By Meredith Farkas | December 21, 2010
A colleague of mine and I have been talking about transliteracy for some time and came to very similar conclusions as David Rothman did in his smart and respectful critique. I’d thought about writing about it myself for months but two things stopped me. The first was that I thought perhaps there was something I was missing, which is still certainly possible. The other is that I’ve tried to avoid discussions about buzz words ever since I got bruised and battered for criticizing Library 2.0. While I do agree with David that Library 2.0 and Transliteracy describe things that are not in any way new and are murky terms to say the least, I think there’s a key difference between the two. I feel like the rhetoric around transliteracy is far less hysterical; less “if you don’t do this your library will become irrelevant!” or “if you don’t do this you’re against change!” That makes me feel more confident that my own critique (as someone who actively promotes information literacy as part of her job and is the Chair of her University’s Information Literacy Committee) will not be seen as an attack.
I’ve been following the blog Libraries and Transliteracy since it started. I read Tom Ipri’s article in C&RL News. I’ve read a number of other pieces on the subject from non-librarians. All of them start from the same basic definition (“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”) but there seems to be no agreement on what that means and how it should be applied. I still don’t feel like I have a handle on what transliteracy means. Lane Wilkinson looks at transliteracy through the lens of library instruction and teaching students to navigate a complex information ecosystem. From her presentations, Bobbi Newman seems to focus more on transliteracy being about teaching digital literacy. Tom Ipri writes:
On one level, transliteracy is a descriptive concept, being a “new analytical perspective.” In its original iteration, transliteracy is more about understanding the ways various means of communication interact and understanding, not necessarily teaching, the skills necessary to move effortlessly from one medium to another. It is about the convergence of these media and acknowledges the multi-modal experience of engaging with the modern world.
The First Monday article I read defines transliteracy as being the convergence of other previously existing literacies like digital and media literacy (which I always felt like information literacy did too). I feel like I’m smarter than the average bear, but the more I read about this, the more stupid I feel. When I see sentences like “in fact, incommensurability is anathema to the transliteracy project because transliteracy is predicated on the ability to maneuver between competing ‘paradigms’ of literacy” my eyes glaze over. As someone who studied philosophy a great deal in college, I’ve always felt that the mark of a great theorist is the ability to explain something simply (thanks John Locke and Jeremy Bethman!). So I’m going to look at the way Lane Wilkinson distinguishes information literacy from transliteracy, since it seems like the most coherent and concrete description I’ve seen.
Lane Wilkinson describes the difference between information literacy and transliteracy as being that information literacy compartmentalizes academic research and tools vs. popular research and tools and transliteracy conceives of them as all being part of a big information ecosystem. That certainly sounds like a good idea; our instruction should be about teaching patrons to make sense of the information ecosystem that exists, and that does extend beyond the walled garden of the University. The issue is, that’s how I and my colleagues have always seen information literacy. That’s how information literacy was defined by pretty much everyone I attended ACRL Immersion with. Sure, there are some librarians that only see our role as teaching the library resources, but that’s more about them doing a disservice to their patrons than about information literacy being that limited. I believe that what I teach students in information literacy sessions should be just as useful for them when they work on a paper as when they are choosing their next laptop. It’s about enabling people to make good decisions by choosing the best sources of information (for their need). It’s not just about academic research, but about life-long decision-making support. Information literacy isn’t just for academic and K-12 libraries; it’s for all libraries. When you teach a patron how to find grant information online so they can start their small business, that’s information literacy. When you teach a patron how to avoid getting scammed online, that’s information literacy. When you teach them how to create their own blog in order to share information, that’s information literacy. Call it information literacy, call it transliteracy, call it Fred, but I just don’t see how the two terms are different. Were we not doing it all before? What is new?
The way librarians and other instructors teach information literacy instruction has grown and changed in response to the changing information ecosystem. We respond to the needs of our students and what is available to them. We didn’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend the Wikipedia doesn’t exist. We don’t spend 50 minutes now covering how to search a print index. I would be a negligent instructor if I didn’t teach students in my liaison area (the social sciences) about the primary historical, government and NGO/think-tank/etc. sources on the web. As the resources, technologies and students change, so do we. And while there are librarians who don’t change the way they teach, that’s just being a bad instructor. It has nothing to do with information literacy instruction somehow being insufficient.
What I find is that the biggest force for making information literacy just be about the library is faculty (not all though — I have plenty who are gung ho for me to teach students how to critically evaluate all sources, including those on the web). I sometimes get complaints when I cover web searching and evaluation in addition to searching tools like Academic Search Premier. I’ve received dirty looks when I tell students that the Wikipedia (as well as other reference works) is a great place for getting ideas for keywords to use in searching on their topic. And perhaps that’s where transliteracy can be useful. Perhaps librarians just need to see if this takes hold with K-12 teachers and college and teaching faculty and jump on the bandwagon if it does. That’s no different from my jumping on the fact that my University amended General Education Goal 1 to include the teaching and assessment of “the ability to find, analyze, synthesize and critically evaluate information” and getting a committee together to assess how that is (or isn’t) happening. It doesn’t really matter to me what faculty and administration are calling information literacy (independent/critical inquiry, research skills, Gen Ed Goal 1, etc.) as long as they’re talking about it. But I don’t see how us changing our own language about this is going to change anything regarding our ability to promote it.
Someone in the comments on David’s post felt that the term information literacy has too much baggage, because many think of it as being just about the library and library instruction. Forgive me if I’m wrong (I wasn’t a librarian then) but didn’t we get rid of the term bibliographic instruction and change it to information literacy because it had too much baggage and was thought of as being the librarian’s thing? To be honest, I feel like it’s our own fault that information literacy is thought of as being a library thing. We push information literacy from a library perspective. Librarians go to faculty meetings armed with the ACRL standards which have no meaning to non-librarians and talking about library instruction. We work to make sure that all students in certain classes get information literacy instruction from a librarian (as if other instructors are incapable of teaching it). In trying to communicate our unique qualifications to teach information literacy, we make information literacy about us. And we buy into it just being about us too. I remember when I first approached my director about asking the VPAA to create an information literacy committee made up of members of the faculty from each academic school, her first thought was “couldn’t the Faculty Library Committee do that?” And now that we have a committee, we are mapping out how information literacy is taught and assessed throughout the academic curricula; regardless of whether it’s done by a librarian or their professor. I think until we change our own marketing approach to being less about getting librarians into more classes and more about information literacy being taught (no matter who is doing it) it won’t really matter what term we use. It will always be associated with us.
In the end, I felt like the whole Library 2.0 thing was a distraction. So many libraries jumped on the bandwagon, creating “2.0 services” that were not carefully planned for, staffed or assessed. Now we see a vast 2.0 graveyard of abandoned blogs, wikis, Facebook pages and more. And, in the end, there was never really any agreement on what it all meant. I can’t really see anything good that came from that term or discussions about it. Now, instead of tons of articles, presentations and books about Library 2.0, we will see tons of articles, presentations and books about transliteracy. What real impact will it have on our patrons? How will it change the way we serve them? I feel like a cynical jerk sometimes, but I want to see results. I have no problems with theories as long as they can be applied to our work in some way. My own teaching has been influenced heavily by constructivist learning theory, but I’m not sure what transliterate library services or transliterate instruction looks like. And until someone can show me, I guess I’m going to be as cynical about that as I was about Library 2.0.