Commensurable Nonsense (Transliteracy)

It is entirely possible that I’m just dense, but everything I’ve read recently about libraries and “transliteracy” seems like nonsense to me. Here’s how I’ve been thinking about it.


Very briefly, the term literacyDictionary entries: Oxford, American Heritage / Webster’s New World College, Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, Encarta refers to either:

1. The ability to read and write


2. Knowledge of, skill in, or competence in an specific area or subject.

The former is a very real concern if the university professors and academic librarians I know are to be believed.It appears that one can be admitted to many American colleges despite being barely able to string together a coherent written sentence and that a lot of resources are spent on remedial English education, both formal and informal (like vast amounts of time spent by teaching assistants), for freshmen. (While we’re on the topic, the innumeracy I see in the world every day may actually alarm me more.)

Still, I think we’re mostly concerned with the latter.

Sorts of Literacies:

My wife and I frequently talk about our aspirations for the cultural literacy of our children. We think that they need to hear stories from Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm, Aesop’s Fables, and (to the surprise of some who know us) both the Hebrew and Christian bibles. We’re atheists, but we know that stories from the bible(s) are frequently referenced in literature and in life- and that knowledge of these stories will enhance their understanding of the world around them.

Plenty of people tell me that they need help with something because they are not computer literate. I don’t know that I much like this term (I think that lack of confidence is a more frequent problem than actual incapability), but the popularity of its use can’t be denied. People know that to be “computer illiterate” is to be unskilled in the use of computers.

Then there’s the literacy that librarians, of course, care a whole lot about, Information literacyI just remembered that the topic of ‘information literacy’ has been important enough for me to be a category on this blog.

Information Literacy

I like the 1989 ALA definition:

“To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”

I also like this one from the Association of College and Research Libraries:

“Information Literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information.”

These are simple, clear definitions that are broad enough to incorporate any tools. Some years ago, information literacy included the ability to thumb through an index of periodicals- I remember doing this in elementary school. Today, the elementary school student might search a database of indices. Regardless of the changes in technology, the above definitions of information literacy continue to be good and useful.

Technologies change and tools change, but the definition of information literacy doesn’t need to.

Here’s where I start to get a bit confused. What’s the point of terms like “digital literacy“?

The Wikipedia definition of digital literacy is as follows:

“Digital literacy is the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used. Digitally literate people can communicate and work more efficiently, especially with those who possess the same knowledge and skills.”

So…it’s information literacy with computers. In our world, don’t you have to be “digitally literate” (and “computer literate”) if you’re going to claim information literacy? If so, “digital literacy” is just an aspect (a huge and important aspect) of information literacy.

Isn’t health literacy just a specialized kind of information literacy? How hard is it to take the above definitions of information literacy and make a couple of small edits to make them good for health literacy?

Information Health literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use Health information.

To be information health literate, a person must be able to recognize when health information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed health information.

So, not hard.

Now we’ll remove the “health” from a definition of health literacy from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and make it about information literacy generally.

HealthInformation literacy includes the ability to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles, appointment slips, medical education brochures, doctor’s directions and consent forms, and the ability to negotiate complex health care systems. HealthInformation literacy is not simply the ability to read. It requires a complex group of reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health important situations.”

You could do the same thing with “media literacy,” or “financial literacy.” Sure, they’re specialized subsets, but it’s all information literacy. Are terms like electracy really useful in any way? I don’t think so.If you DO think that this term has some usefulness, please explain it to me?

Okay. So what’s “transliteracy”?

Wikipedia uses a definition from PART (Production and Research in Transliteracy):

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.

Of course, PART’s own site calls this a “working definition.” So…the group providing the definition notes that it isn’t really thoroughly defined yet.

Has there been another time that a bunch of librarians were excited about another buzzword that was, at best, vaguely defined? I keep thinking back to T. Scott’s take on “Library 2.0”:

“My problem with the term is the same as ever — it is simply incoherent. People who use the term refer continually to the “Library 2.0 concept” but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what that “concept” is. Everyone who uses it has their own intention for it, and one knows that it has something to do with social networking software and with making libraries better, but is there really any more to it than that? It’s a very sloppy use of language, and I’m a firm believer in the concept that a sloppy use of language betrays sloppy thinking.”

Anyone else see the parallel?

Libraries and Transliteracy

In my seeking to understand what transliteracy is and why it should matter to libraries, I came across a number of references to this presentation by Bobbi Newman.

Bolded lines below are the text from her slides.

Slide #12: Soon people will need to be transliterate in order to be involved in and contribute to society.
Slide #13: It is already happening.

People who aren’t transliterate can’t participate in society? That sounds important. Where are they being prevented by the absence of their transliteracy from being a part of society?

Slide #14: Facebook privacy settings are complex and change frequently.

I don’t think a thorough understanding of Facebook privacy settings (or Facebook generally) is required to be involved in and to contribute to society, do you? Even if they were, knowing how to use social networks and other online tools could just as easily be defined as digital literacy or information literacy. Where’s the need for the new term “transliteracy”?

Slide #15: It is not just on the fun sites.

But you’re limiting the discussion here to computers and Web sites.

Slide #16: Government agencies are no longer issuing print forms.

Aside from the fact that this statement is patently untrue…or maybe just badly written. Maybe she meant to say that some agencies no longer provide paper copies of some forms., it seems again to point to the use of internet tools.

Slide #17: Banks are sending alerts and account balance information via text messages.

For those who want them, yes. Is texting now required to be a part of society?

Slide #18: Your health insurance plan has a website and you have an account.
Slide #19: The price of computers is dropping allowing more people to own one.
Slide #20: Free WiFi access points are increasing, allowing more people internet access.

More and more people are using computers and the internet, yes. What does this have to do with “transliteracy”?

Slide #21: For many people these are new experiences.
Slide #22: Experiences they can have with no training, no supervision and no support.

(How DARE people have new experiences without supervison!)

Yes, they CAN have them that way if they want. They can also check Consumer Reports or do other research to help them decide what computer to buy. They can ask at the library/McDonald’s/coffee shop how to connect to their WiFi. They can call the insurance company and be walked through how to use the Web site.

Again, what does this have to do with “transliteracy”?

Slide #22: If we only focus on literacy we are failing our patrons.

If libraries only supported readin’ and writin’ on slips of thin, dead tree, they WOULD be failing their patrons- but that’s not the case. Libraries have been working hard for years at providing computers, connectivity, and instruction. Libraries care quite a lot about information literacy and expend a great deal of effort helping patrons build information literacy skills.

So, given that libraries are NOT just focusing on words that are printed on dead-tree paper and given that they ARE providing instruction in information literacy…what here is new and different, meriting a new term?

Slide #23: In order to best serve our patrons we need to move from literacy to transliteracy.

It seems from these slides that Bobbi is saying she thinks “transliteracy” means “inclusion of online stuff and other newish technologies.” If that’s the case, libraries have already made this transition.

Slide #24: How do we shift our focus to transliteracy?
Slide #25: Talk with your coworkers and colleagues about it.
Slide #26: Talk with your patrons about it.
Slide #27: Add it to your strategic plan, mission statement and goals.

So, what would these conversations sound like?

Librarian 1: Hey, I read that we should be talking about transliteracy.
Librarian 2: Okay. What’s transliteracy?
Librarian 1: I don’t know, but if we don’t mention it in our strategic plan, we’ll seem unhip. If we suggest it to our director, though, she might think we’re really on top of new trends.
Librarian 2: I’m game. What part of the strategic plan should this transliteracy stuff be added to?


Librarian 1: Um…Do a find-and-replace for “library 2.0?”

Librarian 2: Nice.

That’s not the end of the unappealing similarities between the libraries-and-transliteracy-stuff and the library-2.0-stuff.

One of the worst things about “Library 2.0” was the way its advocates (who now don’t talk about it at all) seemed to talk mostly only to each other in language which (usually unintentionally) excluded and alienated others from participating in the conversation. Still, I never saw a post about Library 2.0 that was as bad in this regard as Transliteracy and Incommensurability, posted by Lane Wilkinson at Libraries and Transliteracy.A screen capture of the post is also saved here.

At first, I was convinced this post was pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook. After several aborted attempts, I finally read it in the right frame of mind and discovered that it made a few good points. These points have repeatedly been made much more clearly elsewhere, but Wilkinson is definitely not a charlatan. It’s not gobbledygook.

My complaint is that his dense use of jargon and needlessly specialized language makes his post almost totally inaccessible.

What would happen if people discussed his post the same way he wrote it?


Rothman, what’s your problem? Why are you picking on those nice transliteracy people?

I’m not. I’m picking on their ideas and their writing. Their writing because it is awful and their ideas because…well…I think they have no new ideas.

The world changes as technology changes. Education and libraries adapt (well or poorly, but they adapt). There’s nothing new here. There’s no need for a new movement, a new term, or so much discussion about nothing.

Look at this post by Tom Ipri:

“One thing which excites me about Transliteracy is, because of its newness, the skills involved are not well-defined.”

I’d like to ask Tom: Aside from the term, what exactly is new about transliteracy? Like “Library 2.0,” the term is being used without really being defined. That makes it awfully convenient to write about, because it can mean anything you want it to.

“Of course, Transliteracy involves a whole swath of cognitive skills that transcend navigating new technology.”

Skills which, of course, Tom doesn’t describe.

“To a certain extent, trust is a teachable skill and librarians invest a great deal of effort in instilling notions of trust. How do we trust that a web site is reliable? But beyond that, individuals need to learn how and when other individuals are trustworthy.”

Oooookay. I’ll agree that the ability to identify who is trustworthy is a good ability to have. What is your point in bringing up this bit of common sense? What is new here? Where is the need for the term “transliteracy” and why should libraryfolk care?

I don’t think critical theory is as important to libraries right now as practical matters. That said, critical theory has things to offer libraries and librarians- but this isn’t critical theory. This is nonsense. Further, it is a kind of nonsense we’ve seen before in the “library 2.0” silliness- so it really is Commensurable Nonsense.

34 thoughts on “Commensurable Nonsense (Transliteracy)

  1. I think you make some very good points here. I especially concur with and appreciate the notion that you can criticize the concepts without criticizing the people.

    You might be interested in my post, Redefining Transliteracy, that touches on many of the points you discuss here. Spoiler alert, though: I’m tough on Information Literacy too.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly…my post was jargon-laden and inaccessible. Honestly, I’m surprised it wasn’t pulled down by the admins. You know when you have a long argument over e-mail or blog posts, and it goes on for so long that you get into a sort of echo chamber where you write/talk in a really affected, technical way? Yeah, it was mostly that. My bad.

  3. Er…yeah. I totally know what you mean, Lane. I am now feeling uncomfortably sympathetic. Damn you.

    Anyway- here’s to your next post being a whole lot better!

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  5. David – I’d like to thank you for writing a critique of L&T that doesn’t feel like an attack on me or the other members. Because transliteracy is a new concept (one not made up by the members of the blog) and we’re attempting to apply it to libraries I’m happy to see (civil) discussions about it. As for why I didn’t pull Lane’s post, while I too find a bit a hard to read, I saw (nor do I now) see a reason to remove it. The blog and the application of the transliteracy to libraries are a work in progress, as such some times we’ll stumble, we are human. The key is to keep moving forward.

  6. Hey Bobbi!

    I’m really glad it doesn’t come across like a personal attack- that was important to me. 🙂

    I also think your comment and Lane’s are both classy and gracious.

    I don’t think, though, that this was a stumble. Rather, I think it is a symptom of the larger problem. I can’t find anything on Libraries and Transliteracy that makes a compelling case for why the word should matter to librarians or what it means to you all aside from the need for libraries to be active in working with patrons in the use of new technologies (which is right, good, and almost universally agreed-upon without the need for the word ‘transliteracy’).

    I’d love it if THAT was the next post on the blog. Make clear what you think transliteracy is and what the term offers us that existing language does not.

    If I understand what I’ve read about transliteracy, it isn’t actually something new. Rather, it is a new name for something that already existed (people successfully engaging in a variety of information/communication media). Where’s the ‘new’ here? How is this ‘applied’ to libraries in ways that it isn’t already being applied?

  7. Thanks for this. It spares me from writing much of what I’ve been mulling over and that is good because I often come off wrong. Now I can simply write more of the critique of transliteracy as a theory/concept and leave most of the library aspects alone.

  8. I see some parallels between what Bobbi and her colleagues are working on with transliteracy and the effort to bring more attention to it, and the experience John Shank and I had when we introduced blended librarianship in 2004. It was a new idea, and we liked the “newness” of it, but we also believed in the idea and believed there were colleagues who were thinking the same things we were, but perhaps didn’t have a way to connect with each other (hence the creation of our online learning community).

    While I don’t think anyone said something along the lines of “I don’t get this”, there was a fair amount of “this isn’t anything new, I’ve been a blended librarian for years”. But as we had more time to articulate the ideas and practical applications, the distinction between “multitasking” and being “blended” began to emerge more clearly. Just doing reference and instruction and collection work and making the office coffee wasn’t being “blended”. Integrating a sound knowledge of instructional design and technology in your practice of librarianship – and having something practical to show for it – particularly f it demonstrated collaboration with faculty and integration of the library into the teaching and learning space – was.

    But we always welcomed critics because their reactions got us thinking about the ways we were communicating the ideas and what we needed to do to better connect with the library community. It forced us to do a better job of taking what started as mostly something theoretical and transitioning it to something practical. That’s when ideas like this start to move from “i don’t get it” or “this is old wine in a new bottle” to “i see the value in this idea”. So I’m glad to see this conversation taking place, and new ideas being challenged. It also suggests that if Bobbi, Tom and the others over at the Transliteracy blog want others to grasp their ideas and share their passion for the topic, they will need to start providing practical applications of how adopting the transliteracy concept can be integrated into the practice of librarianship – and why it is different and/or better than current approaches. If not, why should we care about it?

    David, you are voicing that concern in this post. It’s great to have new ideas (well, you don’t think it’s anything truly new)but you really need to show me how it’s going to make a difference for me and the community members I serve. If you can’t do that, then this idea isn’t ready for prime time. Speaking of time, let’s give the transliteracy idea some time to evolve. New ideas like this one and blended librarianship don’t become immediately practical overnight. It takes time and an ongoing conversation to help the ideas mature. It’s also important, whenever starting some new initiative like this, is to start with the “WHY” question as in “why are we doing this?” As a very wise person said to me when I first took the blended librarian idea to him for feedback, “If you’re not doing this for other people – if you are only doing it to get yourself attention – then you better stop right now”. If the WHY is very clear from the get go, then you may very well encounter fewer responses like David’s.

  9. David you’re right. I’ve been thinking I need to write that blog post for months and I’ve been putting it off. The fact that you can’t find that information is an indication of my failure to communicate clearly, something I should put on my things-to-improve-upon list for 2011.

  10. I’ve been thinking that I’d like to see more talk about the “literacy” aspect of transliteracy. I feel like the actual mechanics of becoming literate in different media have been given short shrift. I sense that understanding the process of becoming literate just in plain old text on a page is a hugely complex and contentious topic. How much do we know about the process of becoming literate in the uses of other mediums? Are we ready to begin crosswalking between literacies? Do we know enough about them yet?

    Another thing I’ve been looking for in the writing on transliteracy that I haven’t seen yet (and, admittedly, I’ve only read what librarians have been saying so far) is how this connects to more widely discussed and debated ideas from someone like Henry Jenkins about “convergence culture.”

  11. David,

    Thank you for the post! I thought it was thought-provoking, educated and erudite. It’s posts like this that break away from the echo chamber that I crave and admire. It also makes us work harder! As a contributor to L&T, I welcome all comments related to transliteracy. For what it’s worth, I enjoy the “concept” of transliteracy because of its focus on the creation (writing) versus the consumption of a work or manifestation.

  12. Pingback: Why transliteracy? « Libraries and Transliteracy

  13. Great post and some great points! Perhaps part of the reasoning for terms like transliteracy (at least this is how I’ve been framing it at my institution) is that traditional terms like information literacy come with too much baggage or outdated views as to what they mean among, for example among faculty and teachers. Too many faculty (at least here) confuse information literacy for bibliographic instruction, for example, and so tend to ignore important initiatives related to info lit as “just go ask the librarian to show you some of the databases” or “isn’t that what the librarians are supposed to be doing?”

    And with the growth of all these literacies and the growing confusion about what they all mean or cover, perhaps we librarians need to have more discussions like this about how best to settle on a simpler set of unifying terms, and more important, how best to promote the importance of the underlying concepts (to me: of being able to effectively interact with information to meet a need) to our various constituencies.

  14. “Where’s the ‘new’ here? How is this ‘applied’ to libraries in ways that it isn’t already being applied? I’d love it if THAT was the next post on the blog. Make clear what you think transliteracy is and what the term offers us that existing language does not.”

    You are completely right to ask for an explanation of what exactly transliteracy is and how it’s any different from the same old stuff. So, here’s my attempt at that next post. (Don’t worry, I’ve avoided the high-falutin lingo this time around.)

  15. I think Katy S. makes a great point – this is an area that is already well established in other disciplines, notably literacy where it is called multi-literacies or new literacies. I think all of LIS (not just L & T) tends to fall down when it comes to making connections with other disciplines. I think L & T could really benefit from an in depth exploration of what has already been done in this area, in other disciplines.

  16. I will chime in with my fellow contributors and thank you for your thoughtful and respectfully presented post. My stance has been that Transliteracy is a new field of inquiry that potentially has big implications for libraries and we need this kind of intellectual poking at it to see what this thing is. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I’ll point you to my article in C&RLN in which I raise many of these questions, especially in regards to academic libraries:

    I would also point you to a couple of the key articles outside the library realm (and beyond the basic PART definition) that outline more of the key concepts of Transliteracy:

    I think what StevenB says is spot on. I think we are in the early stages of getting a good grasp on the concept and discussions like this are very instructive.

    One of the points I try to make in my article is that this is a discussion that happening out in the world and we are just trying to get a sense of if/how it relates to libraries and what role we could perhaps play.

  17. Great post, David! But I was sorry to see that you concluded by writing off theory in lieu of practical concerns for libraries. I know this doesn’t apply for all libraries, but for academic librarians, having a concise definition and theoretical framework is necessary not only for the work they do on a daily basis, but in the scholarly activities that they try to pursue both through publishing and through on-campus research… not to mention it can serve as a legitimizing factor when working with faculty. But I digress…

    The points you raised are well put and worth considering. The discussion surrounding transliteracy has been around long enough (if mentions in published literature and blog posts are any indication) to require a serious attempt at definition. And if it results in the understanding that the concept provides nothing new conceptually or practically, all the better. It looks like you’ve already generated a couple response posts, mine included. I’m looking forward to watching the discussion move forward!

  18. Perhaps simpler, more narrow definitions are better.

    Literacy: The ability to read and understand written words.

    Information Literacy: The ability to find information when needed, plus the ability to evaluate that information for accuracy and usefulness. Perhaps also the ability to classify that information for either storage or retrieval.

    Transliteracy (1): The ability to draw in information from multiple different sources (digital and physical), coalesce it all into a cohesive, useful whole, and then TRANSlate that information into multiple different forms for dissemination – or TRANSfer – to a wider audience. (This would include more than just good academic writing. It would also include the ability to make that information easily usable and findable in various digital forms such as web sites and electronic databases.)

    Transliteracy (2): The ability to use multiple media (words, drawings, diagrams, video, animations, simulations, etc.) and multiple mediums (direct conversation, public speaking, mass media, web sites, newsgroups, web forums, social networking, etc.) to communicate ideas and information effectively for either social or academic purposes. (Yes, another phrase for this definition is effective communication in our modern world, which obviously includes more than just public speaking these days.)

    I had been against the word “transliteracy” until I read this post and the comments. Often academics looking to make a name for themselves (or to market seminars and conferences ala Tim O’Reilly’s “Web 2.0”) make up a new term to describe something for which we already have plenty of terms for. Sometimes I think the entire field of Philosophy is devoted to this tactic. At first it seemed as if “transliteracy” was just another term for “literacy” in our modern, information age. However, I see now that it is a term we have needed for quite a long time. It is the final stage in the development of literacy. One could simply define “literacy” to include all forms of literacy. However, “literacy” has a well known meaning for most of the world and to redefine it would be difficult and confusing. The same with information literacy, which I do feel is more than just the ability to read and understand.

    So, with “transliteracy” we shouldn’t necessarily define it as using whatever digital media we have available to us right now, because we will then need another new term when yet another form of communication comes along. Instead, we should define it in terms of the next step in the progression from reading, to finding and evaluating, to effectively communicating using multiple currently-available media and mediums whatever they may be. A over hundred and fifty years ago that might have been the ability to write an effective telegram. In the future it might mean the ability to put together a convincing thought package to send out over the Borg-network. But right now, it includes the ability to get one’s message out using the internet, including social media.

  19. I like that David took this on – while I appreciate the need to teach people new skills, I tend to agree that this is a new name for existing issues. It’s almost another content vs. container problem – where Grant says, “Literacy: The ability to read and understand written words” – this kind of literacy has always involved different formats and forms. There are differences between reading and understanding a nutrition label, a prescription bottle, a long book, a structured poem, the manual for your car, etc., and all of those written words come in different shapes and sizes and require different skills for understanding and using them. You could break those into different names for “literacy,” too. Getting your information via video, diagrams, etc. seems like just another container for various types of content that people might need to find, understand, and use. You could just adapt Grant’s statement to “Literacy: The ability to receive and understand content.” While I understand the arguments that a new term is needed to encompass this broader meaning, I wonder how much utility it will really have outside of the library conference/journal. It might be easier to get other people on board by expanding their understanding of what “literacy” encompasses rather than introducing new jargon.

    But then again, I’m not a literacy expert, and I’m always disappointed that “transliteracy” doesn’t have anything to do with transpeople.

  20. Tom-

    Thanks so much for those links. I will certainly read these. Don’t worry too much about shameless self-promotion. I think anyone who bothers to maintain a librar* blog is motivated at least partially by ego- present company included. 🙂


    Maybe that will be the subject of a future post…but I think perhaps it is too large a topic to get into here.


    Please see Rachel’s comment.


    I love it when you express what I’m thinking in a more effective manner than I could ever manage.

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  27. Hi, colleagues: when I first read Susie Andretta’s piece on Transliteracy I remember making a small exercise: whenever I met the word ‘transliteracy’, I read ‘multiliteracies’ instead: everything was OK most of the time¡. In my opinion, had Susie asked her ‘survey sample’ (sorry, colleagues, but that was it) wether what they were doing professionally could be described as “multiliteracies” or not, no doubt their answers would have been the same as for ‘transliteracy’: Yes, we have been doing this for such a long time…

    Instead of trying to build new academic niches and ‘very visible colleges’ (nothing bad in this, of course: rules of the game) what we, practising librarians around the world and all other professionals engaged in the facilitation of longlife learning for all citizens, would mostly expect from Communication and Media experts (but not only from them) is a clear and useful map/grid of all literacies/competencies needed tu function in modern society. In my view, a good/deep understanding of the human communication model as well as of the multimodality inherent in our present-day communication landscape is the very first step needed to bring some order into this ‘literacy’ chaos, terminological-cum-conceptual, yes, but with very practical implications for our users and communities.

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  29. As someone who depends on my library and librarians like oxygen or coffee (I am one of the those pesky academics), I would like to echo RachelW. Buzzwords are fun and serve as a vehicle for publications (scholarly or pulp) but in the end tend to confuse issues. I could say, “David and I recently had an organic discussion at a cohort gathering evaluating our current Web 2.0 paradigms resulting in a synergy of ideas” or I could say “David and I had drinks at a mutual friend’s wedding and hashed out some ideas.” Literary as a root word may or may not be the best choice, but such discussions are beyond me. In the end, I simply want to be able to call my friendly librarian, say “help”, and have access to the wealth of resources and services that you all provide. If I have to go the “transliteracy” desk or speak with the “transliteracy” expert, then so be it.

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