discovering transliteracy

March 11th, 2010 § 2 comments

text on iphone

photo credit: myuibe

Until just a few weeks ago, I had never across the term “transliteracy”, though as I quickly discovered, the concept unlike the term is not a new one. In my confusion, Bobbi Newman of heard my cry and introduced me to some useful resources. Before you go any further in this post, I recommend you read her recent post on defining transliteracy. The difficulty of defining transliteracy was the source of my initial confusion. I encountered the term as I was researching information on the differences between information literacy, technological proficiency, and critical thinking skills. What I could not quite determine was whether transliteracy should fall somewhere within that triad or be defined theoretically and conceptually as its own type of literacy.

Sue Thomas and the people at define it as “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.” At the risk of sounding trite, it is Literacy 2.0 in much the same way as Web 2.0 is the read/write/interact version of Web 1.0 (the read-only Web); it is literacy with a social, communicative aspect. It assumes information literacy and technological know-how and it is a necessary requirement for being an active citizen in digital communities (and our increasingly digital global community).

This definition suggests to me that transliteracy is used to denote concepts related to information literacy (the ability to understand/analyze/use information), technological proficiency (the ability to use technological tools, primarily digital), and social literacy (the ability to interact with other human beings and interpret their communicative signals). In some sense, transliteracy is used much like the term “intelligence” has been used in the last few decades to suggest more than just cognitive skills but also emotional and social skills. It is meta-literacy defined specifically for the digital world albeit not exclusively.

In my opinion, the danger lies in the slippery slope of definition. At heart, I think many librarians would agree there is a need for increased attention to issues of transliteracies and we as librarians are in a position to make a difference in this regard. But if transliteracy comes to mean the entirety of human communicative experience, are we willing and able to take on that responsibility?

Regardless of your answer to that question (I will not even try to provide one at this time), transliteracy is an issue worth investigating if you are a reference and instruction librarian. For those in the academic and school library fields, we have a captive audience eager to engage with information in innovative and reciprocal ways through web technologies that require certain technological, social, and information skills. If we should take it upon ourselves to teach these skills to our users, we have the opportunity.

§ 2 Responses to discovering transliteracy"

  • Bobbi Newman says:

    You ask if we are willing to take on that responsibility, I think it may not come to our willingness. People are already looking to public libraries for instruction in new and emerging technologies. If its demanded and expected of us from our patrons can we refuse?

  • John says:

    Agreed! I only hesitate because I know that moving forward in that direction requires a reexamination of how we define literacy and how we assess our instruction methods/outcomes; and I don’t think I’ve been at this long enough to make those decisions. But as I mentioned, I agree that it requires our attention, especially in public, school, and academic libraries where we have patrons who need these skills in order to function in their respective (and often unique) information rich environments.

    A friend of mine who teaches at the University of Wisconsin made the following comment on Facebook that I think is very astute:

    “…when we value static definitions over use value, we plunge ourselves back into pre-Nietzschian, Enlightenment notions of knowledge. Literacy has no essence behind it. We should think about what definitions would be useful for different audiences and different contexts, and then rework our pedagogical strategies from /that/ side of the equation. [...]

    If, instead, we rework our definition of traditional/functional literacy to include technological literacies (not just the ability to read and write, but the ability to manipulate web content, for example), then that “basic” definition of literacy is still limiting in the sense that it not only does it ignore issues of cultural power/capital, but it doesn’t guarantee a basic kind of critical consciousness which I think educators need to take responsibility for developing in our students….” (Chris McVey)