Transliteracy has received much attention in the last few weeks. Two posts by respect librarians spurred on a recent debate. Meredith Farkas wrote a post entitled “Transliteracy from the perspective of an information literacy advocate“. In this thoughtful and through-provoking post, Farkas compares transliteracy to the Library 2.0 movement. She also compares transliteracy to information literacy and the instruction thereof. In a comment reply, Farkas gets the the crux of her questions surrounding transliteracy, “what does a transliterate person look like?”
David Rothman wrote a post entitled “Commensurable Nonsense (Transliteracy)“. Again transliteracy is compared to information literacy as well as computer literacy. Moreover, a comparison is made to Library 2.0. First, let me say that as someone who does not understand Library 2.0, I cannot really debate this issue. I can say that Library 2.0 is a “concept” found in libraries only. Transliteracy is a concept that is interdisciplinary by creation and design.
The difficulty in describing what a transliterate person looks like is the same difficulty we find in defining a literate person. Is a literate person someone who can read and write, as Rothman suggests? If so, at what level? Rothman, in his post, alludes to the fact that many students enter college while barely being able to “to string together a coherent written sentence”. Are these students literate? Having spent two semesters focused on literacy, reading and writing in my doctoral studies, we concluded that it is nearly impossible to define a literate person.
Furthermore, notions of literacy as the ability to read and write seem to be antiquated. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English have expanded their definition of literacy to include “viewing and visually representing” information. The International Reading Association expands their definition of literacy even further. They include “one that encompasses the use of print, oral language, visual language, and the six interrelated language arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing.“ The lack of consensus surrounding the definition of literacy does not devalue it as a concept.
A second issue that needs to be addressed is the comparison between transliteracy and information literacy. Information literacy is defined as the abilities to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” Information literacy seems concerned with the consumption of information, not the creation thereof. Please don’t misunderstand, this is vitally important, but is very different from the concept of transliteracy. I define transliteracy as “the ability to create, express, participate or interpret abstract representations of knowledge or thought, via whatever medium they prefer, so that one may more fully participate in the society, community, legacy or political system in which they reside.” For me, transliteracy focuses equally on the notion of content consumption as well as content creation, and inasmuch, is vastly different than information literacy.
Why focus on literacies outside of traditional literacy? There are many theorists who believe that the Gutenberg Parenthesis is coming to an end and that a Secondary Orality is emerging. Why is this important. The first question that one needs to ask is what is the purpose of literacy to begin with? Is literacy an end in and of itself or a means to an end? If it is a means to engage in society at large, then have communication technologies emerged that require a new or different way to communicate? Can someone now fully function in society without the ability to read and write, such as the students Rothman mentions? Moreover, is literacy a means to transmit knowledge and/or entertainment? Again, have changes in communication technologies emerged that allow someone to consumer and create knowledge in forms other than print?
Secondary Orality, and the end of the Gutenberg Era, focus on a return to the oral tradition. While nether idea argues that print is going away, nor that its importance is diminishing, they do hold that print as the primary vessel for imparting knowledge is no more. A great example of this are TED talks. While lectures have been around for almost all of human history, they have never been recorded, transcription aside. The crux of their view is something like experiencing a Shakespearean play is different than reading the play. Hearing oral stories is different than reading them. Being able to tell stories is different than writing them down. Libraries understand this greatly. We rush to record oral accounts of WWII, because we recognize that the oral story telling is closer to the account than a written record.
Can you be a fully functional citizen today with just the ability to read and write? If so, for how much longer can you be a fully functional citizen? Literacy is a fundamental and necessary ingredient for democracy. Moreover, literacy helps one achieve critical awareness and freedom. While literacy is “not the equivalent of emancipation, it is in a more limited but essential way the precondition for engaging in struggles around both relations of meaning and relations of power. To be literate is not to be free, it is to be present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history, and future” (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. 11).
Transliteracy is a concept that does not place emphasis on print, digital, multimodal, visual or any other literacy. It holds all literacies as equals. It does, however, give slight emphasis to the ability to create (write) over the ability to consume (read). A transliterate person is someone who can engage in the flow of knowledge via any medium (whether print, oral, digital, or other) so that they may be a fully functional citizen and participant of society. A transliterate person can create a storyboard for a video as well as a draft outline for a printed document. A transliterate person can edit a video as well as edit a paper. They understand the sentence structure regardless or oral or print constraints. They can recognize that sentence structure has nothing to do with the printed word, but is actually rooted in oral tradition and orality.
Why is this important for libraries? Because libraries are leading the charge in creating digital media labs and similar environments. Just as libraries have focused on the abilities necessary for learning how to be literate, libraries now focus on the abilities to be transliterate.
Is it possible that translitearcy is a buzzword? Sure! Just as some consider information literacy as an ill-defined concept and buzzword. Are buzzwords bad? I used to sit in meetings with colleagues and we would count the number of times we heard collaboration, authentic, or participation. Buzzwords are not bad in and of themselves. And yes, Farkas is correct in her point that there is a vast graveyard of Library 2.0 failures. Failing is not bad either, nor is trying. The ventures came at little or no cost other than the labor and books purchased on social software. Little is known about the success of any of these ventures, but it would not be foolish to believe that some where successful. Perhaps in five, ten or twenty years there will be a graveyard of transliteracy attempts. I do know the digital media labs in the area are highly used. Life does lead to graveyards, fear of graveyards leads to a lack of life. I choose graveyards.