Hope you’re ready for Frame Four of the ACRL Information Literacy Framework. Just to recap, the six frames are…

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. 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.

by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ready for round three?

So far I’ve looked at two of the ACRL’s proposed threshold concepts for information literacy, noting that scholarship is only a conversation at a superficial and metaphorical level and that research is indeed inquiry, though the ACRL’s frame describing it is needlessly complex for such a simple, definitional concept. So, where are we?

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. Information has Value

Looks like it’s time to look at authority.

Authority is Constructed and Contextual


From the ACRL draft framework, we get the following description of authority:

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.

First off, we need to be clear on what kind of authority we’re talking about. This ain’t political authority, which is often synonymous with power. Though information literacy absolutely should address issues of power (and kudos to task force member Troy Swanson for carrying the torch on this one), this particular frame is not about systemic inequality, hierarchies of control, or oppressive social structures. Rather, this frame deals with cognitive authority, which deals instead with trust and credibility. And talking about cognitive authority gives me a chance to throw a shout-out to an LIS hero, the late professor Patrick Wilson: librarian, philosopher, and dean of the library school at Berkeley. Working at the intersection of social epistemology and library science (see why I like him?), Wilson wrote the book on authority. Literally. His 1983 Second-Hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority is one of the most widely read theoretical works on information literacy.

I’ve written before about the importance of testimonial knowledge and Wilson has argued essentially the same thing: the vast majority of what we know comes from the testimony of other people. As Wilson puts it, “all I know of the world beyond the narrow range of my own personal experience is what others have told me. It is all hearsay. But I do not count all hearsay as equally reliable. Some people know what they are talking about, others do not. Those who do are my cognitive authorities.” (1983, p. 13). These cognitive authorities are the people we deem credible and Wilson points out that this credibility is constrained in several ways. Cognitive authorities are credible only within limited spheres of influence, so, for example, an astrophysicist may not be an authority on literature and vice versa. Some spheres are very small and specialized (the authority on the mating habits of the Sao Tome Shrew) but I should add that many people are authorities in several spheres of influence.It’s also the case that these spheres of authority are contextual. For example, when I’m with my friends and family, I’m the authority on library and information science. But at work or at a conference I’m nothing special and I defer to cognitive authorities of the library world. What makes me an authority in some spheres and not an authority in others is not my expertise–that doesn’t change–but the nature of the relevant community. And that’s actually an important point that Wilson makes: having cognitive authority is not the same as having expertise. Being an expert is having a certain body of knowledge or know-how; being an authority is having credibility within a sphere of influence independently of knowledge or know-how. It’s all in the context. Of course, in many cases, authorities obtain their credibility by being experts or reliable sources for knowledge. But, it’s not a requirement.


Back to the ACRL concept…

Overall, this overview is pretty good; it tracks Wilson’s work pretty closely. There are just a few lines that need to be changed or clarified:

“various communities may recognize different types of authority.”

This is true but I wish the frame was more explicit that (1) while different communities accept different authorities, (2) that doesn’t mean all authorities are equally valid and (3) it doesn’t mean those communities have good information. Sure, evangelical christians take the Bible as their authoritative source on social and scientific issues. But, that shouldn’t imply that the Bible is on par with science when it comes to authority. Then again, many social constructionists have argued just that. Richard Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature argued:

But can we then find a way of saying that the considerations advanced against the Copernican theory by Cardinal Bellarmine—the scriptural description of the fabric of the heavens—were ‘‘illogical or unscientific?’’. . . [Bellarmine] defended his view by saying that we had excellent independent (scriptural) evidence for believing that the heavens were roughly Ptolemaic. Was his evidence brought in from another sphere, and was his proposed restriction of scope thus ‘‘unscientific?’’ What determines that Scripture is not an excellent source of evidence for the way the heavens are set up? (1981, 328-9).

On Rorty’s account, Bellarmine’s appeal to scripture (to support a geocentric universe) was just as rational as Galileo’s use of a telescope (to establish heliocentrism). The problem should be obvious. If you don’t see it, then you might try considering how similar reasoning would play out in a moral situation. But, seeing as how I’ve done the anti-relativism thing in the past, lets consider it settled and move on.

“Allowing that some kinds of expertise are more worthy than others can result in privileging certain sources of information unduly.”

First, expertise and authority are not synonymous and they really ought to be distinguished. If anything, the ACRL needs a separate concept for expertise.  Anyway, I’m also concerned by that dangling ‘unduly’ at the end. It seems that this sentence is saying that evaluating some information sources as better than others amounts to improper privileging. But, isn’t that the point? Aren’t we supposed to admit that some kinds of authority/expertise are better than others? Even this very frame admits that a local weather report won’t cut it for doctoral research on climate science. Sorry, ACRL, but I’m going keep on teaching students that it’s a good thing to privilege some information sources over others (in context).

“the learner both respects the expertise that authority represents”

Again, authority represents credibility, not expertise. Though the two often appear together, many so-called authorities aren’t experts at all; many experts aren’t authorities.

“The novice researcher may need to rely on superficial indicators of authority such as type of publication or author credentials…”

I’d contend that even expert researchers look to types of publications and author credentials for evidence of authority qua community acceptance.

Knowledge Practices

The frame on authority establishes the following dispositions, which I’ll annotate, lightly:

  • “Determine how authoritative information should be for a particular need.”
    • Should be clear that it’s the information source that’s authoritative, not the information itself.
  • “Identify markers of authority when engaging with information, understanding the elements that might temper that authority.”
    • Seems like a good idea
  • “Understand that many disciplines have acknowledged authorities in the sense of well-known  scholars and publications that are widely considered “standard,” and yet even in those situations, some scholars would challenge the authority of those sources.”
    • This is a tricky point. We should never take an information source to be infallible, so it makes sense to question even what we read in in the most influential journals. But, when we question cognitive authority, what are we supposed to do? For example, we can admit that an article in an authoritative journal is wrong without diminishing the authority of the journal. Of course, repeated wrongs will diminish reliability which will diminish credibility, but my point is that we need to be careful: are we questioning the veracity of a source provided by a cognitive authority or are we are we questioning cognitive authority itself. The former does not automatically imply the latter.
  • “Recognize that authoritative content may be packaged formally or informally, and may include dynamic user-generated information.”
    • “may include dynamic user-generated information”? So, you’re saying comments, right? Online articles have comments? What does this have to do with authority?
  • “Acknowledge that they themselves may be seen, now or in the future, as authorities in a particular area, and recognize the responsibilities that entails.”
    • It would be nice if the ACRL mentioned what those responsibilities are.
  • “Evaluate user response as an active researcher, understanding the differing natures of feedback mechanisms and context in traditional and social media platforms.”
    • Again, how do comments and retweets factor into authority. I might be able to accept the practice if the ACRL explained this point, but honestly it just seems like a strange addition. (As an aside, the Framework comes across as having a strange relationship with social media. Whenever social media is mentioned, it feels like an afterthought desperately shoehorned in.)


Again, lightly annotated:

Learners who are developing their information literate abilities are:

  • Inclined to develop and maintain an open mind when encountering varied and sometimes conflicting perspectives.”
    • I totally agree. Now what does it have to do with authority in particular?
  • “Motivated to find authoritative sources, recognizing that authority may be conferred or manifested in unexpected ways.”
    • No problem here
  • “Aware of the importance ofassessing content critically to the best of their ability.”
    • This is just generally good advice. Not sure how it’s specific to authority.
  • “Recognize that there are potential problems with traditional notions of granting authority.”
    • There certainly are, but it might help to talk about them.
  • “Conscious that maintaining these attitudes and actions requires frequent self monitoring.”
    • “Be aware of what you’re doing.” Good advice across the board. Why is it specifically here. You know, several of the dispositions, throughout the framework, really need to be pulled out and given their own space. I’m thinking it could just be called “Critical Thinking.”


The Verdict: Is authority contextual and constructed?

I’m going to agree with the ACRL on this one: authority is constructed and contextual. Hopefully this concept will bring renewed attention to Wilson’s work on cognitive authority, but I’m not keeping my fingers crossed. Thankfully, the concept as written doesn’t commit itself to either strong constructionism or naive realism, so it should be palatable to a wide range of librarians. However, it would help if the relationship between authority and expertise were fleshed out a little better. If it helps, I’ve got a post on the nature of expertise and another on the expertise of librarians. Really, if there’s a problem with this frame, it’s in the knowledge practices and dispositions. First, the parts on social media are tacked on sort of awkwardly. Second, many of the knowledge practices suffer from lack of explanation. “Markers of authority,” “packaged formally or informally,” “responsibilities that [authority] entails,” “user response.” These aren’t explained in the overview and can be interpreted in many ways. 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. Third, several of the dispositions are just generally good intellectual traits and it’s hard to see why they are coupled with authority in particular. Other frames make more explicit connections between their dispositions and the concepts in question. This frame? Not so much.

And at three frames in I’ve reached the halfway point. The scholarship frame points to a helpful metaphor, but it also oversimplifies scholarship in an unhelpful way. The research frame gets things right, but it also doesn’t say that much. As Paul Hrycaj pointed out in the comments, “Given the meaning of “inquiry,” this frame seems equivalent to ‘Research is research.'” And the authority frame also gets things right but leaves a lot unexplained. Still, each frame is stronger than the last and I’m hopeful that the trend continues.



Hey y’all. . . time for another round of “What’s the Deal with That Threshold Concept?” As you may recall, I want to go through each of the six threshold concepts suggested by the ACRL’s task force on revising information literacy standards. Last week I pulled back the veil on “Scholarship is a Conversation” and came to the conclusion that no, scholarship isn’t really a conversation. A conversation is a helpful metaphor for novices, but experts know it doesn’t hold water. Today I’ll take a look at the second threshold concept: “Research as Inquiry.”

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. Information has Value

Research as Inquiry


In case you don’t have the draft framework handy, here’s the “Research as Inquiry” frame:

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.

Now, given the last few posts, I bet you’re thinking I’m going to be super critical of this concept. Like I’m going to nitpick this thing to death with pedantic observations or something. But I’m not going to because I actually kind of like this concept. I mean, I don’t think it’s a “threshold” but that’s only because I don’t buy into threshold concept theory. Still, it’s actually a pretty important concept and it’s one that I use quite a bit with first-year students. In fact the only major issue I can find isn’t conceptual at all, it’s rhetorical. Basically, the concept is described kind of awkwardly.  “Extend the knowledge in that field by developing a knowledge base of lines of inquiry?” I don’t know what that even means. But, it’s still a good concept. And I’d like to explain what I think it means by way of an example I use in class.

Search vs. Research

When I get a bunch of first-year students in front of me, one of the first questions I like to ask is “Where do you usually start your research?” Of course, you know what their response is.


“Search. We’re working on it.”

Oh. Wait. That’s not it. It’s freaking Google. Everyone starts their research in Google. That one student who says they start their search “at the library” is just a suck-up. No you don’t start your research at the library, poindexter. Heck, I don’t start research through the library databases and I’m a danged librarian.*

But there’s a big difference between where you start your research and where you end it. I may start with Google when I’m researching something, but I almost always end up scouring library databases at some point. Novice researchers tend to start in Google and stay in Google. Shoot, they tend to stay above-the-fold on the first page of results. And we all know how novices tend to pick one set of (usually overly broad) keywords and complain that “there’s nothing on my topic” when the first result isn’t perfect. Why are novices so averse to thinking critically about their search results? Why are they so averse to searching a second time if the first search isn’t helpful?

This is where I like to introduce students to the distinction between search and research. And it’s a simple distinction: when you know the answer, or know that an answer exists, you search. When you don’t know the answer, or aren’t even sure about the question, you research. Need to know the capital of Slovakia? Search. Need to understand the importance of Bratislava during the Velvet Revolution? Research. Need the address of the stará radnica? Search. Want to understand the importance of town squares in Slovak culture? Research. Our old friend Google is pretty good at searching. And when you’re trying to establish basic, factual information, Google is a perfectly fine starting place. But, once you start putting all of those little bits of information together, you may start noticing patterns, correlations, or similarities. This is when you move from search to research. Like, “Hey, there are only four bridges over the Danube into Hungary…I wonder what Slovak-Hungarian relations are like…”


So, research involves uncertainty, persistence, iteration, and a willingness to accept that what you discover may not fit in neatly with what you believe. You could give kind of an esoteric twist and say that “Search is seeking the answer; research is seeking the question.”

Knowledge Practices

The framework lists five knowledge practices:

  • Conduct research through the lens of inquiry in order to enhance the impact of their work.
  • Provide evidence of understanding that methods of research leading to new knowledge creation vary by need, circumstance, and type of inquiry.
  • Formulate questions for research based on gaps in information or data available.
  • Communicate effectively with collaborators in shared spaces and learn from multiple points of view.
  • Engage in informed, self-directed learning that encourages a broader worldview through the global reach of today’s information technology.

The first practice is sort of redundant; it just entails that students get the threshold concept. The next two are solid: demonstrate the ability to tailor research methods to research needs and adjust research questions to fit the gaps in our knowledge. I’m not sure that the fourth ability makes a lot of sense in this concept. Communication skills are extremely important but they seem to lay outside of information literacy altogether; learning from multiple points of view should go under the scholarship/conversation threshold concept. The final bit about engaging in self-directed learning is nice, though I think that desire transcends information literacy and really just applies to education in general.


The five dispositions are as follows:

  • Value persistence, adaptability, and flexibility, and recognize that ambiguity can be beneficial.
  • Seek opportunities to transform current research-related practices in order to conduct more authentic research.
  • Practice thinking critically when confronting new learning, where lack of familiarity with new methods and approaches requires additional effort.
  • Value intellectual curiosity in developing questions and learning new investigative methods.
  • Recognize that learning is a process and that reflecting on errors or mistakes leads to new insights and discoveries.

I like these dispositions, though I have a few minor quibbles. In the second disposition, I’m not sure what “more authentic research” is supposed to mean. I’m also unsure why seeking opportunities to transform current methodologies is a prerequisite for information literacy. Are we to infer that all research methodologies are and forever will be inherently “inauthentic”? This disposition confuses me.

But the rest of the dispositions seem all right. Research requires persistence, adaptability, and curiosity. I’ve written before about how I’d like to see information literacy recast in terms of intellectual virtues, so having such clearly stated intellectual virtues is nice to see. If I could, I’d add another: epistemic humility. You may be familiar with this disposition if you’ve read any of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, but particular the Apology. The story goes like this:

Socrates and his buddy Chaerephon were hanging out one day when Chaerephon mentions, “hey, Socks, I stopped by the Oracle at Delphi yesterday.” “Yeah, what’d she say?” “I asked her who the wisest person was and you know what she said?” “Nah, bro. What?” “Check it: she said that you are the wisest dude in the whole world!” Socrates was confused by this. “Me? WTF? I don’t know jack about anything. Watch this: I’m going to go find you a ton of people who are smarter than me.” So Socrates went off across Athens interrogating whatever politicians, poets, and artisans he could find. And though he met a lot of people who knew more about politics and poetry and craft than he did, they also tended to seriously overstate their knowledge about other things. Socrates would innocently ask them their thoughts on something like virtue, love, temperance, or knowledge and they would answer confidently…only for Socrates to point out that their answers lead to even more complex questions. So Socrates asked himself, “sure these guys know a lot about some things, but can they really be wise if they think they know everything?” And that’s when it clicked. Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because he didn’t go around assuming how much he knew. Socrates saw that true wisdom requires knowing that you don’t know everything; wisdom is knowing the limits of your own knowledge.

Linda Zagzebski describes this humility as “the virtue whereby a person is disposed to make an accurate appraisal of her own competence” and I think it’s absolutely vital in information literacy. Too often researchers think they know more about a subject than they really do and when this happens research collapses into false search and confirmation bias.

One caveat: even experts sometimes lack epistemic humility. Like when an expert astrophysicist embarrasses himself discussing the state of contemporary philosophy. Or physicists who feel confident enough to lecture on any topic under the sun because physics solves everything. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to instill epistemic humility in novice researchers.

Verdict: Is research inquiry?

Of course it is. I don’t think this should be controversial at all. Sure, the overview of this threshold concept is a bit overwrought and needs to be polished up quite a bit for the sake of clarity. And I’d like to see another disposition added to cover intellectual humility. But overall this is a solid concept and I’ll certainly continue to keep applying it in my pedagogy.

Slovakia: The Ultimate Threshold!

Slovakia: The Ultimate Threshold!


* Granted, I don’t use Google–I use DuckDuckGo–but the point still stands.




by ktylerconk on Flickr

“Conversation at Caffe Nero” by ktylerconk on Flickr

A few weeks ago I wrote that I was not too thrilled with the “threshold concept” theory underpinning the new ACRL information literacy framework. And though I hinted at the six threshold concepts put forth by the ACRL, I chose not to criticize them directly. Why? Well, it’s because the six concepts themselves seem like good things for students to learn. Just to recap, the six concepts identified by the ACRL framework are:

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. Information has Value

Taken at face value, these seem like six important insights; six things we presume information literate persons should be familiar with. Granted, I’m not buying into the threshold concept business, but they seem like they could be what we used to call foundational or core concepts.* That is to say, they’re really important. Maybe even the most important things to understand when becoming information literate (though there are probably others too). And they are the core of the ACRL’s new approach to information literacy. These six concepts–quite independent from the notion of threshold concepts–are going to play a huge role in library instruction, assessment, and so on. Really, in another five years or so we’ll all have these memorized and hearing people say “format as a process” at LOEX will be no big deal (except to the grammar police).

Perhaps the thing that most interests me is that these concepts have gone almost entirely unchallenged. Other than some slight snark on Twitter, I haven’t seen anyone really dig into these core concepts with a critical eye. Basically, I’m reading about a lot of excitement and the occasional “I’ve been teaching this concept for years, thank god the ACRL finally recognizes it” going on. But who’s calling shenanigans? (If, indeed, there are shenanigans to be called.) [EDIT: I just finished writing this when I saw that Jacob Berg called shenanigans on the ethical dimensions of the “Information has Value” TC. Go check out his post. It’s a good read.]

Well, shoot, I guess I’ll just have to call them.

Starting with this post, I’ll take a look at each core concept in turn and figure out what to make of it. Again, I do think these are important concepts, but I just don’t like to see important ideas go untested. So, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and poke at the framework in the hopes that I can make sense of it. Don’t think I’m going to be entirely negative here: there are a few threshold concepts I really like. And the ACRL task force should be commended for thinking outside of the box. I just want to poke around in the hopes that any weaknesses in the concepts are addressed prior to formal adoption of the framework. So, that’s what I’ll do. But first, an explanation of how the framework is set up. Continue Reading »

Threshold of the house (1)

Over the past four months, an ACRL task force dedicated to rewriting the Information Literacy standards has been releasing successive draft versions of a new Framework  for Information Literacy in Higher Education. In a nutshell, the task force is proposing a new way of looking at information literacy that moves away from the preexisting standards and towards a series of “threshold concepts.” According to the task force, these threshold concepts are “ideas in any discipline that are passageways or portals to enlarged understanding or ways of thinking and practicing within that discipline” (Draft 2, June 2014, lines 25-27). Erik Meyer and Ray Land, who developed the theory of threshold concepts, explain that “a threshold concept is likely to be

  1. “Transformative, in that once understood, its potential effect on student learning and behaviour, is to occasion a significant shift in the perception of a subject…
  2. “Probably irreversible in that the change of perspective occasioned by acquisition of a threshold concept is unlikely to be forgotten, or will be unlearned only by considerable effort…
  3. Integrative; that is, it exposes the previously hidden interrelatedness of something…
  4. “Possibly often (though not necessarily) bounded in that any conceptual space will have terminal frontiers, bordering with thresholds into new conceptual areas…
  5. “Potentially (and possibly inherently) troublesome [defined as counterintuitive, alien, or incoherent]” (Meyer and Land, 2003, pp. 5-7).

The six transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, troublesome concepts identified by the ACRL task force are as follows:

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. Information has Value

These six “threshold” concepts are meant to serve as the anchors for the new framework and each is accompanied by a series of knowledge practices and dispositions to guide librarians as they develop information literacy curricula, reach out to campus partners, and integrate information literacy into student curricula at a variety of levels. These aren’t prescriptive standards like we’ve had, they are “interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation” (Draft 2, lines 23-24). I suppose the simplest way to understand the change is to think of the previous standards as the authoritarian gym coach yelling “here are the five things you need to be information literate–learn them” the new standards are more like the hippie English teacher saying, “hey guys, here’s some stuff to think about, but interpret it whatever way works best for you.”


You really ought to read the draft, then come back. I’ll wait.

Anyway, the ACRL task force has been putting the new framework in front of us for about four months now and the response from the academic library community has been a resounding…well, take a look at some of the blog posts covering the new Framework (lightly annotated):

[These are just the ones I’ve come across and bookmarked; I’m sure there are others.]

Most librarians are enthusiastic that threshold concepts are a step in the right direction, though they would like the individual concepts tidied up a little. Jargon is a frequent concern, though, to the task force’s credit, the emphasis on metaliteracy has been toned down in subsequent drafts. Overall, there seems to be a sort of guarded optimism that threshold concepts are a welcome step forward for information literacy and a worthy successor to the previous standards.

And that worries me.

You see, I was actually on the task force until this past February; I resigned the day before the first draft came out. Part of the reason I left the task force was because I didn’t have any faith in threshold concepts as the foundations for information literacy (fun fact: I even wrote one of the threshold concepts in the current draft). The six concepts identified by the ACRL task force as threshold concepts are all interesting and I tend to agree that they are important concepts, so I’m not saying that I disagree with things like the iterative nature of research, that authority is contextual, or that information has value. Rather, it’s the…um…thresholdiness that I have trouble with. I think today I’ll offer the rare critical take on threshold concepts in general and, in coming weeks, offer further thoughts on each of the six concepts of the framework. So, leaving aside any criticism of particular concepts singled out by the task force, let’s look at threshold concepts in general.

North-South Korean border (6647230281)

The problem with thresholds

I suggested just a few sentences ago that critical analysis of threshold concepts (TCs) is “rare.” That’s not hyperbole. Since TCs hit the scene 11 years ago, the number of articles and books speaking out in favor of them has multiplied to the point that I can’t keep up. Most of Meyer and Land’s papers have several hundred citations; Google Scholar returns thousands of articles. But, searching for criticism yields only a handful of sources. In fact, I’ve only found four critical analyses: Sarah Barradell (2013), Rod O’Donnell (2009, 2010), and Darrell Rowbottom (2007). Each of these authors admits that the threshold concepts hypothesis has some kernel of truth, but that there are serious difficulties plaguing how TCs are formulated. We can break the criticisms down the following way:

1. How can probable characteristics be defining characteristics?

Both Rowbottom (2007) and O’Donnell (2010) have noted that threshold concepts are defined in terms of the weakest possible modalities. Meyer and Land tell us that threshold concepts are “likely to be…probably irreversible…possibly often (though not necessarily) bounded…potentially (and possibly inherently) troublesome” and so on. These hedges are concerning because they force the question of whether a putative threshold concept is actually a threshold concept. So, while there is some truth to the concept that “scholarship is a conversation” it’s trivially true that it’s a threshold concept on Meyer and Land’s schema because of course it’s possible bounded, potentially troubling, and so on. Really, the hedging language just opens the door to any concept as a candidate threshold concept. Here, I’ll make one up right now: Keywords are Perspectives. This is the idea that different perspectives on a topic may understand the topic in different terms. Sort of like how searching for “global warming” will return different results from “climate change.” Is this a threshold concept? Well, it’s possibly transformative, potentially troublesome, might be bounded, could be integrative, and I bet someone might find it irreversible, so, by definition, it is! Yay me! I just added to the framework!

But wait, it gets better. Because the five characteristics of threshold concepts are only possible characteristics, there could be threshold concepts that lack all five characteristics. Or that only have one, two, three, or four characteristics. Really, any combination works, which, if you recall your modal logic, means that literally every concept is a threshold concept, no matter how trivial, how incoherent, how false. Access Articles through the Databases? Threshold concept. Books are our Friends? Threshold concept. Libraries Jump Spanish Sandwiches? Threshold concept.

2. Concepts do not imply abilities

Rowbottom points out that the definition of threshold concepts equivocates over the term ‘concept’. Basically, there are two primary ways of understanding what a concept is. First, a concept is sometimes defined as a mental representation of something, i.e., a mental model in our language of thought. Like, I have the concept of ‘book’ because I have a word-like symbol for ‘book’ in my language. Second, some define a concept as an ability to think of, classify, or recognize something. Like, I have the concept of ‘book’ because I have the ability to recognize a book when I see it. (Rowbottom mentions a third, Fregean view of concepts, but we don’t need to be concerned with it). Rowbottom’s insight is that which view of concepts we hold will affect our method of determining whether a student has mastered a given concept. He gives the example of knowing how to play tennis versus being able to play tennis. I mean, I know how to play tennis, so I have that concept in the “mental representation” sense. But, I’ve never actually played tennis, so I would seem to lack evidence of the concept in the second sense of “concept”.

This observation raises an interesting problem for the Framework. When teaching the threshold concept “Scholarship is a Conversation” are we supposed to teach each knowledge practice in order for the threshold concept to be met? Could a student be able to perform each of the six knowledge practices without understanding the overarching concept? (It seems that way). Is proficiency in each knowledge practice a prerequisite for acquiring the concept? The basic point I’m trying to make is that the connection between having a particular threshold concept and having certain abilities is nebulous at best, nonexistent at worst. Moreover, if a threshold concept is reducible to knowledge practices qua abilities, then aren’t we back to the old standards? Aren’t we just listing skills that the information literate student must have?

Actually, it’s more complicated than that. If the concepts are reducible to specific abilities and dispositions, then the question is whether the individual abilities/dispositions are what’s transformative/troublesome/etc., or if it’s the overarching concept that’s transformative/troublesome/etc. Are the six abilities listed as knowledge practices under Scholarship is a Conversation what’s troublesome? Is summarizing changes in scholar perspective over time transformative and what not? It doesn’t seem that way. In fact, it seems as though the skills and dispositions are fairly straightforward. But, if the skills and dispositions aren’t the troublesome/transformative parts, then what is? What is there in the overarching concept Scholarship is Conversation that constitutes a threshold, independent of the listed skills and dispositions?

3. Being troublesome or transformative are agent-relative properties

Rowbottom and O’Donnell both point out that a core problem for threshold concepts is that they are agent-relative: what is transformative for me might not be transformative for you. What is troublesome for you might not be troublesome for me. So, whereas the concept “Format is a Process” might not be troublesome for me, because I learned how to research just before the advent of online search, you may have more difficulty because you are only familiar with online research and don’t understand the differences. Likewise, we can ask how transformative and how troublesome must something be to count as a threshold, which brings us back to the first objection about all the hedging language. The key thing here is that threshold concepts have a way of reducing all of our students to a single idealized student who learns a particular way. But, we know that isn’t the case. In a room of 30 students, each student will have a different standard for how troublesome or transformative a concept is. Tell your first-year students that Scholarship is a Conversation and some will get it instantly, some will struggle, some won’t get it at all. Does that mean that Scholarship is a Conversation is only a threshold concept for some students? Hard to say.

4. Do disciplines really have a unified body of knowledge?

O’Donnell (2010) raises what I feel is the most damning criticism: that the threshold concept hypothesis requires us to reduce disciplines down to core sets of unchanging beliefs. The push to have students “think like an x” (a doctor, an engineer, an economist, a librarian, etc.) has negative impacts on critical thinking, O’Donnell argues, because “if we want creative thinkers and innovators, we need graduates capable of moving outside the x framework and operating within multiple frameworks” (2010, p. 9). Similarly, he argues, threshold concepts reinforce siloing and adversely impact inter-disciplinarity. I’ll give an example. Consider an engineering student being taught according to the information literacy framework. Within engineering, she may meet the threshold concept that “the semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem” (Shannon, 1948, p. 1). Through the library she may encounter the threshold concept Information has Value. Will she then have two sets of contradictory, irreversible threshold concepts? It would seem so and the only way to avoid the issue is to start carving up knowledge into non-overlapping domains, keeping engineering out of information science and vice versa.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Even within a single discipline, there are often radically incompatible views held among practitioners. For example, I actually disagree that scholarship is a conversation (my next post, I suppose). Or, for example, a deconstructionist librarian would disagree that Format is Process (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). Does this mean we’re not information literate? Not librarians? If you look back at the debate Dave Lankes and I had a few years ago over social constructionism, is it the case that only one of us is a librarian? If so, which one? If not, and we’re both librarians who just disagree on a foundational concept, does that mean there are two contradictory threshold concepts: Knowledge is Constructed vs. Knowledge is Discovered?

Even worse than that is the problem Barbara Fister alluded to on 27 February (link above). If we’re going to talk about disciplines having threshold concepts, we have to ask “whose threshold concepts?” As O’Donnell argues, “the view that there is a single set of threshold concepts in a discipline typically reflects the view that a discipline only has one reputable school of thought.” (2010, p. 9). And, as I pointed out in the last paragraph, this isn’t the case: most disciplines have multiple schools of thought. To take a clear example, what would the threshold concepts in psychology be? Would they come from psychoanalysis? Behaviorism? Cognitivism? Humanism? Again, whose threshold concepts define the discipline? Ultimately, O’Donnell argues, it boils down to power and control. Whoever controls the dominant narrative decides the threshold concepts. In most cases, this reduces to majority academic opinion, I would think. That’s still a bad way to do things, but outside of kowtowing to only the most mainstream academic thought, there are deeper sociological concerns. As Fister alluded, it’s possible that the threshold concepts being pushed in the Framework are only reflective of one particular view of information literacy. Probably white, probably middle-class, probably well-educated. That is, probably people in a position of privilege. But, I don’t really know. (The threshold concepts put forth by the committee were decided upon by an anonymous group of librarians in a “Delphi study.” The task force was not privy to the names or affiliations of Delphi study participants, nor were we given any justification, evidence, research, or other reasons to accept the concepts we were given. The role of the task force was to rewrite and expand upon the concepts given by the Delphi study, not to ask for justification.)

Ultimately, the threshold concept hypothesis requires us to view disciplines as monolithic, when we know that isn’t really the case. Likewise, because threshold concepts are agent-relative, there’s the very real problem (and likelihood) that any given set of threshold concepts is but a reflection of power and privilege. The entire theory of threshold concepts has a funny way of oversimplifying the very real distinctions and difficulties that are inherent in a body of knowledge.

Rethinking threshold concepts for information literacy

So, where are we with the ACRL framework? Like I said earlier, I’m not necessarily opposed to the actual concepts listed by the task force. They seem reasonable and what problems I have with them will be addressed in future posts. But, I am troubled by the connection to an intentionally vague, conceptually muddled, agent-relative, and reductionist theory. It would be one thing if the aforementioned problems with threshold concepts had simple solutions in the literature. Like, if Meyer and Land or someone else showed how the objections are unfounded. But, that hasn’t happened. Scholarship may be a conversation, but in the case of threshold concepts the dialogue is permanently one-sided. Of the 32 articles that cite Rowbottom, not a single one actually engages with the arguments. It’s always: “some have criticized threshold concepts, but we can ignore those criticisms because threshold concepts are popular.” Or, once or twice I’ve seen hand-waving to the effect that, “sure threshold concepts are vague and reductive and sure anything can be a threshold concept, but that’s only a problem for realists, not for us postmodernists.” No one is having a conversation about the legitimacy of the threshold concept hypothesis. According to the new framework, that means there’s no scholarship to show it’s a legitimate theory.

Personally, I do think that there are troublesome, transformative concepts out there. I do think there are Gestalt shifts and “Eureka!” moments in information literacy. But I don’t think that we can identify them by fiat. I don’t think that everything that’s troublesome has to be transformative. Or that everything transformative is integrative. And so on. Really, the six concepts in the Framework are a good start and they make sense. More importantly, they can stand on their own quite independently of the threshold concept hypothesis. I don’t want to justify the value of information literacy in terms of some mysterious threshold that students must face down. I want to introduce students to the complexities of scholarship and research because it’s just good to know that stuff. We don’t need pedagogical gimmicks like thresholds to see that students would benefit from certain concepts about research.

Anyway, those are just some of my thoughts. Maybe in the next few weeks I’ll say something about each threshold concept in turn (like how I don’t think scholarship is a conversation).

Doorway Empty


 Stuff I cited

Barradell, S. (2013). The identification of threshold concepts: a review of theoretical complexities and methodological challenges. Higher Education, 65(2): 265-276.

Meyer, J. H. F. & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. In C. Rust (ed.), Improving Student Learning–Ten Years On. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), 412-424.

O’Donnell, R. (2009). Threshold concepts and their relevance to economics. In T. Robinson, T. Tang, & A. Fletcher (Eds.), ATEC 2009, 14th Annual Australasian Teaching Economics Conference Proceedings. Paper presented at the Australasian Teaching Economics Conference, Brisbane, 13-14 July (pp. 190-199). Available here: http://www.atec2009.bus.qut.edu.au/documents/Binder3b.pdf

O’Donnell, R. (2010). A critique of the threshold concept hypothesis and its application to opportunity cost in economics.(Working Paper No. 164). Retrieved from http://www.finance.uts.edu.au/research/wpapers/wp164.html

Rowbottom, D. P. (2007). Demystifying threshold concepts. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 41(2): 263-270.

Yesterday a significant chunk of the librarian Twitterverse Twittersphere Twhatever-it’s-called lost its collective cardigans over a critique of the newly implemented ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct at Conferences. Will Manley, author of the critique in question, argues that the code of conduct is a substantially flawed document and, in support of that conclusion, he raises four concerns: (1) that the group statuses singled out for protection from harassment are undefined and vague, (2) that the policy will have a chilling effect on intellectual freedom, (3) that much of the code’s language is ambiguous, and (4) that the code does not provide due process for alleged violators. To be honest, I find nothing particularly shocking or offensive about Manley’s criticisms. I also don’t happen to think they are convincing, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Where the real drama unfolds is in the comments to Will’s post, which quickly descended into a mess of identity politics, tone-deafness, ad hominem arguments, and general foolishness.

You can read Manley’s post and subsequent comments in their entirety by clicking the word trainwreck.

I’m not going to do a point-by-point analysis of Manley’s concerns: Matthew Ciszek already has a good refutation of Manley’s critique, as does Nina de Jesus. Instead, I want to look more broadly at the issue of anti-harassment policies. Believe it or not, but there are substantive reasons not to reject anti-harassment policies. There are also substantive reasons to endorse said policies. Let’s look at each in turn. (And I apologize in advance for the very rough treatment of each position; I don’t want to take too long a lunch break #newyearsevelibrarian)


The libertarian* argument

Those who reject anti-harassment policies typically make the argument that (1) most harassment is already covered by existing policy and (2) anti-harassment policies stifle otherwise protected speech (or, intellectual freedom). Manley invokes this argument (poorly I might add). On the first part, Eugene Volokh explains that most harassment occurs “one-to-one”, that is, when a speaker is saying things to one listener that the listener clearly doesn’t want to hear. This type of harassment is clearly restrictable on the grounds that restricting it does not infringe upon the speaker’s ability to spread a message or make a public expression of a belief. One-to-one harassment annoys and offends (rather than persuades or convinces) and can therefore be dealt with without violating freedom of speech. Likewise, unwanted physical contact is not speech and, therefore, not at an intellectual freedom issue. If anything, that’s sexual battery, which is wrong in its own rights. However, the free speech libertarian argues that public speech not aimed at an individual is protected no matter how offensive. The libertarian will advocate for the “marketplace of ideas” where there should be no restrictions on the content of public speech. For example, a speaker at ALA Midwinter may want to present arguments against book-challenges raised by fundamentalist Christians. No matter how offended fundamentalist Christians in the audience feel about the presentation (and the ALA code mentions religion), the free speech libertarian would argue that the presentation must be allowed on the “marketplace of ideas” doctrine. Likewise, if speakers wanted to criticize affirmative action, advocate for an Equal Rights Amendment, discuss millennials unfavorably, or otherwise express a contested view, anti-harassment policies could have a chilling effect. Restricting public speech on the basis of its content, no matter how offensive, is antithetical to democratic values, so the argument goes. Think of it this way: while an anti-harassment policy may allow a lesbian or gay audience member some redress against a speaker who argues that homosexuality is immoral, it would also allow a fundamentalist Christian redress against a lesbian or gay speaker who argues that traditional Christian attitudes towards homosexuality are immoral. The best response is to avoid content-based restrictions all together and allow the truth to emerge on its own. Again, so the argument goes.

Whatever you think of the free-speech libertarian position, you should at least know that it is the dominant view in the United States. You know the whole “I hate what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it” doctrine? That’s what I’m talking about. This is why the ACLU (in?)famously defended the right of Nazis to assemble in Skokie and the right of Fred Phelps to spout hate. This is why the Supreme Court ruled that both burning a flag as well as burning a cross are protected speech (though illegal on other grounds). The list goes on and the point is clear: offensiveness and emotional outrage do not trump freedom of expression. Like it or not, that’s the status quo. (If you’re interested, Anthony Lewis wrote a history of the libertarian view in his recent book Freedom for the Thought that We Hate.)

dignityaintcheapThe dignity argument

So, what’s the alternative? What arguments can be raised in defense of an anti-harassment policy? I think a good counter to the libertarian position is the dignity argument raised by Jeremy Waldron in his monograph The Harm in Hate Speech (though, each chapter was previously published elsewhere and easily Googled). Though Waldron argues in favor of hate-speech legislation rather than anti-harassment policies, the issues are similar enough that Waldron’s arguments apply in both cases. Adapting Waldron, we can make the following argument:First, anti-harassment policies are not directed at thought, they are directed at harm. Specifically, these policies address the harm that harassment causes to the dignity of targeted persons or groups–where a person’s dignity is “a matter of status–one’s status as a member of society in good standing–and it generates demands for recognition and for treatment that accords with that status” (Waldron, p. 60). In the context of the ALA, a librarian’s dignity (or, arguably, any conference attendee) is the assurance of equal standing within the library community. Harassment and intimidation are, by their very nature, demeaning of the dignity of the person or group being targeted, thus depriving them of the “assurance . . . that they can count on being treated justly” (Ibid., p. 85). Note that this has nothing to do with a person’s being offended or made uncomfortable. Offense is subjective; dignity is objective. A frank discussion of sexuality or race might be incredibly uncomfortable for some listeners, but it only becomes harassment if the discussion is calculated to undermine dignity or demean those listeners.

Second, though isolated instances of one-to-one harassment should be able to be handled by existing policy (a concession to the libertarians), many isolated instances of harassment have the effect of creating an unwelcome atmosphere in which the dignity (i.e., the equal standing) of an entire group is undermined. When left unchecked, harassment can harm this “dignitary order” of the community (ibid., p. 92). Whereas we want conferences to be inclusive of many viewpoints (a concession to the marketplace of ideas doctrine), harassment compounds as an environmental toxin that undermines group dignity and, hence, undermines inclusiveness. A fair marketplace requires that all agents involved are assured equal standing but, to take just one example, harassment on the grounds of sexual identity serves to undermine that assurance among the LGBT community, thus removing them from the marketplace. This winds up not just harming the LGBT community but also harming the entire community who would otherwise benefit from the additional perspectives. Put another way, if we really want a marketplace of ideas, we have to assure all community members that their ideas will be heard.

Third, although regulating to prevent this dignitary harm may have some costs, the benefits justify the adoption of anti-harassment policies. Yes, we want a marketplace of ideas but, just as there are regulations over economic markets, there ought to be regulations curtailing abuse of the intellectual market. Think of the ALA Code of Conference Conduct as a sort of intellectual Glass-Steagall Act maybe. Given that the most frequent types of harassment are based on “race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status” it only makes sense to expressly prohibit those types of harassment in order to improve the intellectual market (there’s a long conversation we could have here about identifying “vulnerable groups” but we can save that for later). I don’t really know if this is even making sense, but in a nutshell, we need the ALA Code of Conference Conduct because it is our best way of assuring librarians of all backgrounds that the library community respects their basic dignity. And we need to provide this assurance because without dignitary order we lose out on the public good of inclusiveness. This isn’t about restricting intellectual freedom, it’s about restricting all and only those actions and words that undermine dignity. So Manley’s fear that Richard Pryor wouldn’t be allowed at an ALA conference is completely unfounded: Pryor may have been offensive, but he didn’t undermine people’s dignity.  Anyway, that’s the quick version of the dignity argument.


I’m just putting these theories out there for people to think about. While I do tend to lean towards the dignity argument, I do have some purely philosophical concerns about it. Likewise, while I’m not convinced of the libertarian argument, I’m not going to think poorly of those who invoke it. Whatever the case, I’m glad that the ALA has a Code of Conference Conduct and I hope that the discussions at Midwinter (in particular Andromeda’s panel on gender issues, which will probably touch on the code of conduct) are more thoughtful than what happened yesterday.


* that’s ‘libertarian’ in the philosophical sense, not the “your crazy 9/11 truther uncle who reads Ayn Rand” sense


Hey gang. Sorry I haven’t posted in a while; I’ll tell you, it’s been a heck of a busy semester. Still, I couldn’t bear the thought of ending the year with my last post all the way back in September. So, let’s end the year with everyone’s favorite kind of post: cis-hetero white guy writes some stuff about feminism. There’s no way this can go bad, right?

I’ve been paying close attention to a lot of discussions that have popped-up on the tubes over the past several months, and one that I’ve found particularly interesting involves the intersection of three ideas: librarianship, objectivity, and feminism. Way back in August, Chris Bourg wrote about a queer/feminist agenda in librarianship and then argued that all librarians have implicit agendas. A week later, Barbara Fister wrote about the librarian’s agenda to promote “certain ways of seeking and using evidence.” In October Annie Pho tipped me off to a great little book on feminist theory in library instruction. In November, Andromeda Yelton wrote an excellent piece on the phenomenology of gender, to which Chris Bourg responded with some reservations. Throughout all of this, everyone’s favorite ornery ornis meditated on gender and silencing. And then, on the closely related issue of gender and technology, there were hundreds of tweets and several posts, such as those by Lisa Rabey, Nicholas Schiller, Kate Kosturski, and others. For the best summary of what’s been going on, I recommend checking out the libtechgender project–it’s pretty awesome. Anyway, I know I’m leaving out lots of other stuff, but you get the idea: librarians are concerned about gender and sexuality. And that includes me.

This is the part where I explain that, yes, I do identify as a feminist. Yes, straight white guys are playing life on the lowest difficulty setting. And non-straight and/or non-white and/or non-guys are systematically mistreated/disrespected/ignored/silenced/etc.. No way am I going to dispute that. In fact, I take the systematic discrimination to be so blatantly obvious that there’s no need to argue that it exists: society is set up in such a way as to favor straight white guys to the detriment of everyone else. Question: does that include libraries? Do libraries favor straight white guys? Does librarianship? Does library science? Well, there is that thing about male library directors being disproportionately overrepresented. And LC subject headings can be pretty sexist at times. And for a profession overwhelmingly female, there sure are an awful lot of dudes giving keynotes. And don’t even get me started on the rampant, abject sexism facing tech-leaning library ladies. It’s depressing, to say the least.


Now, an interesting question is whether the sexism facing librarians is (1) a product of more general, societal issues related to sex and gender, or (2) inherent in librarianship itself. Or, more likely, a little of both. So, are male library directors better paid because of pay disparity in employment in general, or because something about librarianship itself creates pay disparity. Is librarianship fundamentally sexist, or does it merely inherit the more general social trends towards discrimination? Likewise, are sexist subject headings (or under-representation of women’s studies concepts) a signal of bias seeping into cataloging from the broader culture, or are the very concepts of cataloging and classification necessarily sexist? Here’s a brain teaser: are women programmers and coders at a disadvantage because of tech culture, or because programming languages are themselves gendered? I could keep raising these sorts of questions, but I think these are sufficient to illustrate a bit of an important divide. When we advocate for a feminist agenda in libraries, we need to be clear as to which feminist agenda we’re rooting for.

First, let’s establish a working definition of feminism: feminism “refers to any theory which sees the relationship between the sexes as one of inequality, subordination, or oppression, and which aims to identify and remedy the sources of that oppression” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edition). Of course, “inequality,” “subordination,” and “oppression” have contested meanings. Likewise, the sources of oppression and acceptable remedies are polarizing issues. If you’re going to advocate for feminism in libraries, you’d best figure out what these terms and concepts mean. Of course, there are hundreds (thousands?) of variations on feminist theory, and I have no desire to cover every one (because I can’t). But, there is a natural dividing line between the predominant theories. On one side we have the critical feminists; on the other the analytic feminists. Each side has lots of variations and it may be best to think in terms of a spectrum of feminist theories. I’ll just discuss the poles.

Critical feminists (CFs) trace their lineage to four important 20th Century ideas: psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, phenomenology, and pluralism (alliteration win!). From psychoanalysis, CFs adopt the position that our attitudes towards the world are necessarily shaped by unconscious motivations that are immune to rational reflection. From post-structuralism, CFs adopt the position that all thought and belief is constructed within a language, all languages are shaped by cultural and historical processes, and that, hence, you cannot understand any phenomenon independent of contingent human interests. The idea is that our basic epistemological categories (truth, reason, objectivity, knowledge, etc.) and moral categories (justice, equality, fairness, etc.) can only be understood in context and there are no transcendent, universal concepts or values. From phenomenology, CFs adopt the position that we cannot understand the world independently of the subjective, lived experience. From pluralism, CFs adopt the position that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world. Put it all together, and you get something like this:

  1. Concepts considered fundamental in Western conceptions of philosophy, morality, and politics–like truth, science, objectivity, justice, etc.–were primarily developed by wealthy white guys in the context of a patriarchal society (think of the Enlightenment).
  2. Because of their provenance, these Western “values” only reflect the thinking of the dominant male culture and do not address women’s (or others’) perspectives.
  3. So, things we are told are universal (like truth or justice) are really filled with hidden biases, they aren’t universal, they don’t capture subjective experiences, and they only represent one of many ways of knowing the world.

To name two examples, the post-Enlightenment beliefs that science is the best means of accessing the truth and that democratic systems are the most just, are not reflective of the perspectives of the marginalized and oppressed social groups that played no role in the creation of science and democracy. The task then for the critical feminist is to (1) lay bare the inherent bias and subjectivity in our most basic beliefs about the world and (2) remove those universal claims from their place of privilege by cultivating equal respect for alternative, non-(white/masculine/wealthy/etc.) ways of knowing. Western society was born in patriarchy and dominates the world through its insistence that Western values are superior. But, since “Western” is just a code for “wealthy white men,” we need to reject Western, post-Enlightenment hegemony and look at the world as it actually is: a multifaceted place of innumerable conceptions of reality, with none deserving any place of privilege or dominance. I’ll grant that this only scratches the surface of critical feminist theory. Poke around the critical feminist theory literature and you’ll quickly bump into Marxism, postmodernism, social constructionism, post-colonialism, literary theory, deconstructionism and a wide range of influential theorists including Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, and more. But, alas, this is a blog and not an encyclopedia. If you want to read more, Josephine Donovan’s Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions is probably the best general overview. You need this book. You might also want to get your hands on the Continental Feminism Reader. If you just want something online, try Jennifer Hansen’s SEP entry on ‘Continental Feminism‘. (And to the six people who will read this, please share books in the comments if you’d like.)


Okay, so, that’s a very rough sketch of critical feminism and it tends to dominate a lot of contemporary feminist discourse. Yes, different theorists may reject one or two of the four P’s, or disagree about interpretations, but it’s close enough. In contrast, analytic feminism (AF) rejects all of the P’s, more or less. On most interpretations of AF, we can explore unconscious biases rationally, we can assert universal or transcendent truths, we can come to at least a partial understanding of the world outside of subjective experience, and there are some ways of knowing that are superior to others. While the critical feminist argues that things like objectivity are inherently subjective and biased towards patriarchal interests, the analytic feminist would say that objectivity really is possible and, indeed, vital. Importantly, the analytic feminist respects subjective experience, social context, implicit biases and all the things the critical feminist wants to highlight. The distinction is over what we do with objectivity, science, and similar claims to universal, transcendent truths. I think the idea is that systematic oppression of women is not evidence that our values are wrong, but evidence that we haven’t lived up to our values. Generally, AF is cool with science, truth, justice, equality, universal values, and so on, but social and cultural biases have prevented society from living up to those ideals. For the analytic feminist, the goal of feminism is to identify the biases and cultural conditions that have shaped how we use science, what we accept as true, how we set up democracy, and so on. Key analytic feminists include Martha Nussbaum, Ann Cudd, Elizabeth Anderson, Sandra Harding, Susan Haack, and others. The journal Hypatia  is a good source for analytic feminist scholarship. Personally, Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice  is the analytic text that probably most influenced my thinking on feminism. I’ll also confess that my thesis adviser was the thoroughly analytic “Gay Moralist,” John Corvino. Seriously, go watch his videos.

Here’s a good example of the difference: an analytic feminist might say that women are underrepresented in science because society has unfairly discouraged women from pursuing scientific studies (the whole “girls can’t do math” thing or the “men are rational, women are irrational” stereotype…that kind of stuff). The solution is to get society to realize that girls can do math, women are just as rational as men, and good science has nothing to do with what’s between your legs. In contrast, the critical feminist might say that women are underrepresented because scientific inquiry is itself inherently sexist. For example, (in?)famously, Luce Irigaray argued that E = mc^2 is “a sexed equation” which “privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”, and which therefore belongs to a “masculine physics” [quoted everywhere]. Irigaray thought that fluid mechanics is systematically ignored in physics because masculinist physics has difficulty coping with fluidity, which is a feminine attribute. You can probably see where this is going.

To the critical feminist, the analytic feminist is committed to perpetuating patriarchal notions of objectivity, truth, and justice. What’s more, in favoring traditionally masculine ideals like science and logical reasoning, analytic feminists are tacitly dismissing more feminine ways of knowing like listening, intuition, subjectivity, and emotion (I’ll assume you’re familiar with Women’s Ways of Knowing. It was required reading in my library science program, and this idea is right at the beginning, pp. 5-7). To the analytic feminist, the critical feminist is a relativist who pushes stereotypes of feminine thinking (intuition, empathy, emotion, nurturing, etc.) and who won’t acknowledge any facts that don’t fit a certain political agenda. Analytic feminists point to the successes of science for all humans and the slow but certain improvement in women’s lives compared to previous generations as evidence that it’s the will to live by our ideals that is the problem, not the ideals themselves. Sure, the analytic feminist will say, men have frequently attempted to use science and objectivity to back-up their sexism, racism, classism, etc. But, that’s because those men were assholes, not because science is sexist. To which the critical feminist will respond with something about how the very categories by which we judge “improvement” in women’s lives or “success” in science are affected by biases. “You’re a relativist! You’re supporting the patriarchy!” And around and around it goes.


Now, if you’re a librarian, this all may seem like academic quibbling. And a lot of it is. But, whether you align with more critical or more analytic feminists will affect how you approach issues of diversity, harassment, equality, etc.. While both analytic and critical feminists agree in the pursuit of social justice, diversity, empowering women, and eliminating biases from, they might take different routes to achieve those ends.
For example…

Information Literacy

  • CF rejects ACRL standards and things like the Project SAILS standardized test because they reinforce patriarchal power (Accardi, pp. 76-77) and fail to “provide space for student voice or experiential knowledge” (Ibid., p. 84). Information literacy is better measured through qualitative methods like reflective journals and interviews. In contrast, AF can accept ACRL standards and quantitative assessment tools, though it would seek to eliminate bias from said tools. Both men and women can be information literate in the same way, we just need to remove the obstacles to women’s achievement.

Collection Development

  • A CF might seek to establish a stand-alone women’s studies collection in a library, based on the premises that current classification standards are biased and that a separate collection would unite women scholars on campus. An AF might reject a stand-alone women’s studies collection and favor strengthening existing disciplinary collections through the addition of material about women, sexism, class, etc. (This was a real debate. See Lee, 2003. A great case study, though I don’t like her sweeping use of the term “non-feminist.” “Different-feminist” might be better.)


  • Males and females are frequently ascribed different management traits: analytical vs. intuitive, assertive vs. democratic, goal-oriented vs. people-oriented, tough vs. understanding, and so on. Should we encourage the same traits in both men and women (whatever those traits may be)? Or do men and women necessarily manage differently? Do these traits have any connection to the overrepresentation of male library directors? See Voelck, 2003 for more on this.

I could go on with examples, but this is already a pretty long post.

Basically, what we have, is a methodological distinction between two somewhat over-lapping takes on feminism, and the distinction can be distinguished in how you answer a simple question:

Are women oppressed because our societal ideals of justice and knowledge are flawed, or because as a society we aren’t living up to those ideals?

Maybe you favor the former. Maybe the latter. Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. But, the important thing to understand is that “feminism” is not a monolithic theory. Where feminists agree is that women are treated differently than men in society and that treatment is overwhelmingly oppressive and unjust. But, not all feminists are concerned with the same issues. Not all feminists are postmodernists. Not all feminists have the same attitudes towards justice, equality, and so on. Seriously, go read Judith Butler and Martha Nussbaum back-to-back. Better yet, read Nussbaum’s brutal takedown of Butler and ask how feminism can admit of such divergent methods. Importantly, we should all realize that not every criticism of a feminist project is anti-feminist silencing. Sometimes feminists disagree. Going back to the discussion of feminist agendas in librarianship, we can ask whether our agenda should “debunk the myth of scientific objectivity and value-neutrality” (Bourg), or whether our agenda should adopt the implicitly scientific stance of helping patrons “form opinions based on the [objective] evidence” (Fister). So long as we can all agree that the current state of the world is less than ideal for women and that something needs to be changed, I think that’s a good start.


One last thing, you may have noticed in this post a conspicuous absence of class, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, and other topics commonly discussed by feminists. There are two reasons. First, 2500 words is long enough. Second, the same distinction between more critical and more analytic approaches applies. Also, I just want to reiterate that there is a ton of stuff left unsaid. I’d be happy to delve into more technical points in the comments.


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