Dec 28

Follow-up: Transliteracy, Theory, and Scholarly Language

I was bit surprised at the response to my post about Libraries and Transliteracy.

As long as I’m spouting off opinions on topics that have little substance other than opinion, I may as well go whole-hog and respond to some of the reponses.

Marcus Banks writes:

“…David goes too far in his highly conservative defense of the English language…this idea that we need to keep a tight lid on the language, or even that this is possible, is foolhardy.”

I’m not attempting to defend the English language.  A beast as powerful as the English language doesn’t need me to defend it. Besides, I happily torture the language when it suits me. I use silly semi-words like ‘geekery’ and ‘libraryfolk.’Though you’ll note not a single person has ever asked what either of those words mean.

This comment from Marcus, though, underlines a problem I saw in the post shortly after I published it.

It isn’t the word, it’s the way the word is used

I didn’t intend to say that the word “transliteracy” has no place in the worldIt might, it might not. As it is pure theory with no apparent practical implications, I can’t bring myself to care enough to read more than the four articles on the the topic I’ve read., just that I have yet to see libraryfolk using it in a way that adds something previously missing from discussions in librarianship and LISI’m willing to buy that the former is a profession and the latter is an academic field. Thus far, it seems to me that the (admittedly cool-sounding) term is thrown around by libraryfolk who (1)admit that they can’t define it, (2)define it so vaguely and variously that it fails to have any coherent meaning, or (3)define it in a way that makes it redundant to a wide assortment of existing terms.

What I find baffling is that librarians would use words they cannot define. I had thought (perhaps mistakenly) that librarians tended to be lovably pedantic and semantic nitpickers.

I’d like to see some clear indication that libraryfolk are talking about this word for any reason other than novelty or self-promotion. I have nothing against self-promotion per se, but some of the libraryfolk advocates of this term are telling us there’s a revolution going on. I don’t see a revolution, just an evolution. If they’re going to cry ‘wolf’, I want to see some fur and teeth. Or at least, for pity’s sake, some wolf footprints. So far, though? Nothing.

Marcus goes on to explain what he sees as the problem with ‘information literacy.’

“I’d argue that our conceptual notion of information literacy remains stuck in time. Sometimes we come dangerously close to suggesting that people blow the 1/2 inch of dust off the top of the Britannica and then read it, because this, dear students, is an ‘authoritative resource.’

Yes, I jest. And yes, I exaggerate. But not by as much as I’d like. We still lionize peer reviewed articles despite their manifold flaws, and keep an arms length view of Wikipedia and communally developed resources in general. Of course I support sharp and incisive critique of Wikipedia entries. But I don’t support the idea that Wikipedia is something other, alien or foreign.”

I agree that some libraryfolk are not adapting as fast as we might hope. That demonstrates a problem with some libraryfolk, not that ‘information literacy’ has ceased to be a useful term. As information changes (it always has, always does, and always will), information professionals need to adapt to keep their skills up-to-date and maintain their information literacy (and their value…and their jobs). Again, where’s the need for a new word?

Marcus continues:

“In that light, it seems to me that transliteracy, as a concept, is an attempt to label what we are already doing–linking up traditional notions of authority with the realities of how people obtain information today. This is valuable, and much less overblown than the Library 2.0 hooha back in the day.”

Right! “…an attempt to label what we are already doing.” As we already have labels for this, why slap on a new one?

Diane Cordell writes:

“Medical librarian David Rothman questions whether this concept is any more than a new buzzword for the same type of information literacy with which librarians have always been concerned.”

No. What I said was that the definition of information literacy is easily flexible enough to continue to serve nicely as technology changes. I did not say that changes in technology don’t matter. I’m pretty well on record stating my belief that little should matter more to libraryfolk than the changes technology is making in our world.I’m sort of put off by Diane’s clumsy straw man, though- so I thought I’d to mention here the excellent example she povides of irrational enthusiasm for technology. She has a QR code for the link to her Flickr stream on the sidebar of her blog. Let’s assume that someone visiting her blog WANTS to see her Flickr stream. Which is more likely to be convenient for the visitor? To whip out his/her smartphone, turn on the scan/photo function and take a snap…or to CLICK A LINK? What purpose does the QR code serve here? None. Its presence suggests that Diane is the sort who embraces a new technology even if it offers the user nothing useful. I am, however, amused by Diane’s repeated implications that I am somehow change-resistant or that I threaten the future of libraries because of my rejection of this buzzword. Remind anyone else of the “Library 2.0” hysteria?

So you just don’t like buzzwords?

I have to admit that I feel similarly (though less strongly) about EBLIP and ‘Blended Librarianship’.

Here’s a definition for EBLIP that I think summarizes well how most people think of it:

Evidence Based Library and Information Practice (EBLIP) seeks to improve library andinformation services and practice by bringing together the best available evidence and insights derived from working experience, moderated by user needs and preferences. EBLIP involves asking answerable questions, finding, critically appraising and then utilising research evidence from relevant disciplines in daily practice. It thus attempts to integrate user-reported, practitioner-observed and research-derived evidence as an explicit basis for decision-making.

That’s great. Libraries SHOULD apply the best available evidence in making decisions about the practice of their profession- but don’t good libraries already do this? Is the purpose of the term just to underline the importance of these activities? Collecting usage data, tracking reference encounters, doing needs analyses, keeping up with the literature of librarianship…these things were all a part of good practice long before “EBLIP” was talked about, weren’t they?See also: Marcus Banks’ remarks on evidence based librarianship

As for Blended Librarianship, I love the idea of communities of learning and I agree that technology skills and instructional design are essential (especially for instruction librarians). But learning communities (online or offline) aren’t new ideas and incorporating technology skills and instructional design into one’s work is what any good instruction librarian should be doing. Unless it is just for the purpose of naming an online community (which is perfectly sensible), why make up a new term for what good instruction librarians should obviously be doing?

Theoretically Speaking

John Jackson writes:

“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.”

Sure, academic librarians may need to understand theoretical frameworks of particular topics if they support programs that rely heavily on critical theory.Though my impression from the academics I know is that critical theory began its domination of the humanities in the 60s, peaked in the 80s, and is now (thankfully) in decline. After all, I can’t imagine a Women’s Studies department that doesn’t rely heavily on critical theory and the subject specialist that serves that program’s needs should understand that body of theory and be able to speak in the terms that are familiar to scholars of that discipline.

To paraphrase a librarian friend, theories from other academic fields can be (and are) applied to information services…and librarianship/LIS can be said to have a set of values/ethics/principles that is different from other professions, but there’s no unified/unifying theoretical framework for library practice that I can see.

I agree with Neil Postman that “social sciences” (including Postman’s own field of Media Ecology) are not sciences.From the same 1988 article: “…[T]he purpose of media ecology is to tell stories about the consequences of technology; to tell how media environments create contexts that may change the way we think or organize our social life, or make us better or worse, or smarter or dumber, or freer or more enslaved. I feel sure the reader will pardon a touch of bias when I say that the stories media ecologists have to tell are rather more important than those of other academic story tellers—because the power of communication technology to give shape to people’s lives is not a matter that comes easily to the forefront of people’s consciousness, though we live in an age when our lives—whether we like it or not—have been submitted to the demanding sovereignty of new media. And so we are obliged, in the interest of a humane survival, to tell tales about what sort of paradise may be gained, and what sort lost. We will not have been the first to tell such tales. But unless our stories ring true, we may be the last.” Talk about there being nothing new under the sun.

“To put it plainly, all of the so-called social sciences are merely subdivisions of moral theology. It is true, of course, that social researchers rarely base their claims to knowledge on the indisputability of sacred texts, and even less so on revelation. But you must not be dazzled or deluded by differences in method between preachers and scholars.”

I can only guess how maddening scholars find this statement, but even just guessing makes me smile.

Insufficiently Academic

Maybe I’m insufficiently educated and don’t properly understand the academic world of LIS, but I think that theories outside of the hard sciences are, at best, interesting ideas with which to think. I think that Very Smart People are most valuable (and most valued) when they solve problems, not when they wax intellectually about them.

Changes in technology create all kinds of new and interesting challenges for libraries. All comers who have something coherent to say about how to go about tackling these challenges should be welcomed- but while matters of epistemology (like learning theory, neuroscience, or media ecology) should be important to libraryfolk, let’s not pretend to be scholars of those disciplinesUnless the individual librarian actually *is* a scholar of one of these disciplines…in which case I suggest getting out of librarianship and back in a profession with a few more potential rewards..

‘Scholarly’ Language

Kudos and full credit to Lane Wilkinson for blowing off his previous “academic” style of writing and writing a post describing his perspective in English, but I think Stephen Francoeur nails exactly what is lacking about it:.

“I’m with you on the need to be more expansive in what we teach and how we teach in our information literacy efforts, but I’m not sure this merits a new term for the effort. It seems like transliteracy so narrowly focused in your blog post that it can be defined simply as ‘doing information literacy instruction really well.’There are many reasons I like Stephen Francoeur. This is only the most recent. Meredith Farkas, by the way, reaches the very same conclusion: “I figure what you describe is just good engaging information literacy instruction incorporating (possibly) instructional tech and active learning.”

Wilkinson admits that this is a fair summary for his definition of ‘transliteracy’ but defends the use of the term as a ‘placeholder’.

Why use a ‘placeholder’ when we could say ‘do information literacy instruction really well’?

Check out this response post from John Jackson in which he takes seven paragraphs (625 words!) to say pretty much what I said in my first two paragraphs (60 words) – albeit in a much more ‘scholarly’ manner.

I’ve often wondered why so many self-described academics use language seemingly intended to make the ideas harder to access through an obtuse vocabulary or tortured phrasing. I was kvetching about this once to a friend who offered a theory. “Perhaps,” said my friend, “the value that academics offer in a market economy is the value of their ideas…and by making it harder to access their ideas, the market value of what they’re selling is driven up.”

That’s as good an explanation as any I’ve ever seen.

I encourage people (especially information professionals) to avoid this sort of writing at all times. It doesn’t matter if academics in other disciplines embrace the practice. *Our* profession is about removing obstacles between the user and the information that user seeks. I’m going to repeat that in a larger font now. Feel free to imagine me yelling this:

Our profession is about removing obstacles between the user and the information that user seeks.

This includes obstacles like obtuse, redundant, or vague language.

No arguments

Among all the response posts is not a whiff of an actual response.

Bobbi Newman writes:

“Transliteracy is a new concept in general and we are working to apply it and I’m ok with it being a work in progress (the blog is less than a year old). I understand that many people aren’t. They want clear rules, definitions guidelines, and measures and pie charts, but I’m not sure I am able to help them at this point. I’m ok with that too. Not in a mean way but in a I-can’t-do-everything-at-once sort of way.”

Here’s how I read that:

Transliteracy is a newish scholarly buzzword and we are working on milking it for publication purposes in the LIS world (we’ve been working on it for a year so far). I understand that many people want to know what the word means. They think that librarians should probably avoid using words they can’t define. I can’t help them there because I’m too busy. I did have time to create a blog based on the concept, but I don’t have time to define it.

Really, Bobbi. That’s how it reads to me.

The nonsense continues

I have no illusions that my comments will stop anyone from using terms foolishly, but I can hope that it may spare a few individuals from the anxieties associated with fears that they’re not on top of this ‘new thing.’

Meanwhile, the nonsense continues unabated. Check out Buffy Hamilton’s presentation “Participatory Librarianship: Creating Possibilities Through Transliteracy, Learning, and Linchpins”

Here’s the text of slide #51- try reading it aloud.

“transliteracy provides us a way of theorizing how these literacies transact with each other for meaning making”

Here’s the text of slide #52. Again, try reading it aloud.

“transliteracy is the conceptualization of how we use these literacies than the tools or containers although certainly the ways we access information, share, and create it have taken on new forms”

Text of slide #54 (you know what to do).

“as sponsors of transliteracy, libraries can close the participation gap.”

Try to get past the syntactical problems with these statements and tell me what they mean. Tell me that ‘transliteracy’ is used here in a meaningful way. I’d enjoy being proven wrong.