Hope you’re ready for Frame Four of the ACRL Information Literacy Framework. Just to recap, the six frames are…
- Scholarship is a Conversation
- Research as Inquiry
- Authority is Contextual and Constructed
- Format as a Process
- Searching as Exploration
- Information has Value
Let’s dive right in.
The fourth frame, “Format as a Process”, is described as follows:
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
Hmm. Where to begin? Well, ‘format’ is just the way something is organized and displayed. And to assert that format affects information quality implies that the same semantic information, when disseminated through different formats, will see its quality or utility change. So, for example, my prized hardcover novelization of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a different format from the paperback version of the same work. Hence, it is of a different quality or usefulness.
But, wait. Both books have the same words. How does repagination or a difference in paper quality make the information substantially different? Is the ebook also different? The audiobook? The serialized web version? Don’t get me wrong, format changes can affect quality. Audio formats are a good example: whether you purchased your Indiana Jones soundtrack on vinyl, CD, or mp3, there will be measurable changes to the information quality due to sampling rate, compression, and similar format specific issues. But, is a scholarly article substantially different in print compared to its corresponding online PDF? Is it necessarily so? The research, writing, and editing are the same. The publication process is almost the same, the only difference being the end format.
Here’s the thing: this frame isn’t about format at all. From the standpoint of information use, the differences between a .jpg image and a .png image, or a print book and an ebook, are an engineering issue, not an information literacy issue. I think the real focus of this frame is media, not format, and a more intuitive way to state the concept might simply be “Medium Matters.” Abstracting away a little bit, the frame seems to be saying that the path or channel that information takes between points A and B can have an effect on the information quality. Again, this is not format: it’s medium and medium does have to play a role in how we evaluate infor—-
Crap. It’s Marshall McLuhan. I should have known he’d show up. He’s certainly popped up in some of the online discussion I’ve seen on this ACRL Frame.
So, McLuhan came up with the whole “media is the message” theory and there does seem to be something vaguely McLuhan-esque about this Frame. McLuhan’s basic thesis was that communications technologies (i.e., media) are the dominant forces conditioning human cognition. Further, he argued, you can’t understand information independently from it’s medium. While that’s all well and good, McLuhan ran with this technological determinism and claimed that the medium itself was more important than the information the medium carried. Information doesn’t change society, media does.
When I first read McLuhan ’round about 1998, he blew my mind. But now…not so much. I don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of explaining why I don’t think McLuhan’s ideas hold any water; let’s just say I consider him the Malcolm Gladwell of the 60s and that linking this frame to McLuhanism is not necessarily going to help anyone out.
Anyway, I think the core of this frame is simply that the medium used to communicate information can have an effect on information quality (can…not must). Communicating via social media typically involves a different level of editing than communicating via a newspaper, a magazine, or a scholarly article. Whether a publisher is involved (and which publisher) makes a huge difference as well. And where these rather obvious ideas get lost is in the way that web research tends to mask the original medium. It’s like a slide from a presentation I saw tweeted a month ago: students look at Google search results and see “website, website, website, website…” Librarians look at the same Google results and see “government document, book, blog, scholarly article, commercial website….” (sorry, I have no idea whose presentation it was. anyone remember so I can give credit?).
Overall, the basic idea is pretty straightforward and other than mixing up the terms format and medium, the ACRL is on the right path here. But, as with other frames, the overwrought language is more obfuscating than helpful.
Knowledge Practices (Abilities)
I’ll annotate these.
Learners who are developing their information literate abilities:
Understand that format and method of access are separate entities.
Recognize that different creation processes result in the presence of distinct attributes.
Awkwardly worded, but trivially true
Articulate the purposes of various formats, as well as their distinguishing characteristics.
So, what is the purpose of a book, anyway? The purpose of a tweet? This can get pretty metaphysical pretty quickly.
Identify which formats best meet particular information needs.
Also known as “knowing where to look.” I need a telephone number? I’m not going to turn to academic articles. Again, a fairly obvious practice.
Decide which format and mode of transmission to use when disseminating their own creations of information.
Also known as, “knowing where to publish.” Here we also get the first and only distinction between format and medium, even though it only really makes sense to think of the frame in terms of medium. And that phrase “their own creations of information” is just awful.
Transfer knowledge to new formats in unpredictable and evolving environments.
You just know that they mean “social media” here.
Learners who are developing their information literate abilities:
Are inclined to seek out markers for information sources that indicate the underlying creation process.
Inclined to find out how it was made. I’m down with that.
Identify the most effective format in seeking information.
Sounds more like a skill/ability/practice than a disposition. Unless they mean the student is inclined to seek the most “effective format.” Wait. The “most effective format in seeking information?” That grammar! What does that even mean? Perhaps they mean that students should be disposed to look to whichever medium is most appropriate for their information need. Is that simpler? It is to me. But most people aren’t me, so I don’t know. Whatever the case, it needs to be reworded for clarity.
Understand that different formats of information dissemination with different impacts are available for their use.
Ugh. That awkward writing again. “formats of information dissemination?” Do you mean media? Aren’t you just saying that students should understand that there are lots of different media they can use? That sounds better to me. But whatever the case, this is clearly a skill-based concept, not a disposition.
The verdict: Is format a process?
This frame could have a lot going for it, but it just comes across as confused. Mixing up format and medium makes it seem (to me) that the relevant concepts weren’t understood or weren’t researched properly, which sort of casts doubt on other parts of the Framework.* The knowledge practices are pretty straightforward for the most part, but they also seem fairly shallow. Same goes for the dispositions. Which kind of leads me to a general concern with the way this frame treats students. I might be oversensitive here, but this entire frame seems to take a rather dim view of student’s intelligence. Do undergraduates really find the concept troublesome? It would be nice if we had some evidence to support the ACRL’s contention that all or most students struggle with issues surrounding format/medium. Maybe some evidence to show that “format is a process” isn’t something we can share with students in a simple, intuitive way. But, all I’ve seen are occasional anecdotes. Yes, students will benefit from understanding the processes underlying different media. But calling it a “threshold concept” that will blow students’ minds comes across as somewhat infantilizing. I guess I tend to give my students more credit than the ACRL wants to.
* Granted, I may just be overly pedantic on this point and, in reality, librarians could be using ‘format’ to mean ‘medium’ as a matter of practice. I doubt it, but I think the general critique still stands: focusing on communication channels is what’s really important here.