Breaking through the Debate: Understanding, Critiquing, and Applying the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

by Annie Downey, PhD, MLS,
ACRL-Oregon Private Colleges Representative (2014 – 2016)

Academic librarians have been grappling with ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education for over a year now. The very fact that we need so much scholarly work and effort spent trying to understand the framework is fantastic for a theory lover like me, but can fall somewhere between unsettling and terrifying for librarians who are not interested in theoretical work. I’ve heard librarians grumble that if others are not willing to engage in the theory, then they are lesser in some way. What I find most interesting is that the theory-pushers are often librarians who are invested in social justice and the ideas of fairness and democracy that most of us believe lie at the heart of librarianship.

IL Framework screenshot

I suggest we take that grumbling on both sides of the debate and think about it through the lens of social justice and consider what librarianship is as opposed to what it should or could be. As much as we may not like it, librarianship as it stands is an underpaid, largely misunderstood and under respected, female dominated profession. These things matter because when you ask someone who is overworked, feels under appreciated, and struggles to get by on a librarian salary to invest the kind of time and intellectual energy that it takes to truly transform their teaching practice without giving them more time to engage with and think about the ideas, you are discounting the real struggles they may be going through. This played out in a thought provoking and by turns frustrating and heartening discussion on the acrlframe discussion list over the last couple of weeks. If you are not a list member, I encourage you to sign up for the good stuff the list offers and to read the archives.

While many librarians are pro-Framework based on its expansion of what information literacy instruction should look and feel like and its attempt to create more of a theoretical underpinning for information literacy, most librarians (even those known for their vocal support for critical information literacy) struggle with time and organizational constraints that can make developing a broader, more theoretically-informed practice difficult at best and impossible at worst.

I am also sympathetic to those that ache for librarianship to be more than what it currently is. I want us to do a better job of pulling from and being a part of educational theory. As educators, we should understand the basics of teaching and learning theory and not rely only on our own scholarly and practical literature. (If you are not sure where to get started, I recommend Eamon Tewell’s A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature.) I think librarianship needs to be more reflective and based in praxis so I find myself somewhere in the middle of the Framework debate.

Though I think the Framework still needs work, I believe it is a huge improvement over the Standards. However, I also acknowledge that I am one of those lucky librarians who does have the time to think about and engage with theory because of where I work and because I have a stay-at-home husband whose work provides me with the time and freedom to spend my evening hours thinking and writing when I am involved with a project that requires it. The other side of this coin though is that I am the primary breadwinner for my family and that is a real challenge even on a good librarian salary. There are months when I go to work and come home and think I cannot possibly give any more because I need to figure out how we are going to pay for everything our three growing daughters need. In the spirit of straddling the middle of the line, I am sharing some of my favorite pieces that have come from the debate in the realm of understanding and critiquing the Framework and then because so many librarians are struggling with putting it into practice, I am also sharing some resources for applying the framework.




What are your thoughts on this debate? Have you applied the new IL Framework at your institution? Please leave a comment about your experiences thus far with the new IL Framework.



  1. Annie, thank for your reflections and for “bringing critical librarianship home” – that is, back to the librarians caught in the middle. It resonates with the concept of “sustainability”, which here at Portlandia State U, is a concept that gets mentioned every third sentence. When it does I often remind folks that sustainability is yes, about water, and polar bears, and bio-degradable chop sticks, but also about human sustainability and balance. Social sustainability starts with people – if we’re not working at a place, or working to create a place that supports us over the long haul, then what ARE we working for?

    And for some fresh from the idea factory ideas on the Framework a new issue of Communications in Information Literacy just out on that topic at

    (Full disclosure – I’m one of the editors, so take it with a grain of organic salt.)

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