Dec 19

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.

Aug 29

KQED’s Forum: The Future of Libraries

Just stumbled across this episode of KQED’s Forum (a call-in talk show):

Tue, Aug 26, 2008 — 10:00 AM
The Future of Libraries
Traditional libraries have been caught between declining budgets and the explosive growth of online research. We talk with experts in the field about how the institutions are evolving to meet the changing needs of patrons.
Host: Michael Krasny
• Al Escoffier, city librarian for the Burlingame Public Library
• Jane Light, director of the San Jose Library
• Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association
• Martin Gomez, president of the Urban Libraries Council

Embedded player:

[Direct link to mp3 file]

(Yes, I remember what T. Scott said about discussing the future of libraries.)

Feb 26

Medical Librarian Treating Information Overload (

Medical librarian Anne Ludvik takes a proactive approach to helping busy staff nurses solve patient care problems and get up-to-date health information at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center.

“It’s difficult for nurses to get to the physical library, so we work to bring digital resources to them,” Ludvik says.

[Read the rest]

Feb 24

National Medical Librarians Month: Mark Funk Video

Not new, but seemingly new to YouTube:

Please join us in congratulating in Loretta Merlo, Head of Circulation, on her award-winning video display screen promotion celebrating the contributions and importance of health sciences information professionals. The promotion highlighted Mark Funk, Head of Resource Management-Collections, who is currently the President of the Medical Library Association (MLA) and other Weill Cornell librarians. A record number of libraries submitted entries for the National Medical Librarians Month (NMLM) Creative Promotions Award which were judged for creativity and innovation in library marketing. View our second place winning video.

You’ll want to view the video above at full-screen size in order to see all the detail.

Jan 27

NPR: “Who Needs Libraries?”

Just heard this story from SoundPrint on my local NPR station. If you work in a library, you should go listen to it now.

Who needs libraries?
Produced by: Richard Paul
As more and more information is available on-line, as Amazon rolls out new software that allows anyone to find any passage in any book, an important question becomes: Who needs libraries anymore? Why does anyone need four walls filled with paper between covers? Surprisingly, they still do and in this program Producer Richard Paul explores why; looking at how university libraries, school libraries and public libraries have adapted to the new information world. This program airs as part of our ongoing series on education and technology, and is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education.

You can listen online (streaming RealMedia audio) for free here.

Streaming Tip: If, like me, you loathe Real Player and don’t want it installed on your computer, I recommend downloading and installing Real Alternative. I’ve been using this for years now with absolutely no complaints.

Aug 13

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Medical Library (video)

This nine-minute video introduction to the University of Bristol Medical Library starts out a bit humorous, then becomes a fairly standard orientation film with oddly anachronistic music.

Is anyone else a little uncomfortable with the use of the word “idiot” in referring to patrons? I mean…if the whole video continued the joke (following Alan Moron around as he makes foolish-but-instructional mistakes) it might work. Because the joke is so brief, the video just seems to suggest (to me, anyway) that a person who confused by the library’s labeling system or who is simply unfamiliar with how the library does things must be an idiot.

What do you think?

Aug 03

Misdiagnosed Cyberchondriasis


On 7/21/2007, a Harris Poll was released which stated that in the last two years, the percentage of people who “have used the Internet to search for health-related information” has gone from 53% to 71%. This was based on a telephone poll of 1,010 adults between 7/10/07 and 7/16/07. The Harris report refers to these people as “cyberchondriacs.”

The media seems to love this story. BusinessWeek, ars technica and a ton of others have offered articles on it.

I think the study matters and merits coverage, but I object to the term “cyberchondriac.”

Managed care has resulted in physicians not being able to spend as much time educating patients at the same time patients are taking more responsibility for their healthcare decisions. The healthcare consumer who decides to do some research using the most powerful research tool the world has ever seen isn’t a hypochondriac. That consumer is taking responsibility for her healthcare and becoming informed.

Let us say that a patient is told that she had a kind of hypothyroidism. That patient goes to the bookstore and buys a book published under the name of Mayo (or Johns Hopkins or some other very reputable authority) on thyroid disorders. The patient reads the book and makes notes on questions she wants to ask her doctor when she goes in for her next office visit. This isn’t hypochondriasis. This is the sort of patient clinicians should treasure. A patient who self-educates and asks informed questions saves the time of clinicians.

Now let’s imagine that the same patient skips the book and instead searches Medline Plus for information about hypothyroidism, printing some pages out and making notes on questions she wants to ask her doctor when she goes in for her next office visit. This isn’t hypochondria either. This is the exact same behavior in a patient that clinicians should celebrate and encourage.

Hypochondriasis is a very real disorder. The hypochondriac doesn’t need an Internet connection to experience its awful symptoms.

If clinicians want to complain about patients who look up health information online with no regard to the authority of the information or the information provider, that’s fine. Those clinicians would do well to volunteer and donate to help improve outreach and information literacy programs in medical libraries. When the clinician encounters a patient who habitually looks for health information from poor sources, the clinician should refer the patient to the nearest medical library or at least point the patient towards Medline Plus.

I won’t be using the word “cyberchondriac” to describe people who seek health information online.

I won’t use it to describe hypochondriacs who look for health information online, either. It has a glib feel to it that doesn’t sit well with me when describing someone dealing with a disorder as awful as hypochondriasis.


Jun 23

Women’s Heath News Now Accredited By Health On The Net Foundation

Women’s Health News, written by medical librarian Rachel Walden, MLIS, is now accredited by the Health On the Net Foundation.

Women’s Health News has received accreditation from the Health on the Net Foundation, which certifies that the site complies with a set of standards for trustworthy health information on the web. You’ll see the “HONCode” logo in the right sidebar, and can always click on the image to verify this site’s status; accredited sites pledge to continue following HON standards.

Congratulations, Rachel!

Perhaps this is something that many who blog on healthcare topics should think about pursuing.

May 04

Bibliotherapy: Reading and Health


Reading, The Healthy Option

Wednesday 18th April 2007 , Birmingham

A one day conference for anyone interested in the links between reading activites and health. Presentations will include Get into Reading, RAYs (Reading and You), Books on Prescription, reading groups and other bibliotherapy projects and activities.

Check out some of the really interesting presentation materials.

Apr 22

“Laptop Librarians” outreach program

Below: embedded flash video

Interesting outreach program by the Macon State College Library sends librarians with laptops to the cafeteria/student life center at lunchtime to answer reference questions or help students find information they need for their coursework.

It seems like a groovy idea to me. One question: Why only 90 minutes per week?

Apr 18

Dallas Morning News on Medical Librarians

Regular readers know that I usually try to avoid posting on topics already covered by other MedLib bloggers and Michelle (at The Krafty Librarian) already posted about this, but it’s worth repeating.

Making medical fact-finding easy
Don’t trust the Internet? These local experts will help
11:07 AM CDT on Tuesday, April 17, 2007
By BRIDGET BARRY THIAS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

…”Librarians can save consumers time because they have a wealth of information resources available to them that are not available to the general public,” says Jean Shipman, president of the national Medical Library Association in Chicago.

She says medical librarians are similar to personal shoppers, offering expertise in the best information to use, based on knowing their clients’ desires, tastes and needs….

Read the rest here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the article’s author has an MLS. 🙂

Apr 13

Asbury Park Press profiles Hospital Librarian

Robin Siegel of Howell, the librarian at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold Township (Freehold, NJ) is profiled by the Asbury Park Press.

Not a ground-shaking item, but it sure is nice to see a reasonably good description of what a Hospital Librarian does.


“I’m here to answer questions,” Siegel said, “for anybody in the hospital,” meaning for doctors, nurses and other staff members, along with patients and their families.

Information requests from the last few months included those for recipes for pureed food (requested by the hospital’s food services department), suicide statistics (a nurse giving a presentation), chemotherapy protocols (a pharmacist), breast cancer in men (a doctor) and whether chicken soup has a positive role in health care (a nurse).

Regarding chicken soup — yes, there are studies backing that up, Siegel said.

When she is researching for a doctor, for example, the doctor can spend time actually doctoring. Then, Siegel turns over the research to the doctor.

“I don’t come up with a recommendation; I (simply) give them the literature,” Siegel said.

As Robb Mackes wrote on MEDLIB-L, “Robin (and her patrons) did an excellent job in proving the value and the worth of a hospital library.”

Apr 07

Victoria Police Library Services

I enjoyed this fun, well-produced promotional video which I believe is about these libraries.

However, the title: “Police Library Girls,” seems disrespectful to me. How about “Police Librarians”? If the department’s professionals were all men, would it have been titled “Police Library Boys”? Somehow I doubt it.

What an interesting sort of special library, though. Perhaps the ideal police librarian would have a background in law librarianship?

Mar 12

Round-Up: Finding Libraries

A recent thread on the Web4Lib listserv explored various Web tools for locating libraries geographically. Here’s a review of those plus a few more.

(Click thumbnails for larger images)

National Center for Education Statistics: Library Statistics Program*

Public Library Geographic Database (PLGDB) Mapping

MapMuse: Public Libraries*

WebJunction: Online Directory of Public Library Statistics*
“Here’s a directory of public library statistics available online, organized by state.”

WebJunction: LIBWEB

Library Research Service

Libraries in Yahoo Directory
Libraries in Yahoo Directory

Canadian Library Gateway
Find Canadian libraries
Canadian Library Gateway

(Find medical libraries in the U.S. and Canada)

Let me know which resources I’ve missed and I’ll add ’em.

*via Web4Lib