Authority is Constructed and Contextual


By: Valerie Nye

ALA Association of College & Research Libraries The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) adopted the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education in 2016.  Academic librarians use the framework as a national standard for guiding library instruction and teaching concepts that college students should acquire before they graduate. The document provides six frames (concepts) that help librarians and faculty develop outcomes for student learning. For the last two years, academic librarians have been using the framework to change and reconsider library instruction while debating the strengths and weaknesses of the framework.

The frame I have found myself thinking about the most over the last year is “Authority is Constructed and Contextual.” While several of the frames could include a deep discussion of intellectual freedom issues, “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” has become, for me, the strongest frame, integrating judgement and academic freedom into a research concept. It is the frame that allows individuals, disciplines, and cultural groups to privilege the information within their context of valued knowledge. It allows the student, researcher and/or faculty members to define and justify authority based on their research topic.

I have many examples in my library career that point to the importance of authority and its context, but two examples come immediately to my mind as I think about this subject today.

Looking through a set of frames up to the skyI am a librarian in a tribal college library. The library has a very solid collection of books on Native history and culture, but these books published by scholars and printed by notable presses cannot always be counted on to be reliable. Many of the books on Native cultures are written by people who are outsiders to the culture and the published books include many inaccuracies that students can easily identify based on their own experiences in their own culture. Even recently published books written by non-Native scholars contain skewed points of view that privilege dominant Western culture. The books are not entirely invalid sources of information. When a student works to understand the context of a book and its author, the book may be a relevant resource for a student to use. For these reasons I now intentionally use this ACRL frame in freshmen courses to emphasize that no matter what the format, a student must always investigate the authority of the author and decide for themselves if the author’s credentials provide the person the knowledge and background to be accurately reporting on the events and issues written about in the book.

In 2016 and 2017, Standing Rock was a frequent topic of student research papers and ongoing inquiry on campus. Entire class sections wrote essays on issues related to the events occurring at Standing Rock. As I followed the events and learned first-hand about experiences students were having at the protests in North Dakota, I knew that mainstream news was not covering Standing Rock carefully and many news outlets were missing critical events occurring at the camps. Government sources were biased and could not be relied upon as fully authoritative. For many of the research topics that students were choosing to investigate, they needed very current information and they needed to rely on the authority of people who were experiencing the events at Standing Rock on a day-to-day basis. For these reasons students need to look for authority on Facebook posts, blogs, videos and news that came from sources that would not be considered mainstream. Students had to decide for themselves if the information they were learning from these sources made sense based on what they personally knew about the events occurring at Standing Rock. Students had to decide if the context of an author’s report gave the author the authority necessary for a college-level paper.

The frame, in my opinion, also has some weaknesses. Some may argue that we can bolster the weaknesses of this frame by being persistent educators. Without educated direction, however, I find “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”  leads people to give authority to sources that promote things like fake news and conspiracy theories. Misplaced authority has real world consequences. The Pizzagate conspiracy theory and incident (where people were led to believe that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-abuse organization) comes to mind as a recent example.

Since the 2016 campaign and elections, a new common conversation about fake news is taking place. I hear people in the line at the grocery store talking about fake news, and I hear men on treadmills at the gym exchanging tips for finding reliable sources of news. I want to believe librarianship has entered a new era of working to help people understand information and define authority for themselves. I believe this is going to be an ongoing critical element of teaching and understanding information, and I believe librarians have an important role in this education and dialogue. The ACRL framework document outlines the practices that learners should have in this area. I have listed those practices below.

I have many ongoing thoughts and questions about this frame. Some of my questions are:

  • How do we work as librarians in all library types to educate our patrons on these issues, especially if we don’t have a classroom and the authority of a professor?
  • What can/do school librarians do to education students about authority and context?
  • What can/do public librarians do to educate patrons about authority and context?
  • Who gets to establish authority?
  • What steps can we take to ensure that fake news and conspiracy theories are recognized by information consumers, without suppressing minority viewpoints under the weight of “mainstream truth?”

Please share your thoughts about “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” in the comment section of this post.

“Authority is Constructed and Contextual”

Learners should:

  • develop and maintain an open mind when encountering varied and sometimes conflicting perspectives;
  • motivate themselves to find authoritative sources, recognizing that authority may be conferred or manifested in unexpected ways;
  • develop awareness of the importance of assessing content with a skeptical stance and with a self-awareness of their own biases and worldview;
  • question traditional notions of granting authority and recognize the value of diverse ideas and worldviews;
  • are conscious that maintaining these attitudes and actions requires frequent self-evaluation.


Valerie NyeValerie Nye is the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations; recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has cowritten or coedited four books including True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking on lakes.


  • Thank you so much Valerie, this was very helpful. I was just reading now on this frame, got confused here and there although I understand exactly how I would using it in a classroom setup. Should you have any information to share, please feel free to send me. My name is Sindiswa Sota, I am one of the subject librarians for natural sciences, based in Cape Town and currently working at the University of the Western Cape.

  • “What steps can we take to ensure that fake news and conspiracy theories are recognized by information consumers, without suppressing minority viewpoints under the weight of “mainstream truth?”

    I think this is the crucial question for this frame, and I appreciated hearing your perspective leading to your take on it. Will definitely be pondering this as I continue to work on instructional programming at our community college. Thanks!

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