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:
- Clearly distinguish expertise from authority: “Being an expert is having a certain body of knowledge or know-how; being an authority is having credibility within a sphere of influence”
- Clarify that not all authorities are equally credible: “while different communities accept different authorities, that doesn’t mean all authorities are equally valid and it doesn’t mean those communities have good information.”
- Explain the knowledge practices more clearly: “There’s nothing wrong with leaving things open to interpretation, but it does work against the purported “thresholdiness” of the concepts if they can be freely interpreted however librarians want.”
- Tie the dispositions to authority: several of the dispositions are just generally good intellectual traits and it’s hard to see why they are coupled with authority in particular.”
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.2
Final 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.