Information Literacy Paradigm Shift: Standards to Framework

What do the words “information literacy” mean to you?

As John Naisbitt portended in 1982, “We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge” (p. 24). It is both an unimaginable privilege and a near-insurmountable challenge to live in a time of information overload and near-constant connectivity. To contextualize our data-driven lives, consider that every minute in 2014, Facebook users were sharing over 2 million pieces of content, Twitter users were tweeting over 270,000 times, and Google received over 4,000,000 search queries (James, 2014). Also consider that 64% of American adults—and 85% of American young adults—now own a smartphone, and 46% of smartphone owners describe their phones as something they “couldn’t live without” (Smith, 2015). What do we do with all of that information? And more importantly, how do we teach our students to become critical navigators and consumers of that information and, hopefully, producers of that information and content themselves?

Information literacy is a concept that tries to address that very challenge. The phrase is attributed to Paul Zurkowski who, in a 1974 presentation to librarians, “defined the present as one in which ‘an overabundance of information’ that ‘exceeds our capacity to evaluate it’ has become ‘a universal condition’” (as cited in Drabinski, 2014, p. 481). (It’s important to remember that the feeling of being flooded by information is not one that is unique to our generation of connectivity.)

Librarians have always been at the forefront of trying to help their constituents navigate this information flood, in whatever format the flood happens to arrive. In 2000, the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, published the then-groundbreaking Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, a comprehensive set of skills and competencies meant to identify the behaviors exhibited by one who is “information literate.” These standards became the bedrock of library instruction programs worldwide and were used so extensively that they began to weave more fully into the larger academic fabric: general education programs identified information literacy as course learning goals; accrediting agencies incorporated information literacy instruction into their standards and reporting requirements; the American Association of Colleges & Universities incorporated the standards into their own LEAP (Liberal Education for America’s Promise) program and VALUE rubrics.

However, the only constant, they say, is change. And as the higher education landscape underwent massive transformation over the past 15 years, librarians and faculty began to find the information literacy standards limiting—problematic in their inability to acknowledge the fluidity of information-seeking practices in an age when “everything is online;” prescriptive of a certain rigid process; lacking in their capacity to recognize different levels of mastery and different contexts for information use and knowledge creation. ACRL appointed a task force who spent the past several years significantly revising the standards. The result? The brand new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

Instead of concrete standards, the new Framework is organized around six frames:

  1. Authority is constructed and contextual
  2. Information creation as a process
  3. Information has value
  4. Research as inquiry
  5. Scholarship as conversation
  6. Searching as strategic exploration

Each frame represents what is known as a “threshold concept.” A threshold concept is an educational term that refers to a concept or attitude that students have to reach or grasp before they can progress to higher levels of understanding and mastery. Meyer and Land (2005) initially coined the use of this phrase, describing threshold concepts as “conceptual gateways or portals that lead to a previously inaccessible, and initially perhaps troublesome, way of thinking about something” (p. 373). In the Framework for Information Literacy, each threshold concept is accompanied by a set of actions or behaviors (“knowledge practices”) and attitudes (“dispositions”) that are exhibited by learners who have successfully crossed that knowledge threshold.

These six threshold concepts represent a tremendous shift for librarians and our stakeholders alike. It can be uncomfortable and destabilizing to lose the security of a concrete set of measurable learning objectives; yet at the same time, it can be liberating and empowering to recognize that discovery, learning, and knowledge creation are deeply contextualized processes and cannot be divorced from the broader petri dish of the students’ entire educational experience. According to Meyer and Land (2005), threshold concepts are considered “transformative, irreversible, and integrative” (p. 373). What better framework than that for conceptualizing how we want our students to learn?

Librarians themselves aren’t exactly sure yet what to do with these frames. So they are modeling the process that we hope to foster in our students: they are starting from a place of inquiry and collaboration. At UMass Boston, the teaching librarians will be using the new Framework, in collaboration with our faculty teaching partners, as a guidepost for the development of our flexible, online and face-to-face course-integrated research practices instruction and assessment program. (You can see an example of how the frames are guiding our projects in this presentation that was given at the Association of College and Research Libraries conference in March 2015.) Librarians at other schools are also using these frames to start conversations with their faculty teaching partners (such as in this poster presentation created by Boston University librarians), to identify specific learning goals for a course or program and to use the threshold concepts to help structure and frame the students’ learning around those goals (such as in these outcomes developed by librarians at University of Southern California). Librarians are sharing a more common vocabulary with faculty, using this guiding document that is more firmly grounded in educational literature and theories rather than in the arcane lingo of the library profession.

And perhaps most importantly, we have not abandoned our most trustworthy professional companion, the Information Literacy Standards themselves. The Framework was adopted by ACRL leadership as one of the many documents that guide our profession. Like the Framework itself, though, we look forward to crossing the threshold with our faculty partners into a more nuanced understanding of student learning and what it means to be “information literate.”


Association of College and Research Libraries. (2000). Information literacy competency standards for higher education. Retrieved from

Association of College and Research Libraries. (2014). Framework for information literacy for higher education. Retrieved from

Drabinski, E. (2014). Toward a kairos of library instruction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 40, 480-485.

James, J. (2014). Data never sleeps 2.0. Retrieved from

Meyer, J.H.F, & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373-388.

Naisbitt, J. (1982). Megatrends: Ten new directions transforming our lives. New York: Warner Books.

Smith, A. (2015). U.S. smartphone use in 2015. Retrieved from

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