Revising the ACRL Information Literacy Standards: A Preview


Published: January 10, 2014 by Dr. Michelle Holschuh Simmons

 In 2000 the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) approved the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. These standards have served to define the term “information literacy” and to guide instruction programs in institutions of higher education throughout the United States and beyond. As defined by the ALA Presidential Committee on Information Literacy in 1989, information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (ALA, 1989). While these standards have been instrumental in guiding instruction librarians’ practices in the last fourteen years, they are becoming dated and losing their relevance in today’s information environment. For this reason, the ACRL Board of Directors embarked upon a substantial project in 2011 to evaluate the current standards and determine whether new standards were warranted. After much deliberation, the ACRL Board of Directors determined that a major revision was necessary and so developed the following charge:

“Update the Information literacy competency standards for higher education so that they reflect the current thinking on such things as the creation and dissemination of knowledge, the changing global higher education and learning environment, the shift from information literacy to information fluency, and the expanding definition of information literacy to include multiple literacies, e.g., transliteracy, media literacy, digital literacy, etc.” (

In the summer of 2013, ACRL formed a task force, which proceeded to collect feedback from the ACRL membership and other constituencies within the higher education community and then to update the standards extensively. The task force held three open forums to solicit input from stakeholders; recordings of the three events are available here: (I attended the one on November 4th). Hundreds of people attended each of the events, and the excitement about the process was evident in the online forums.

A formal draft of the revised standards is scheduled to be released in mid-February 2014, but participants of the open forums were given a preview of the impending changes. The task force members explained that the revised standards were being built around two major concepts: threshold concepts and metaliteracy. Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti explain threshold concepts, based on the work of Jan Meyer and Ray Land, as follows:

“…Threshold concepts are the core ideas and processes in any discipline that define the discipline, but that are so ingrained that they often go unspoken or unrecognized by practitioner. They are the central concepts that we want our students to understand and put into practice, that encourage them to think and act like practitioners themselves. Meyer and Land propose five definitional criteria for threshold concepts:

  • Transformative—cause the learner to experience a shift in perspective;
  • Integrative—bring together separate concepts (often identified as learning objectives) into a unified whole;
  • Irreversible—once grasped, cannot be un-grasped;
  • Bounded—may help define the boundaries of a particular discipline, are perhaps unique to the discipline;
  • Troublesome—usually difficult or counterintuitive ideas that can cause students to hit a roadblock in their learning.” (Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti, 2012, 387-88)

The concept of metaliteracy, as defined by Thomas Mackey and Trudy Jacobson “is a unified construct that supports the acquisition, production, and sharing of knowledge in collaborative online communities. Metaliteracy challenges the traditional skills-based approaches to information literacy by recognizing related literacy types and incorporating emerging technologies” (Mackey & Jacobson, 2011, p. 62-63).

The focus on threshold concepts is very exciting to me, as my own work in my dissertation and in my professional life as an academic librarian centered on a disciplinary approach to teaching information literacy. My article “Librarians as Disciplinary Discourse Mediators: Using genre theory to move toward critical information literacy” explored ways that a disciplinary approach could help move students beyond a skills-based approach to information literacy in which finding information is paramount (Simmons, 2005). Teaching students to find information of course is important, but we are doing our students an injustice in today’s information environment if we stop there. I am hopeful that the new information literacy standards will push our field to a more critical, comprehensive approach to information literacy. Students in my LIBR287 Information Literacy class will be exploring these new developments with me. These are exciting times to work in this area!

For additional reading:

Revising the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education:

ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force


ALA (1989). Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report

Hofer, A., L. Townsend, and K. Brunetti. (2012). Troublesome concepts and information literacy: Investigating threshold concepts for IL instruction. portal: Libraries and the Academy 12(4), 387-405.

Mackey, T., and T. Jacobson. (2011). Reframing information literacy as a metaliteracy. College & Research Libraries 72(1), 62-78.

Simmons, M. H. (2005). Librarians as disciplinary discourse mediators: Using genre theory to move toward critical information literacy. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5(3), 297-311.