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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.