misleading semantic information
propaganda (n.): “[semantic] information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view” (Source: Oxford Dictionaries Online)
post-truth (adj.): relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. (Source: OED)
semantic information (n.): well-formed, meaningful data (Floridi, 2015)
testimony (n.): an act of communication that is intended to communicate information
true (adj.): a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to an obtaining state of affairs (i.e., a fact)
truth (n): (1) an affirmation that corresponds to fact(s); (2) a set of true propositions
Your sense of identity–who you are as a person–is probably somewhere near the most important thing to you. I mean, it is you. How you understand yourself is…pretty much what it means to even have a self. And that sense of who you are is pretty much identical to the sum total of all the things you believe. Your beliefs about yourself, about other people, about life, love, the future, the past, the universe…taken together, your beliefs about these things define who you are. Of course, some of the things you believe are true and correspond to facts about the way the world really is; some of the things you believe are false and do not correspond to reality. Oh yeah, and some of the things you believe to be true are actually false and some of the things you believe to be false are actually true. We aren’t perfect. But, we all tend to acknowledge our own fallibility to some extent, and we all have a great big grey area in the middle; a great big grey question mark in the middle of you. These are the beliefs you haven’t decided are true or false. You’re probably more used to calling them questions.
So, there’s you. A huge set of beliefs you think are true, beliefs you think are false, and beliefs you just haven’t made up your mind on. Now, comes the question: should you try to have more true beliefs than false beliefs? If you say “yes” then it seems you have an obligation to learn. This impetus to pursue true beliefs and avoid false beliefs is pretty much the foundation for all of Western intellectual history (and most other cultures’ intellectual traditions as well). But, how do we know what’s true and what isn’t? Well, over time we’ve come up with means for justifying why we believe something to be true. That is, why we ought to believe it. And when we have a true belief that we can further justify to ourselves and others as being absolutely true, that’s when we say we have knowledge. Knowledge refers to those beliefs we have that we feel completely justified in believing to be true.
This is where cultures clash. Not in valuing true beliefs over false beliefs, but in agreeing on standards for justification. On what counts as knowledge. “I know it because God told me in a vision.” “I know it because I saw it with my own eyes.” “I know it because this book says so.” “I know it’s true because thousands of tests have confirmed it.” “I know it because that’s how we’ve always done it.” And so on. There are countless ways people have put forward to justify what they believe to be true. But, what (almost) every means of justification has in common is that justification relies on our acquiring information. Whether God’s voice, sensory perception, words on a page, patterns of bones, celestial phenomenon, stories about our ancestors, etc…it’s all information.
Now, there are too many different kinds of information to go into every kind, so I’ll just focus on one of the most important kinds of information: semantic information. Contrasted to sound waves hitting your eardrums or light waves reflected from objects, semantic information is well-formed and meaningful. It’s usually (though not always) information we gather from words. And, believe it or not, the vast majority of the things you believe are believed on the basis of other people’s words. How do you know your own birthday? Did you watch it yourself? How do you know the capital of a country you’ve never visited? How do you know that Donald Trump was elected POTUS? Did you count all the votes yourself? You know these things because you trusted someone’s testimony. Really, most of your beliefs–most of your very sense of identity–comes down to how much trust you put in the testimony you’ve gathered from people, books, magazines, websites, signs, graffiti, whispers, songs, poems, and so on.
Trust is hard. Not everyone who gives us information was careful in how they gathered it. They might give us false information: misinformation. Others may give us false information in order to deceive us: disinformation. Some give us false information in order to manipulate us: they lie to us. Some seek to control us by giving us a biased supply of carefully-selected (true) information mixed with disinformation; we call that propaganda. Other times, when people tell us something, they have no regard for the truth one way or the other; they’re bullshitting us.
All the while, we’re just trying to figure out what the truth is so we know what to believe. Over millennia, some information evaluation methods have become deeply entrenched: superstition, tradition, scriptural evidence, divine revelation, gut feelings, etc. Other information evaluation method have been proposed as replacements: direct observation, empirical experiment, logical inference, etc. We still debate over how to “reason” about the information we gather. But, whether it is the scientist making measurements or the priest consulting scripture, the aim is still the same: we want to know the truth.
And this is where the post-truth era comes in. In a post-truth world, the goal of information gathering is not to maximize true beliefs. The goal is to reaffirm sentiments, feelings, emotions. The very concepts of misinformation, disinformation, lying, and propaganda are irrelevant to the post-truth information gatherer because these concepts all require that we believe that true beliefs are more valuable than false beliefs. That’s what post-truth denies. So, to say that “post-truth is just propaganda” is to misunderstand both. Post-truth is not about the people giving us information. It’s about popular attitudes towards accepting information. Previously, we cared if what were told was true and we developed means (some better than others) of determining who to trust. But, in the post-truth environment, all that matters is how we feel about what we’re told. Truth doesn’t matter. And, by definition, if the truth doesn’t matter, then all we’re left with is bullshit.
Finally, don’t make the common mistakes of thinking that post-truth media consumption is a new phenomenon, or a uniquely right-wing phenomenon, or even a phenomenon rooted in ignorance. It was the rejection of post-truth sophistry that got Socrates sentenced to death, you know. More recently, it was post-truth that motivated Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Foucault’s post-structuralism and Derrida’s deconstructionism and Rorty’s neo-pragmatism and so on. I mean, it isn’t your right-wing, racist uncle reading Of Grammatology or lining up for the Judith Butler lecture; post-truth understandings of the world have been prominent in intellectual circles for some time. If anything, the current post-truth zeitgeist is nothing more than an affirmation of post-modern sensibilities. I’m not trying to make a blunt “critical theory is why Trump got elected” claim. I don’t think that’s true; post-truth really only applies to a small group of people and even then only to varying degrees. I’m just saying that post-truth media consumption is not considered a problem in some intellectual traditions (e.g., post-structuralism).
Okay. I’m done ranting. My overall point is that if we’re going to address the so-called “post-truth era” then we need to share a common language. We need to understand how information, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and bullshit all play into how people decide what to believe. And we need to understand that post-truth doesn’t care about any of that. And, like I said earlier, post-truth thinking isn’t even an all or nothing deal. Almost everyone has post-truth moments where they set truth aside in favor of something else (sentiment, feeling, convenience, etc.). We need to acknowledge that post-truth attitudes towards the media and towards expertise and towards politics are what people are really concerned about. That’s a hell of a mindset. How do you convince someone who thinks all media is corrupt, that all politicians are conspiring, that the only thing you can trust is what you already believe, that contradictions don’t matter, or that expertise is based on feeling? I’ve got ideas, but I don’t think ideas alone are going to change things.
Stuff I cited
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
Fallis, D. (2015). What Is disinformation? Library Trends 63(3), 401-426.
Floridi, L. (2015). Semantic conceptions of information. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/information-semantic/Frankfurt, H. G., & Bischoff, M. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [link]
So there’s this phrase being bandied about: “post-truth.” As in, we live in a “post-truth era.” Popular use of the phrase is over a decade old, but its recent ascendancy lead The Oxford English Dictionary to name it Word of the Year for 2016; here’s the OED definition: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. I mean, we’re at the point where Trump supporters racists are literally saying that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Armchair political scientists and ersatz media commentators are having a field day using post-truth politics to explain everything from contemporary political discourse to Brexit to identity politics to the rise of neo-Nazism to the presidential election and everything in between. “We’ve let sentimentality take precedence over facts and look where that got us!” seems to be the rallying cry.
As you’ve probably noticed, librarians are all over post-truth. Librarians are adamant that information literacy can help combat the post-truth world of fake news. School librarians have been singled out as key players in combating post-truth. School Library Journal is advocating for news literacy toolkits. The Annoyed Librarian wrote something or other. And the hot-takes on Twitter are all over the place. “The post-truth era needs information literacy and that means librarians need to step up!” seems to be the rallying cry.
There’s only one problem with that: information literacy has never been about truth.
Go ahead and search the ACRL Framework, search the ACRL Standards, search the AASL Standards, search the SCONUL Seven Pillars. Across all of the major statements of information literacy, the word ‘truth’ never appears a single time.1 The word ‘fact’ is used only once: in the AASL Standards where it is qualified as “superficial.” Information literacy is not about truth or facts. Go back and read the old ACRL Standards and you’ll see that the closest the Standards get to truth or fact is in vague mentions of evaluating reliability, validity, and accuracy in Standard 3.2.(a). These aren’t unpacked and it’s hard to say how we’re supposed to evaluate and what constitutes reliability, validity, or accuracy. So while the old Standards may not be consistent with post-truth, they don’t exactly provide any guidance on how to reach truth or fact. Of course, this isn’t the case with the Framework. The Framework not only fails to mention truth or fact, it seems to be perfectly consistent with post-truth: authority is constructed and should be met with skepticism; scholarship isn’t about truth, it’s about negotiating meaning; the world of information is a negotiated commodity where powerful forces are routinely marginalizing voices; and so on.
That the Framework is (superficially) consistent with the world of post-truth politics and fake news should come as no surprise. For the past decade there has been a healthy body of literature casting doubt on any connection between information literacy and truth. As Simmons (2005) argued in a widely cited paper, “As a profession, we cannot remain comfortably in a modernist paradigm of certainty and unified truth when our surroundings have shifted dramatically to a postmodern paradigm of ambiguity and multiple truths.” (emphasis added). A decade later, Tewell (2015) demonstrated how “critical information literacy” has encouraged librarians to argue that there are multiple ways of knowing, that students should construct their own knowledge, that all facts are contested, that knowledge production as an inherently political act, that information is a social construct, and so on. This critical turn is and has been an intentional pivot away from objective truth and fact and towards an increased awareness that so-called “facts” cannot be separated from the social processes that construct them.
But, I’m getting off-topic. I’m just trying to say that, to date, discussions about information literacy have tended to be ambivalent towards truth at best. The few times truth is invoked directly, it’s typically in theoretical contexts urging us to reject the very idea of “truth” as some sort of positivist bogeyman or relic of the Enlightenment. And yet, we still make implicit references to truth as we urge students to focus on external markers of credibility, like publication titles, author credentials, peer review, funding models, and whatever.
Here’s my overall point: if the world of post-truth and fake news is going to be a concern for librarians, then we have to frame information literacy in such a way that it puts truth front-and-center: information literacy cannot address post-truth until it has addressed truth itself. I’m not saying that we have to couch everything in terms of true and false; I’m not advocating for some folk, quasi-positivism here. No, we have to be judicious. Sometimes we need to question the truth or falsity of what we read. Sometimes we need to acknowledge that the rhetoric of “truth” is masking something unsavory. Sometimes we need to call-out falsity. Sometimes we need to reject prematurely naturalized truths. But at all times, if we’re going to address the post-truth world as librarians, we need to defend the idea of truth. I posted something the other day about conditional probability and information literacy and the need for a more robust treatment of how we reason about information. This post continues that project. Some things are true, some are false. Somethings we can know to be true with a high degree of probability. Some things not so much. But we always have to keep the idea of truth in mind. If we’re going to address post-truth, truthiness, fake news, misinformation, disinformation, or whatever else, we need to start talking about the role of truth and facts in information literacy. I think we, as librarians, have a sort of tacit agreement that truth is a part of information literacy, but at the moment that isn’t really reflected in our discourse and I’m hoping that can change. I just want to see librarians start to discuss the nature of truth or at least explicitly mention truth when they discuss information literacy. Is that too much to ask?
Simmons, M. H. (2005). Librarians as disciplinary discourse mediators: Using genre theory to move toward critical information literacy. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5(3), 297-311.Tewell, E. (2015). A decade of critical information literacy: A review of the literature. Communications in Information Literacy, 9(1), 24-43.  Here’s the philosophy bit you can ignore if you so choose: So, ‘true’ and ‘fact’ are technical terms that need to be distinguished. Truth doesn’t exist in the real world, it’s a property of sentences. To say something is true is just to say that the sentence expressing it bears a certain relationship to reality. So, the sentence “The integer 3 is a prime number” is true because the proposition ‘the integer 3 is a prime number’ corresponds to the fact that 3 is prime. When we talk about actual reality, we’re talking facts. So, to say “the integer 3 is prime” is true is just to say that the sentence corresponds to the fact that 3 is actually prime. Of course, the propositions we really care about aren’t so cut and dry. The claim, “millions of illegals voted in the election” requires us to unpack a lot of terms: what does “illegals” refer to, what does it mean “to vote,” what do we refer to by “the election,” and so on. Can we define those terms and relations in such a way as to make the original claim correspond to some actual state of affairs? It gets complicated and we have some not-insignificant work to do. So, you see, there is a bit of a chasm between the truth of claims like “3 is prime” or “water is H2O” and claims like “millions of illegals voted” or “Bernie would have won the election.” Advocating for the concept of truth is decidedly not the same as advocating that determining truth is easy.
So, I’ve been trying to come up with a research agenda. I mean, I can’t be the “Framework is stupid” guy forever;1 I don’t want to get pigeonholed.
Anyway, it’s Sunday night and I’m thinking that if I’m going to turn my back on whatever the ACRL comes up with, I’ve still got to have a working concept of “information literacy” (or something to that effect.) Well, I’ve had this idea rattling around for over a year and the other day I finally thought I’d pursue it. So I fired up the LISTA database and started searching for something I figured some librarians somewhere had already researched thoroughly: Bayesian interpretations of information literacy.
Nothing. Not a single article. I checked a few of the major journals. Nada. Google Scholar? Just one 2002 article by Carol Gordon (formerly of Rutgers and clearly on to something). I headed over to Twitter and asked where the rest of the research was? Crickets. From what I can tell, no librarians are applying Bayesian theory to information literacy. Shoot, the impression I’m getting is that most information literacy librarians have never even heard of Bayesian inference. So that’s going to be it. My research agenda will be to introduce a Bayesian approach to information literacy.
But what does that even mean? Here’s a brief overview:Bayesianism
That formula at the top of this post is the simple form of Bayes’ Theorem. It’s been around for a few hundred years and even though you’ve probably never seen it in library studies, it is absolutely everywhere in information science, cognitive science, legal studies, communication, epistemology, logic, and other assorted fields where people talk about concepts like reliability, credibility, the trustworthiness of information sources, how to evaluate online news, and other things that sound a hell of a lot like “information literacy.” When applied to information literacy, the basic idea behind a Bayesian approach is that your confidence level in the truth of some claim that you’ve read (or watched, heard, etc) is proportional to your confidence level in that claim being true before you read (or watched, or heard, etc) about it times the likelihood that it is actually true. Let’s look at a fairly standard example of Bayes’ Theorem in action.
Suppose there’s a 12% chance that a woman will develop breast cancer (which is scary true). Now, let’s say that contemporary mammograms have an 85% success rate at discovering breast cancer (about right). However, they also have around a 55% false positive rate, meaning they falsely show cancer when there really isn’t any (again, about the right number). Now, if a woman gets her mammogram results back and they come up positive for breast cancer, how worried should she be? This is where Bayes comes in. We’ll start with a slightly extended version of the theory:
where in our example, the values are like this:
Pr(A|B) = probability of breast cancer given that the mammogram results are positive
Pr(B|A) = probability of positive mammogram results when cancer is actually present. A.K.A., the reliability of the mammogram = 85%
Pr(A) = likelihood of a woman developing breast cancer = 12%
Pr(B|¬A) = probability the mammogram is reporting a false positive = 55%
Pr(¬A) = likelihood a woman does not develop breast cancer = 88% (100% – 12%)
Plugging in the values and you get:
Which means that when a typical mammogram returns a positive diagnosis, there’s only a 17% chance that cancer is actually present.
With me still? Wondering what this has to do with information literacy? Instead of thinking about “does vs. does not have cancer,” how about thinking of “is or is not a fact.” And instead of thinking “how reliable and accurate is this medical test” how about thinking “how reliable and accurate is this information source.” See where I’m going?Bayesian Information Literacy
Consider the “fake news” problem everyone is talking about. Let’s say your Facebook friend hears that Bernie Sanders can still win the presidential election thanks to “this one weird trick.” You know the kind of story I’m talking about. Now, let’s say that before reading anything but a headline, your friend is already 90% sure that’s not really true, but decides to read anyway. The first article she reads is from U.S. Uncut and she already thinks that U.S. Uncut is a pretty dodgy news source, so she only gives the website around 40% reliability. That is, it’s more unreliable than reliable. Applying Bayesian probability, we can say that her belief changes from 90% to 93% sure it’s not true. As in, if an unlikely piece of news is reported by a source you deem unreliable, you are slightly more inclined to reject the news than accept it. But, let’s say she then reads a CNN article that says the same thing and she thinks CNN is moderately reliable. Maybe CNN reports are more like 75% true. Bayesian approaches allow us to combine her prior confidence from after reading U.S. Uncut with the information from CNN and give your friend room to doubt. Now she’s only 82% sure the story is a fake. She reads more about Bernie’s chances on Occupy Democrats (55% reliable), NPR (90% reliable), and ABC News (80% reliable) and ends up being 91% sure that Bernie still has “one weird trick.” Neat, huh?
Sure, those percentages are just made-up, but the exact numbers aren’t important. And, it’s important to note that this example only addresses her subjective attitudes towards how reliable various sources are. It’s also worth noting that the formula for combining these multiple, sequential prior probabilities is a bit more complicated than the one I put up earlier. Yet, still, broader insights fall out when we think about information literacy in Bayesian terms:
It’s Bayesian inference that explains why your racist uncle believes everything on Breitbart and InfoWars and refuses to accept the New York Times as a legitimate news source. It’s Bayesian inference that explains why a flood of spurious news stories from barely reliable sources can add up to convince otherwise rational people that…yeah, maybe Hillary Clinton did intentionally let Benghazi happen or, yeah, maybe Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. It’s not a question of true or false. It’s a question of levels of confidence, and if a news source shared on Facebook says 99 true things and 1 false thing, you’re more likely to believe the false thing at least a little bit. It’s why sites like Breitbart are so successful: the (slight) majority of the things reported on Breitbart are factual, but selectively reported or couched in false claims. Like, right now, the cover story on Breitbart is that Trump hasn’t selected a Secretary of State yet. I think Breitbart is a garbage source for news, but I believe that particular story is most likely factual. Same for the stories about Trump selecting (the asshat voucher-lover) Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary or about some right-wing immigration group arguing that the SPLC should lose tax exempt status. These are plausible, factual stories. They’re selectively reported, to be sure, but they are largely factual. But there’s an article right in the middle defending a alt-right Nazi rally, and this is where we need to think critically about how people engage with information sources, because modern members of the alt-right Nazis aren’t created by late night Mein Kampf study marathons. They don’t get their start on fringe alt-right Nazi websites. They’re wooed by hateful, racist garbage “news” sources that receive a veneer of plausibility by being couched in factually reported information. You tell a student that Breitbart is biased and point to the article defending the alt-right Nazi rally; the student says it’s not and points to the dozen other more-or-less factually correct articles. How do you respond to that? We naturally evaluate information on Bayesian lines, to one degree or another and when we get too subjective with how we assign credibility to sources or too dogmatic/uninformed/etc. about what we want to be true, we stumble into confirmation bias, selective reading, echo chambers, filter bubbles, and so on.Bayes explains it. Check out this NPR story from Friday about a dude who’s built a fake news publishing empire in the San Francisco suburbs. He never explicitly says Bayes, but he absolutely describes how he uses Bayes to manipulate his (mostly right-wing) audience. If peddlers of misinformation and disinformation are using Bayesian concepts to manipulate, shouldn’t we pay attention so we can set things straight?
For anyone interested in “information literacy,” understanding how people actually evaluate sources is vitally important. It also helps as we try to determine how people should evaluate information. Again, these all may sound like obvious observations, but that’s only because Bayesian inference underlies most of our common-sense understanding of how people reason from information sources and I think it’s time library studies took notice. I hope to write more as I learn more, but I can already see several research questions that are unanswerable within the current literature on information literacy, but that might be addressed with Bayesian concepts:
I could keep coming up with questions. And if, after this post, I get the impression that this is an area of information literacy that people might be interested in, then I’ll keep asking questions. But, keep in mind that this is a hastily written sketch of Bayesian inference. I can point to a few mathematical errors and omissions I left in for the sake of explaining the general theory better. There’s also a lot of work out there on assigning reliability, assigning confidence levels, estimating prior probabilities, and so on. There’s also a lot of related work that needs to be covered on things like the epistemology of testimony. So this post only barely scratches a scratch on the surface. Here’s the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Bayesian Epistemology if you’re interested in a longer introduction. You can also just Google it and find hundreds and hundreds of articles and essays delving into Bayesian source evaluation.
So, I don’t know why this has escaped the notice of librarians for so long (Carol excluded!), but it’s where I’d like to take information literacy. And, I’m not just interested in bringing the theories of cognitive science, psychology, information science, economics, philosophy, law, decision theory, and so on into library studies; I’m also interested in asking how librarians can bring their expertise to bear on the problems being investigated in those other, related fields.
What do you think? Does this make any sense at all? I’d love to hear in the comments.
EDIT 11/30/2016: Just to be clear, I’m not saying we should teach students about Bayesian inference. I’m saying that Bayesian theory can help improve our understanding of how people use information. A Bayesian approach can help highlight important concepts that we need to address. How we choose to address those concepts is quite separate.
ADDENDUMY THING: I was just about to hit post, I stepped away to grab a beer, and I had another thought I want to put down. One of the interesting areas of inquiry with Bayesian inference is how the coherence of our beliefs affects are receptivity to new information. Let’s say there’s a hypothetical person, Jan, who only has three beliefs: (1) Trump won the electoral college, (2) the presidential election was rigged to favor Hillary Clinton, and (3) Trump won the popular vote. Clearly, these aren’t all true, but it’s plausible that Jan believes them. And, importantly, they form a coherent set of beliefs. Now, let’s say we introduce a new piece of information: (4) Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Bayes tells us that Jan’s willingness to accept (4) is very small given that it does not cohere with (1)-(3). So, the subjective confidence Jan places in an information source reporting (4) is going to have to be incredibly high for Jan to be willing to reassess (1)-(3). That, or an incredibly large number of highly reliable (according to Jan) sources are going to have to consistently report (4) in order to overcome the coherent set of beliefs (1)-(3). Now, think back on your Thanksgiving meal and ask yourself if any of your relatives sound like Jan. Are you a sufficiently reliable source to overcome Jan’s coherent web of beliefs? Interesting, right? (see BonJour’s The Structure of Empirical Knowledge (1985) for an intro to coherentism. I’m not a coherentist per se, but I do think coherence is a huge factor in belief acquisition. Addendumy thing over.
 No, but seriously, the Framework is pretty stupid.
On my most recent post about the ACRL-Document-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, @valibrarian asked what I thought about metaliteracy. I’ve written so much about threshold concepts in the You-Know-What but I’ve never really tackled that other strange idea. True, I wrote a short “what’s the deal with metaliteracy?” post more than five years ago on the transliteracy blog.
Oh, yeah, transliteracy. I wrote some stuff about that back in the day. Don’t judge.
Anyway, @valibrarian asked:
Excellent thoughts on the current ideas floating in the ethereal digital thinking world on the topic of information literacy. You ponder, “Now, it could be that the frame is just invoking the postmodern ….” in reference to that time of “deconstruction of everything” as part of the quest for meaning. (Glad that is over and we are now in metamodernism which is more hopeful.)
Nomenclature, once again, and choice of phrasing is imperative to understanding, yet continues to be a paradox of ever-changing words. As a former blogger on the Libraries and Transliteracy Project, I am wondering if you embrace the term metaliteracy? I keep colliding with the two terms (metaliteracy and metamodernism) and am working on a paper to defend them as currently useful to identify literacy in global digital participatory culture- where we now live and learn.
To which I responded:
Every presentation I ever gave on transliteracy began with me telling the audience that ‘transliteracy’ was just a silly little buzzword…BUT the issues that motivated people to grab on to that buzzword were (and are) real and substantive. It’s the same way with metaliteracy; I think it’s a largely meaningless buzzword. Honestly, the concept just seems simple and somewhat shallow to me. Literally everything discussed under the aegis of metaliteracy has been studied at great length elsewhere (mass comm, epistemology, psychology, information theory, rhetoric, critical thinking, etc.). Calling it “postmodern” and slapping some Bourdieu and Lyotard quotes on it doesn’t make metaliteracy any more meaningful.
BUT the issues that motivated people to create the buzzword ‘metaliteracy’ are worth looking at. The effects of social media and digital environments on cognition and communication are certainly worth studying and worth considering carefully. I just find the literature in other disciplines more robust and compelling. As to metamodernism, I haven’t heard that one yet. Sounds like post-post modernism.
I guess this is the way scholarship works now: find a popular concept, claim it no longer applies to our “changing world”, slap on a new prefix, and publish the shit out of it for the 2-3 years that people pay attention. Transliteracy, metaliteracy, hyperliteracy, post-literacy, neoliteracy, metamodern, ultramodern, neomodern…which one will be next do you think? Sorry if I seem cynical, I just think we get too hung up on naming and constructing theories and we end up forgetting about the real issues that motivated us in the first place.
And that, dear readers, is what I think of metaliteracy.
Hey there! Get ready for the final Frame and some fond remembrances. There’s still 6 years to go before we put together the inevitable task force to completely replace the Framework, so to kill some time, here are links to my other Frame reviews:
Let’s get to exploring!The Draft Framework: Searching is Exploration
Back when they called it “Searching is Exploration” the ACRL described the Frame thusly:
Locating information requires a combination of inquiry, discovery, and serendipity. There is no one size fits all source to find the needed information. Information discovery is nonlinear and iterative, requiring the use of a broad range of information sources and flexibility to pursuit alternate avenues as new understanding is developed.
The search for information is ignited by inquiry, the pursuit of which is rarely linear and requires the knowledge and use of a range of source types. It is also a process of discovery, and experts realize that methods employed may be fluid and that any element (including inquiry) of an overall approach can change based on increased understanding of a subject; discovering one source can lead to other sources or avenues of inquiry. Experts also recognize that there are boundaries for research, such as the context of the initial inquiry and time available to pursue it, and that part of the process is determining project scope based on these boundaries.
A novice researcher may rely on one or two familiar resources while an expert surveys the breadth of information sources to determine where to best obtain the information sought within the project scope. These sources include more than Internet resources, databases, social media, books, journals, etc. They include the knowledge, observations and expertise of people as well. For example, it may become necessary to conduct a formal interview or stop somewhere to ask for directions. Experts use resources that make the most contextual sense to satisfy an inquiry ethically.
Further, effective use of selected resources is predicated on understanding them. Just as understanding how a system is constructed and works will empower the expert to uncover more relevant results, an understanding of people and effective communication can enable access to their knowledge. The very best interviewers are more effective at teasing out details than beginners, for example. Experts will also spend time learning about their selected resource to better understand it and access needed information as different resources require different methods of access.
At the time I noticed that almost every single idea in this Frame appeared elsewhere in the Framework and that this Frame provided nothing truly original. Like, if you grasp the first five frames, then you automatically understand this one. At the same time, this frame seemed so trivial and obvious that it had me scratching my head and asking how this Frame could possibly be a marker of expertise. I basically had to give up on this one. So, let’s see what’s changed…The Official Framework: Searching as Strategic Exploration
Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.
The act of searching often begins with a question that directs the act of finding needed information. Encompassing inquiry, discovery, and serendipity, searching identifies both possible relevant sources as well as the means to access those sources. Experts realize that information searching is a contextualized, complex experience that affects, and is affected by, the cognitive, affective, and social dimensions of the searcher. Novice learners may search a limited set of resources, while experts may search more broadly and deeply to determine the most appropriate information within the project scope. Likewise, novice learners tend to use few search strategies, while experts select from various search strategies, depending on the sources, scope, and context of the information need.
I mentioned the awkward grammar in the draft version but let it slide because, you know, draft. But, honestly, it hasn’t improved much. To take just one example, read that second sentence out loud: “The act of searching often begins with a question that directs the act of finding needed information.” Isn’t that just a terribly convoluted way of saying “searching begins with a question?” Yes. Yes it is. Go ahead and make a syntax tree if you don’t agree. Moving on…
Let’s play out a scenario. A novice and an expert both want to know what the weather will be like tomorrow. According to this Frame, the novice will probably just Google it and get the Weather Channel forecast. Or, more likely, the novice will look at a smartphone app. But the expert is different. She takes stock of the social context and understands that an accurate forecast is crucial if she is going to select the correct clothing tomorrow. She consults several meteorological services and compiles cross-tabulated reports comparing relative accuracies over a 10-year span. She searches repeatedly throughout the day to determine if the anticipated barometric pressure is going up or down…
Nah, just kidding, she checks the app on her smartphone like everyone else. For most of your everyday searching, novices and experts search in pretty much the same way. The key difference is that experts and novices differ in the credence levels they ascribe to the information sources they encounter. A novice will pick the first Google result out of convenience; an expert will look to balance convenience with trustworthiness.
But what about serious searching? Like, searching for articles for your research paper? To continue with a worry I brought up in the last post, we do have to consider how much of the Framework was constructed with first-year college composition papers in mind. And Searching as Strategic Exploration certainly seems like something that we want to get across to first-year students. We want them to broaden their horizons beyond Google. We want them to show more persistence when they use databases. We want them to get more creative and agile with their keywords. We want them to be familiar with a wider range of search strategies and a wider range of places to search. Because their papers suck otherwise.
But here’s the thing, all this Frame is really contributing to the Framework is the idea that experts tend to search more thoroughly and persistently than novices; novices search shallowly and look for whatever is convenient. That’s about it because, in fact, most of this Frame is just a rewrite of Research as Inquiry. Compare the first sentence of each:
“Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.”
“Research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers in turn develop additional questions or lines of inquiry in any field.”
Iteration? Check. Pursuing new lines of inquiry as new understanding develops? Check. You can go through both Frames and see the similarities. So, just like in the draft, we’ve got a vague re-hash of other frames. Let’s just move on to the knowledge practices and dispositions. I’m just going to combine them and treat them the same because even through the introduction to the Framework talks about knowledge practices and dispositions as separate entities relating to cognitive and affective aspects of learning, respectively, as you may have noticed the Framework mixes up cognitive and affective all over the place. So here’s a comparison:2014 Draft Knowledge Practices and Dispositions 2016 Official Knowledge Practices and Dispositions Mostly the same
I’m not going to say anything about the ones that track the draft version; I just want to look at the new practices and dispositions. FIrst, that divergent vs. convergent thinking thing is way too open to interpretation. Sure, they just cribbed it from the AASL standards, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense there either. Whatever. The interesting thing is the way they’ve brought in database mechanics in a roundabout way. Understanding information organization, controlled vocabularies, keywords, and so on. Frankly, that’s a welcome change. I know that lots of instruction librarians think that teaching students where to click is somehow outdated or beneath a librarian’s dignity or something, so it’s interesting to see a document launching an “educational reform movement” make room for this particular tradition.
Really, though, this Frame just doesn’t have a lot going for it. Placing it next to Research as Inquiry brings forth an obvious question: what is the difference between search and research? While I had hoped the final version would have made things more clear, it really hasn’t. The Framework wants to treat search and research as different things, but then equivocates so much and blurs the lines to such an extent that it’s hard to figure out how searching is distinct from researching. And it’s a simple distinction: the OED tells us that research is “systematic investigation or inquiry aimed at contributing to knowledge of a theory, topic, etc., by careful consideration, observation, or study of a subject” and that search is “to peruse, look through, examine (writings, records) in order to discover whether certain things are contained there.” Searching is looking for the answer; research is looking for new questions. And they work together, so it’s just awkward to see the Framework split them into two concepts and then have them overlap so much. I would have much preferred to see a clear statement about the relationship between searching and researching. But, alas, it’s the Framework, and as we have seen over the past few posts, clarity isn’t exactly the name of the game here.
And that wraps up my revisit of the Framework. If you love the Framework, go right ahead and love it. If you hate the Framework, go right ahead and hate it. As I wrote not too long ago, in the grand scheme of information literacy and library instruction, picking sides doesn’t really matter. Personally, were I to bullet out my gripes with the Framework, it would go something like this:
And let’s end on that last one. I really think that now is the time to ask ourselves if we’re approaching information literacy in the right way. Could there just maybe be people in educational psychology or media studies or sociology or information science or other fields that we can learn from? I feel like for the past 30 years or so we’ve been treating information literacy as an interdisciplinary concern but not actually using interdisciplinary approaches to explain what information literacy is and why it is important. Instead, librarians create new definitions of information literacy every decade or so. And it’s all done by fiat, more or less. I guarantee that in about a decade (maybe 15 years) there will be another ACRL task force convened to create a completely new librarian-centric take on information literacy. Maybe the ACRL Matrix of Information Literacy in Higher Education. Or the Map. The Timeline. The Hologram. The Breakfast Burrito. Whatever. We turned against the Standards once they seemed “outdated” and we’ll turn against the Framework once we think it’s run its course too. Maybe next time we should try to look at information literacy itself rather than try to come up with a new list.1
Whatever. At the end of the day all I can say with certainty is that the whole ACRL Framework affair has caused me to look elsewhere, outside of the library world, for guidance on which critical thinking skills librarians can help impart. Because that’s all information literacy really is: the narrow subset of general critical thinking skills that librarians can sometimes help teach. And even that is too charitable because so much of what passes for information literacy is parasitic on logic, rhetoric, mass media, and sociology. So when I see librarians using Standards and Frameworks to try to lay claim to their “discipline” of information literacy, it just feels sort of narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. Trying to keep that imposter syndrome at bay, I suppose. Now, I’m not saying that librarians don’t bring something special to the table. We totally do. And I want to explore that in future posts. But when I help faculty design assignments and curricula or when I help students find sources for a paper or when I stand for 50 minutes in front of an ENGL 1010 class, I’m never thinking about which Frame or Standard I’m teaching. I’m only thinking about what knowledge I can share that will help that faculty member or those students succeed now and into the future. Forced to choose between what the Framework says about information literacy and what my faculty and students say about information literacy, I’ll choose my faculty and students every time.
Overall Grade: F
Behind the jargon it’s just that experts are more persistent and creative than novices. That’s it? You could drop this Frame entirely and still fit all the same lesson plans into the Framework.
 I’m writing something now that uses social epistemology and Bayesian probability to recast information literacy. I’m still in the jargon stage, but it’s something like “a person’s ability to use external markers of validity to assign epistemically reliable credence levels to instances of semantic information.” I promise there will be an explanation eventually published out there somewhere and in normal language.
You know, that last Frame review really bummed me out. I mean, “research as inquiry” is a great concept, but it’s hardly unique to information literacy, and now I’m sort of questioning the whole pretense behind the Framework. But, I’m not going to give up. Time for the penultimate frame: Scholarship as Conversation. To sum up where we’ve been:
On to the conversation!The Draft Framework: Scholarship is a Conversation
Here’s what I originally had to work with:
Scholarship is a conversation refers to the idea of sustained discourse within a community of scholars or thinkers, with new insights and discoveries occurring over time as a result of competing perspectives and interpretations.
While many questions can be answered by appeal to a single, authoritative source–the capital of a country or the atomic number of an element, for example–scholarly research resists simple answers. Rather, scholarship is discursive practice in which ideas are formulated, debated, and weighed against one another over extended periods of time. Instead of seeking discrete answers to complex problems, scholars understand that a given issue may be characterized by several competing perspectives. Far from a unified body of uncontested knowledge, the scholarly record is better understood in terms of a conversation in which information users and creators come together to negotiate meaning, with the expert adding his or her voice to the conversation. The expert understands that there may not be a single uncontested answer to a query and, hence, is inclined to seek out the many perspectives in a scholarly conversation, not merely the one with which the expert already agrees.
Let me tell you: I had some serious problems with this one. I mean, I totally get how scholarship is a discursive activity and I’m not denying that it is. It’s been that way forever. Plato wrote in dialogues for [insert preferred deity here]’s sake. No, the problems I had were related to scholarship being explicitly referred to as a “conversation.” If that’s supposed to be taken literally, then we’re in a situation where the definition of conversation has to be stretched so broadly that literally any discursive act is a conversation and the very idea of conversation becomes meaningless as a signifier. If it’s to be taken metaphorically, then we need to step back, read some Lakoff, and come back after we’ve had time to wrap our heads around conceptual metaphors. Is this an actual, generative metaphor that conditions how we understand scholarship or is it just a helpful comparison to use when talking to novices. Or is it something else? It’s like saying “the brain is a computer” is a central organizing concept in neuroscience or “history is a weapon” is a core concept for historians or “sociology is a martial art” is a fundamental part of sociology. My point was simply that metaphors–especially academic ones–tend to mask specific theoretical positions that are usually contested. Metaphors are a way to conceptualize a space, but they do not define it. We can use “scholarship is a conversation” as a metaphor in our pedagogical approach with students because it’s great for novices, but true expertise comes in knowing all the reasons that scholarship is not a conversation. True expertise means being able to tell when scholarship is a conversation and when it is a debate, a discovery, an explanation, an argument, a summary, or any of the other forms scholarship might take.
Let’s see if the official frame has moved past the metaphor…The Official Framework: Scholarship as Conversation
Scholarship as Conversation
Communities of scholars, researchers, or professionals engage in sustained discourse with new insights and discoveries occurring over time as a result of varied perspectives and interpretations.
Research in scholarly and professional fields is a discursive practice in which ideas are formulated, debated, and weighed against one another over extended periods of time. Instead of seeking discrete answers to complex problems, experts understand that a given issue may be characterized by several competing perspectives as part of an ongoing conversation in which information users and creators come together and negotiate meaning. Experts understand that, while some topics have established answers through this process, a query may not have a single uncontested answer. Experts are therefore inclined to seek out many perspectives, not merely the ones with which they are familiar. These perspectives might be in their own discipline or profession or may be in other fields. While novice learners and experts at all levels can take part in the conversation, established power and authority structures may influence their ability to participate and can privilege certain voices and information. Developing familiarity with the sources of evidence, methods, and modes of discourse in the field assists novice learners to enter the conversation. New forms of scholarly and research conversations provide more avenues in which a wide variety of individuals may have a voice in the conversation. Providing attribution to relevant previous research is also an obligation of participation in the conversation. It enables the conversation to move forward and strengthens one’s voice in the conversation.
Damn it. They’ve doubled down on the metaphor.
The first half is essentially the same as the draft, with only minor rearrangements. Then they add in this other stuff: about how power and authority structures privilege certain voices, about how you need to learn the discursive rules of a discipline before finding a voice there, and about the importance of citation processes. Yes, those are three completely true things. But, what are the authority structures? What are the “sources of evidence, methods and modes of discourse?” How does properly citing sources strengthen one’s voice? And the only way to answer those things is to start examining the ways that scholarship is totally not like a conversation. Those authority structures that control the ability to participate and that privilege voices? Let’s talk about scholarly publishing, open access, peer-review, tenure, sexism on the conference circuit, and so on. Those discursive rules of the game that fields have; their methods and styles of discourse? In many fields, like the hard sciences, those rules and methods are intentionally set up to prevent scholars from “negotiating meaning” through conversation; the methods are aimed at discovery and confirmation, not negotiation. And citing sources, while an important part of research, seems like an odd way to try to “strengthen one’s voice.” This isn’t Facebook where the more people you tag the more likes you get.
Another thing: pushing the conversation metaphor and talking about “negotiating meaning” leads to even more trouble when you notice how the frame equivocates over the concept ‘research.’ When it says “research in scholarly and professional fields is a discursive practice…” it’s talking about research as the act of looking for published information. But the frame also talks about “the sources of evidence, methods, and modes of discourse” in a field, which includes things like empirical research, which is decidedly not the same sort of discursive practice. Research in a library and research in a lab are very different things and this frame seems to want to conflate them. Now, it could be that the frame is just invoking the postmodern science studies that was en vogue in the 1980s and 1990s, where critical theorists argued that empirical research actually is discursive and all science is socially constructed. But, that’s a minority view these days and, what’s more, it reinforces what I said earlier about using a metaphor to mask a contested position.
But, let’s try to be charitable. Let’s kill the conversation metaphor and try to get at what this frame is really trying to say. I think the intent is something like this:
Some issues or subjects have lots of different ways of thinking about them and we should be mindful of that. It’s always a good idea to take other perspectives into consideration in your research because they might lead to new insights. Just be aware that there are external factors affecting which of those perspectives you’ll have access to. And be sure to cite your sources so we have some context for understanding how your ideas developed.
What do you think? I think it captures the spirit of the frame without invoking conversations and negotiating meaning. It also allows for more general application outside of academic environments. Like, students could apply this version after they graduate. But, if this simplified version is fair, then it also lays bare another problem with this frame. Scholarship as Conversation only really makes sense in the context of a first-year composition synthesis essay. You know, when you have to explain that “gun control” is not a research question. Or when you have that student who only thinks in terms of “pro and con” articles. This frame seems to have been constructed with first-year library one-shot issues in mind. Which makes sense because that’s where librarians are typically given their 50 minute one-shot sessions. But now I’m wondering how much of the entire Framework’s approach to information literacy is just a reflection of–and a reaction to–the things encountered in our general education writing courses? I mean, it’s fine if it is, but we can’t then pretend that the Framework is some grand statement of information literacy. Maybe call it the Framework for Information Literacy in First-Year Composition Classes. But this Frame just doesn’t seem to extend much beyond that level: scholarship as a conversation is the novice position; experts understand just how complex and nuanced scholarship really is and treat it as its own unique discursive practice. Not better or worse than conversation…just different.
The more I think about it, the more I’m realizing how much work we really need to do on information literacy. The six frames of the Framework were identified through the lens of threshold concept theory, which means they are basic concepts that form a foundation on which to build information literacy. A student is not information literate simply by grasping all six frames. Even though the ACRL has called a mulligan and now claims that the Framework is merely (and only slightly) influenced by threshold concept theory, that doesn’t change the fact that the identified frames are fairly simple, basic, first-year student level concepts. So what comes next?
I think now is a good time to start building on the Frames and identifying the core concepts of information literacy. Scholarship as Conversation offers a good example of the need. The frame is rather straight-forward and simple and could be a good set-up for introducing more substantive topics (scholarly communications, peer-review, OA, etc.) that could make up the meat of information literacy. We can start working on a real theory of information literacy, rather than just focusing on how to teach students the rudimentary basics.
And just like the last frame I wrote about, this one has got me way off track and thinking about the Framework more generally. I think I’ll give it a rest and save up my energy for the next frame. See you then!1
Overall Grade: F
It’s a metaphor, which means it’s only one out of many ways of presenting the idea of scholarship. And it’s a remedial way at that.
 Oh yeah, the knowledge practices and dispositions! I forgot! Well, it doesn’t matter because unlike the other frames, they didn’t change or remove a single knowledge practice or disposition. They just added new ones that don’t really say anything that isn’t in the frame already itself.
Three down, three to go. Welcome back to another round of “Revisiting the Framework” where I’m going through and looking at how the ACRL Framework changed between the original draft version I reviewed in 2014 and the final, ACRL-approved version. It’s been a week or so since my last post, but I’m smoking some chicken leg quarters and I have some time to write, so here it goes. Here’s where we’re at so far:
So, on to the next one: Research as Inquiry.The Draft Framework: Research as Inquiry
This is the text from the 2014 draft version that I initially reviewed:
Research as Inquiry refers to an understanding that research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex questions whose answers develop new questions or lines of inquiry in any field.
Experts see inquiry as a process that focuses on problems or questions in a discipline or between disciplines that are open or unresolved. Experts recognize the collaborative effort within a discipline to extend the knowledge in that field by developing a knowledge base of lines of inquiry, research methodologies, and best practices for conducting research. Many times, this process includes points of disagreement where debate and dialog work to deepen the conversations around knowledge. This process of inquiry extends beyond the academic world to include instances such as evidence and data collected by groups and individuals in communities and the public at large, and the process of inquiry may also focus upon personal, professional, or societal needs. The spectrum of inquiry thus encompasses processes of basic recapitulation of knowledge and data, by the novice, through increasing stages of greater understanding of a discipline or exchanges between disciplines, among more experienced researchers. The novice works to understand foundational ideas, methods, and over time develops the corresponding ability to formulate more advanced research questions and employ a greater repertoire of investigative methods.
You know what? I was actually pretty okay with this one. It’s not a threshold concept, but it is an important concept. People have a bad habit of ignoring disconfirming evidence, of letting their biases go unchecked, of being unwilling to admit that they don’t know as much as they think they do. Research isn’t about finding answers, it’s about finding new questions to ask. And lots of people don’t get that. Those students that write the paper first and then schedule a research appointment to find their 10 sources? You know the ones. That’s who this frame is directed at. Also, those students that fire up a database, type in the phrase “why are the problems in fracking good or bad for are countrys future,” click search, and then immediately say “the library sucks…they don’t have anything on my topic.” This frame is for them.
I only had a few concerns about the draft version. First, the language was overwrought. But that’s to be expected in a draft document put out by a committee. Second, I thought the draft needed to address epistemic humility, which is the ability to recognize the limits of your own knowledge; the ability to accurately assess your own competence. Otherwise, this was a perfectly fine frame.
Let’s see how it’s changed…The Official Framework: Research as Inquiry
Research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers in turn develop additional questions or lines of inquiry in any field.
Experts see inquiry as a process that focuses on problems or questions in a discipline or between disciplines that are open or unresolved. Experts recognize the collaborative effort within a discipline to extend the knowledge in that field. Many times, this process includes points of disagreement where debate and dialogue work to deepen the conversations around knowledge. This process of inquiry extends beyond the academic world to the community at large, and the process of inquiry may focus upon personal, professional, or societal needs. The spectrum of inquiry ranges from asking simple questions that depend upon basic recapitulation of knowledge to increasingly sophisticated abilities to refine research questions, use more advanced research methods, and explore more diverse disciplinary perspectives. Novice learners acquire strategic perspectives on inquiry and a greater repertoire of investigative methods.
Well, that’s almost identical to the draft version. They tightened up the language a bit, but otherwise there are no substantive differences. That is, until you look at the knowledge practices and dispositions. Here’s a side-by-side, slightly rearranged so that similar dispositions rise to the top:2014 Draft Knowledge Practices 2016 Official Knowledge Practices
Mostly the SameLearners who are developing their information literate abilities
Well now, that’s quite the change. The dispositions I said were redundant or inapplicable were dropped and in their place were added the last six dispositions. And, while they are good intellectual habits, don’t they seem a little too broad? Like, these seem to have come from a critical thinking textbook or something. Granted, information literacy is just a subset of critical thinking, so it does make some sense, but I wonder if the ACRL is trying to lay claim to more general critical thinking skills as an area of librarian expertise? Like that last one, “draw reasonable conclusions based on the analysis and interpretation of information.” Should librarians be expected to teach logic now? Or “synthesize ideas in meaningful ways.” Isn’t that what their actual professors are teaching them to do? I realize that the Framework is a push for greater librarian involvement in student learning up to the point of for-credit information literacy courses and whatnot. And I agree that librarians can contribute to critical thinking skills. But I’m getting the feeling that this Framework is starting to ask too much of librarians and to presume that students aren’t learning these things elsewhere. Why should I spend time teaching students how to synthesize ideas gathered from multiple sources? That’s what their ENGL 1010 synthesis essay assignment is for. Or, wait, am I supposed to share the Framework with the Composition faculty and say “the ACRL says this is what you should be teaching?” That’s not going to fly.
Honestly, though, the Framework is just reminding us that information literacy is a campus-wide concern and that librarians can’t be expected to be the lone experts and advocates for it. Yes, early on when the Framework was based on threshold concepts, people were trying to argue that information literacy is a discipline and that information literacy is our domain as librarians. But that dog wouldn’t hunt so they’ve opened the way for interdisciplinary collaboration. As the Framework says of itself:
The Framework opens the way for librarians, faculty, and other institutional partners to redesign instruction sessions, assignments, courses, and even curricula; to connect information literacy with student success initiatives; to collaborate on pedagogical research and involve students themselves in that research; and to create wider conversations about student learning, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and the assessment of learning on local campuses and beyond.
So, maybe those additional dispositions aren’t for us. They’re to acknowledge the work done by other faculty and institutional partners. I, for one, agree that librarians don’t have the lock-down on information literacy. But, for those baby librarians stepping into the field and asking “what do I teach” it would help to have the Framework make it clear that although information literacy includes critical thinking skills, some of those skills will be taught outside the library. It would help for the Framework to acknowledge which parts of the Framework are better suited for librarians and which aren’t. Anyway, let’s look at the dispositions:2014 Draft Dispositions 2016 Official Dispositions
Kind of the same
So, they kept the first two completely intact and sort of carved up the others. So nothing really lost but, what was gained? First, they threw in something about intellectual humility! Just like I always wanted! Also, shout out to whoever had to put a parenthetical definition of intellectual humility. Probably should have just said “recognize their own intellectual or experiential limitations” and left it at that. And I like the one about seeking multiple assessments. But, what’s up with the ethical and legal thing shoehorned into the middle? That belongs in Information has Value where it talks about “current legal and socioeconomic practices concerning the value of information.” And seeking help when needed? And seeking appropriate help when needed? How is that an information literacy thing?
Okay, this Frame has kind of stumped me now. I started the hour saying that I was totally down with it, but now I’m questioning myself. I’m not questioning the value of the concept “Research as Inquiry” broadly conceived. Rather, I’m questioning how much of this is really unique to information literacy in the first place.1 I’m reflecting on the Framework broadly now, and I’m having the same reaction: how much of this is really about information literacy? How much of this is unique to what librarians do? The Framework talks about librarians having “greater responsibility in identifying core ideas within their own knowledge domain that can extend learning for students, in creating a new cohesive curriculum for information literacy, and in collaborating more extensively with faculty.” But what in the Framework is unique to our knowledge domain? Or at least, what is there that we are uniquely situated to teach? Well, there’s that part of Information has Value that talks about copyright, publishing , fair use, and open access. That seems like our stuff. And that stuff about the information creation process seems to align well with libraries. But, most of what we’ve read so far in reviewing the Framework seems to be better suited for teachers in completely different fields (e.g., composition, rhetoric, media studies, philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc.). Which is fine. But, then, to what extent were they consulted in creating the Framework? Were non-librarians from sociology, education, mass media, philosophy, and other disciplines active participants in creating the Framework? Are they even aware that information literacy is an “educational reform movement?”
The cynic in me wants to say that the Framework is intricately tied to the well-known imposter syndrome that saturates librarianship. That the Framework is a desperate attempt to prove our value and legitimacy to our faculty colleagues. That there’s a certain amount of hubris in creating a framework that claims librarians will guide campus “conversations about student learning, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and the assessment of learning.” The cynic wants to say the “we have a discipline too” argument is just the latest incarnation of “but library science is a science.” But I don’t want to be cynical. I do think librarians have unique and important skills and concepts that they can impart to others. Sadly, the Framework doesn’t really say all that much about those things and ultimately only makes it harder to keep that cynicism at bay.
Overall Grade: As a general concept, A-. As an information literacy concept, D
It may be a great idea, but the knowledge practices and dispositions make me wonder how it is really related to libraries and information literacy and what the Framework is really meant to accomplish.
 True, the old Standards weren’t completely library-specific either. But at least they mentioned databases.
Our library has a journal article reading club and yesterday we read the famous Delphi study that’s at the center of the ACRL Framework. And then I realized I haven’t posted about a Frame this week. So, here you go. I’ve already looked at “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” “and “Information Creation is a Process.” Today I’ll look at the next frame in line: “Information has Value”The Draft Framework: Information Has Value
This was originally the last of the six draft frames that I reviewed way back in 2014 [link] and I thought it raised more questions than answers. Here’s the original text:
Information has Value acknowledges that the creation of information and products derived from information requires a commitment of time, original thought, and resources that need to be respected by those seeking to use these products, or create their own based on the work of others. In addition, information may be valued more or less highly based on its creator, its audience/consumer, or its message.
Experts understand that this value designates information as intellectual property, and therefore, recognizes three important dimensions of value. First, information can act as a commodity, and as such, creators can use their work for financial, reputational, social, or civic gains. These motivations may determine how information sources are shared whether given freely, offered for sale, or leased for temporary access. Information users have responsibilities as both consumers and creators of information based on the work of others. Academic and legal practices such as proper attribution of sources and complying with copyright are a result.
Second, as intellectual property, information sources are affected by economic, sociological, and political influences. The means of production may privilege some voices over others. Some search systems may privilege some sources over others due to economic incentive. Experts understand the consequences of selecting appropriate research methods (such as applying the correct statistical analysis to data), the limitations of publishing practices (such as scholarly journals’ lack of interest in publishing negative research results), and the boundaries to accessing the information ecosystem (such as populations without internet access or obstacles created by paywalls).
Finally, experts recognize that their online activity and information they contribute to online sites can be used for economic gain by the sites themselves. Such uses may include personal information harvested from social media sites or advertisements placed on “free” web tools or apps. One’s online presence is monitored, tracked and, ultimately, monetized.
As I argued, this Frame had two primary flaws: it concealed a morally suspect take on copyright and intellectual property and it didn’t go far enough in addressing social justice. At the time of this draft, lots of librarians agreed that the Frame seemed to encourage deference to the broken copyright system currently in place. Jacob Berg had a good take. Hopefully that got cleaned up in the final version. My other concern was that the Frame was underdeveloped in how it addressed economic, social, and political influence. At heart the draft could be summarized as three general ideas:
The Frame addressed the first idea by reminding readers to cite sources properly and to abide by copyright legislation, which lead to the first problem. But, the Frame completely failed to address the second and third ideas. Experts recognize that information is affected by social, economic, and political influences? So what. What do experts do about it? Web services track you? That’s not interesting. What would be interesting would be some account of what experts do about online privacy and security.
But, two flaws weren’t enough to chase me away and I thought the Frame was mostly all right.The Official Framework: Information Has Value
Let’s see how things have changed:
Information possesses several dimensions of value, including as a commodity, as a means of education, as a means to influence, and as a means of negotiating and understanding the world. Legal and socioeconomic interests influence information production and dissemination.
The value of information is manifested in various contexts, including publishing practices, access to information, the commodification of personal information, and intellectual property laws. The novice learner may struggle to understand the diverse values of information in an environment where “free” information and related services are plentiful and the concept of intellectual property is first encountered through rules of citation or warnings about plagiarism and copyright law. As creators and users of information, experts understand their rights and responsibilities when participating in a community of scholarship. Experts understand that value may be wielded by powerful interests in ways that marginalize certain voices. However, value may also be leveraged by individuals and organizations to effect change and for civic, economic, social, or personal gains. Experts also understand that the individual is responsible for making deliberate and informed choices about when to comply with and when to contest current legal and socioeconomic practices concerning the value of information.
Well, it’s certainly shorter! And at first blush it seems to be even more closely aligned with the way I re-wrote it as three general ideas. Two of which are now wrapped into the first paragraph. The third idea (about online privacy) is now entirely absent, having been moved to the knowledge practices. And they clearly took to heart the criticisms pertaining to copyright; the official Frame softens the language, putting the ball in our courts and letting us decide “when to comply with and when to contest” intellectual property laws and practices. They also cleaned up the knowledge practices and dispositions on this account, removing the disposition that had experts respecting “the academic tradition of citation and attribution.” I’d call that a win.
What about its failure to really dig in on social justice? I think they did a rather good job, actually. “Experts understand that value may be wielded by powerful interests in ways that marginalize certain voices. However, value may also be leveraged by individuals and organizations to effect change and for civic, economic, social, or personal gains.” That’s pretty danged good. And that first sentence was originally a disposition about under-representation that I suggested they replace with marginalization (i.e., purposeful under-representation). I’m going to pretend they took my advice. They also included a disposition about understanding “how and why understand how and why some individuals or groups of individuals may be underrepresented or systematically marginalized within the systems that produce and disseminate information.” Again, pretty good. Finally, if you look down in the dispositions, you’ll see they address “information privilege.” That’s actually another suggested edit I made. Actually, if you look carefully, you’ll see that almost every suggestion I made–even the tiny ones– found its way into the final version. That’s a total win!
Granted, the new frame does introduce some new flaws. The disposition about valuing the process “needed to produce information” was changed to valuing the process “needed to produce knowledge,” which falls into the old “confusing-knowledge-with-information” trap. Seriously folks, librarians should know that information production and knowledge production are connected, but they aren’t interchangeable.
Overall, this is my favorite Frame yet. Not only do I agree with the underlying sentiments, but it also encourages us to ask critical questions about the Framework itself. For example, what is the value of the Framework? How does that value compare to the value inherent in the old Standards? Many of the people on your listserv railing against rescinding the old information literacy standards are actually abiding by this Frame as they question the value of the Framework. In many local contexts, there are social, economic, and political realities that make the Standards more valuable. So, it’s a good thing that some libraries are rejecting the Framework! We can also ask what economic, social, and political influences affected the development of the Frame? Which voices were underrepresented? And so on. And it’s this Frame that I think of when I look back over how the Framework developed over time. Thinking of the CFPs for threshold concepts in information literacy from before the Framework was even finished. The ACRL selling books on threshold concepts while the Framework tries to escape threshold concepts (we were just “influenced” by them!). The Delphi study itself. The way the Framework went from being a star in the constellation of ACRL’s information literacy documents to being the centerpiece. Reflecting on the past few years, it’s clear to me that the development of the Framework was based as much on social and political concerns as it was on research or theory. Probably more so.Overall Grade: A-
As a whole, I think the Framework is an embarrassment, but I’ll admit it does have a few bright spots.
Hey, ready for another round of “let’s revisit the Framework?” Like I wrote last time, I never got around to seeing how the final version of the ACRL Framework stacks up against the draft I originally reviewed. So, over the next few weeks I’ll be revisiting the frames one at a time. Last time was “Authority is Constructed and Contextual;” today it’ll be “Information Creation as a Process.” Let’s dive in.The Draft Framework: Format as a Process
Oh my. This one was fun when it first came out. I remember lots of discussion about how bizarre that phrase was: format as a process. Should it have been format “as” process? Format “is” process? It never sounded right. But, anyway, here’s the frame as I reviewed it:
Format is the way tangible knowledge is disseminated. The essential characteristic of format is the underlying process of information creation, production, and dissemination, rather than how the content is delivered or experienced.
A print source is characterized by its physical structure (e.g., binding, size, number of pages) as well as its intellectual structure (e.g., table of contents, index, references). A digital source is characterized by its presentation, intellectual structure and physical structure (e.g., file format). In many cases, the way that information is presented online obscures not just the format, but also the processes of creation and production that need to be understood in order to evaluate the source fully. Understanding what distinguishes one format from another and why it matters requires a thorough knowledge of the information and research cycles, scholarly communication, and common publishing practices, especially for those who have never experienced the print version of formats.
The expert understands that the quality and usefulness of a given piece of information is determined by the processes that went into making it. The processes of researching, writing, editing, and publishing information–whether print or digital–can be highly divergent, and information quality reflects these differences. From tweets to magazines to scholarly articles, the unique capabilities and constraints of each format determines how information can and should be used. The expert learns that the instant publishing found in social media often comes at the cost of accuracy, while the thorough editorial process of a book often comes at the cost of currency. Whatever form information takes, the expert looks to the underlying processes of creation as well as the final product in order to critically evaluate that information for use as evidence
This is another frame that I was sort of alright with. Probably my biggest complaint was that the frame made the mistake of confusing format for medium. This frame started by talking about formats, but ended with the process of creating information. These are just different things. But, otherwise I largely agreed with this frame. In fact, it seemed so obvious that I had to stop and ask whether it really was a mind-blowing “threshold concept.” Wasn’t it infantilizing to assume that students struggled to understand this frame? Is there evidence to back up the implied claim that this is “troublesome knowledge” for college students?1 Really, this frame seemed like a simple and obvious point trumped up in overwrought academic language.
Anyway, once you read past the obfuscating technical language, it was a fairly straightforward frame that only made a slight and forgivable mistake in confusing format and medium. Let’s see how it’s evolved…
And here’s the official frame:
Information in any format is produced to convey a message and is shared via a selected delivery method. The iterative processes of researching, creating, revising, and disseminating information vary, and the resulting product reflects these differences.
The information creation process could result in a range of information formats and modes of delivery, so experts look beyond format when selecting resources to use. The unique capabilities and constraints of each creation process as well as the specific information need determine how the product is used. Experts recognize that information creations are valued differently in different contexts, such as academia or the workplace. Elements that affect or reflect on the creation, such as a pre- or post-publication editing or reviewing process, may be indicators of quality. The dynamic nature of information creation and dissemination requires ongoing attention to understand evolving creation processes. Recognizing the nature of information creation, experts look to the underlying processes of creation as well as the final product to critically evaluate the usefulness of the information. Novice learners begin to recognize the significance of the creation process, leading them to increasingly sophisticated choices when matching information products with their information needs.
Well, they changed the title and stopped talking about format. So that’s a good thing. They even explicitly reject the draft version when they write that “experts look beyond format.” Clearly, the feedback they received was taken to heart. Or, at least most of it. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the writing in the official frame is actually worse in the final version. It’s like I keep reading it over and over again and just about every sentence is saying the same thing in different language: when evaluating information, expert researchers consider how that information was produced. Really, at a conceptual level, what’s in this frame other than that? Why make it more difficult? Also, why make it a threshold concept? I’m still not seeing how this is thresholdy. Yes, experts consider process, but what do novices do? What does a student who hasn’t understood this look like? Because the students I work with all seem to get this. I think my students just haven’t been exposed to the full range of types of processes, like peer-review and scholarly publishing and so on. I don’t introduce students to the concept of “indicators of quality.” I introduce students to “indicators of quality” that they aren’t familiar with. There’s a big difference: the threshold concept only says that process matters, it doesn’t say anything about actually understanding process.
Honestly, this is maybe the number one reason I won’t look to the Framework for guidance. You see, the Framework is based in threshold concept theory, under which threshold concepts are few and far between. These concepts are the gateways into and between disciplines, but within disciplines are “core concepts.” 99% of what we teach are core concepts; the thresholds are just the concepts that prevent learners from being able to learn the core concepts in a discipline. The concepts prime the pump, so to speak. For example, in mathematics the concept of a variable is a threshold between arithmetic and algebra: you can’t do algebra until you’ve grasped the concept of variable. But simply grasping the concept variable doesn’t mean you know algebra. You’ve got another couple of years of study ahead of you. Thresholds are gateways into a field, they don’t describe mastery of the field.
Back to this Frame. Let’s say we have a student who grasps every frame except this one and we get that student to grasp that information creation is a process. They’ve passed the threshold. But, that doesn’t mean the student is now information literate or some sort of an expert. It means they are now capable of talking about and learning about information creation processes. Broadly speaking, a student who has grasped all six frames is not information literate; a student who has grasped all six frames is now ready to learn the core concepts of information literacy. Put another way: the ACRL Framework doesn’t actually tell us what an information literate student looks like. The Framework describes the Frames as “conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole.” Great. Organizing concepts. But what is being organized? What are these concepts of information, research, and scholarship? Figuring those concepts out is the key to figuring out information literacy…
In my humble opinion, “Information Creation as a Process” describes something very simple and intuitive and I fail to see how it is a threshold concept for higher education. Even if I accepted threshold concept theory, I would place this concept in, maybe, 6th grade. 5th grade even. In higher education, I think our students already totally understand that different types of information are produced in different ways. They know that a tweet and a book are made in different ways; they just aren’t familiar with all the means of information creation out there. They know that some sources are better than others; they just may not know which ones are which. So we teach them about those things. In higher education, we get students after they’ve grasped this concept and crossed through the threshold and are capable of discussing information creation processes. So, in higher education, I don’t see how this Frame is of any use.Final Grade: C-
The Frame isn’t wrong, it’s just too remedial for higher education and it exposes the deeper problem that grasping threshold concepts does not equate to expertise.
 This is one of my general, overarching complaints about the Framework: it makes descriptive claims about what “novices” do and what “experts” do, but offers no research to back up those claims.
Okay. I really thought I was done with the ACRL Framework. I even wrote what I thought was the final word a few weeks ago…that it doesn’t matter. But, last night I was having a discussion with someone about blogging and the Framework and other stuff; and I realized that most of what I have said about the Framework dates to the Summer of 2014, where I addressed the draft framework. I never actually followed up to see how the final version stacked up. I still think the So, as a writing exercise for a slow reference desk shift, I thought it might be interesting to see what’s changed in two years. So, let’s take another look at the frames, starting with Authority is Constructed and Contextual.The Draft Framework: Authority is Contextual and Constructed
Back when I first wrote about the Framework, the Authority frame was the third one I critiqued, and you can click here to revisit it if you want. Here’s the text of the Frame from the June 2014 draft:
Authority of information resources depends upon the resources’ origins, the information need, and the context in which the information will be used. This authority is viewed with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought.
Experts understand that authority is the degree of trust that is bestowed and as such, authority is both contextual and constructed. It is contextual in that the information need may help determine the level of authority required. For instance, getting a weather forecast before going on a picnic does not require the foremost meteorological authority while a dissertation on the latest weather models may. It is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. For instance, a religious community may recognize the authority of religious leaders and texts which may not be as highly regarded by others who are not part of the community. Scholars within a discipline may value specific publications or publishers over others. Allowing that some kinds of expertise are more worthy than others can result in privileging certain sources of information unduly.
An understanding of this concept enables learners to critically examine all evidence – be it a Wikipedia article or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding – and ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the information need of the moment. Thus, the learner both respects the expertise that authority represents, while remaining skeptical of both the systems which have elevated that authority and the information created by it. The experienced researcher knows how to seek authoritative voices, but also recognizes that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need. The novice researcher may need to rely on superficial indicators of authority such as type of publication or author credentials where experts recognize schools of thought or discipline-specific paradigms.1
I was sort of alright with this frame. It seemed to track contemporary thinking on cognitive authority, though it was rather vague. I brought up Patrick Wilson’s Second-Hand Knowledge and his account of authority as being a type of credibility relative to a sphere of influence. So, I’m an authority on librarianship among my non-librarian friends, but not really an authority among my library peers. Credibility is relative to community, and each of us is a member of many, many communities. So, yeah, it’s contextual and constructed. Like I said, I was sort of alright with the frame and my critique was mostly constructive. The idea that “various communities may recognize different types of authority” may be true, but the frame needed to be specific that that doesn’t mean all authorities are equally credible. And the concept of expertise seemed to be conflated with authority, when those are distinct concepts: not all authorities are experts, not all experts are authorities. And because these two ideas weren’t fleshed out, the knowledge practices and dispositions suffered. I suppose my recommendations, bulleted, would look like this:
So, let’s see if any of those suggestions made it into the official version.The Official Framework: Authority is Constructed and Contextual
Here’s the official frame:
Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.
Experts understand that authority is a type of influence recognized or exerted within a community. Experts view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought. Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations. An understanding of this concept enables novice learners to critically examine all evidence—be it a short blog post or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding—and to ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the current information need. Thus, novice learners come to respect the expertise that authority represents while remaining skeptical of the systems that have elevated that authority and the information created by it. Experts know how to seek authoritative voices but also recognize that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need. Novice learners may need to rely on basic indicators of authority, such as type of publication or author credentials, where experts recognize schools of thought or discipline-specific paradigms.
Hey now! Much better, don’t you think? Though the language is still too wishy-washy for my tastes, you can totally see how they’ve tried to be more explicitly that authority is credibility within a sphere of influence. And I like that they included the way bias privileges some forms of authority, though the “worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations” clause may not appease standpoint theorists concerned with race, disability, or class. I still think they should have included language to the effect that although different communities may recognize different types of authority, some types of authority are better than others. I mean, they hint at it with the idea that we should adopt an informed skepticism towards authority, but it could still be clearer. And I’m still not thrilled about the last sentence, if only because it implies that experts don’t rely on publication or author credentials when they totally do–experts are just more careful about it.
As to the knowledge practices, they did clarify the “responsibilities” entailed by being an authority and they dropped some of the original vague language. So, while I still find them too open to interpretation, they are much improved. Other than some changes in grammar, the dispositions haven’t really been updated from the draft, so I’m still unclear as to why several of them were placed under this frame. For example, learners are “conscious that maintaining these attitudes and actions requires frequent self-evaluation”? That should apply to all six frames, so why is it under this one in particular?
But, overall, I think the frame is much improved over the draft I originally reviewed. They’ve clarified the authority/expert distinction and they’ve made the knowledge practices more explicit. So, did my critique affect the final outcome of this frame? Of course not. Thousands of people commented and I’m sure lots of other people made the same suggestions. But it’s nice to compare the two versions of the Frame and see this kind of improvement.2Final grade: A-
Not too shabby, ACRL!
 I’ll forgo quoting the knowledge practices and dispositions because, honestly, I don’t think anyone pays attention to them.
 Some things I hadn’t considered at the time, but wish I had brought up in retrospect and wish were addressed by this frame: how the “wisdom of the crowds” affects the credence of an authority, how this frame should really distinguish between cognitive authority and political authority, how this frame does not define expertise yet relies heavily on it. This last bit bugs me because the Framework uses ‘expert’ or ‘expertise’ 25 times without defining it, yet ‘expertise’ can be a rather contentious topic. I’ve said something about that before.
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