A reasonable objection to transliteracy

'Disagreement' by cabbit, on Flickr

A legitimate criticism

‘Transliteracy.’ Is it a bold new concept or the current enfant terrible of librarianship? It’s no secret that transliteracy has a polarizing effect, with the past year’s worth of commentary ranging from uncritical acceptance to critical analysis to dogmatic skepticism, and everywhere between. Obviously, this blog leans towards a more positive approach to transliteracy, But, what of the objections to the concept? Are there substantive concerns that we should be addressing, or is it all just snark?

Given the novelty of the term, the enthusiasm of early-adopters, and the “almost-but-not-quite” similarity of transliteracy to other “literacies”, it’s only natural for librarians to be skeptical. Unfortunately, this skepticism frequently manifests itself as snarky comments on Twitter, false analogies with Library 2.0, or obsessively pedantic linguistic prescriptivism. Some critics hammer away at style rather than substance. Others object to any nontraditional uses of the word “literacy” or the prefix “trans-”. Yet others lament that librarians would be interested in a concept that doesn’t come pre-packaged with a precise, committee-approved definition and bulleted-list of standards, objectives, and outcomes. And, my personal favorite, the red herring that we’re just confusing our patrons. These are all common objections to transliteracy, but they don’t amount to much more than impassioned rhetoric.  (Of course, there’s also a lot of empty rhetoric in support of transliteracy, but that’s a topic I’ll save for another post).

However, there is at least one really good objection to transliteracy as it is currently being applied by libraries, namely, that the concept of transliteracy is redundant…it’s already covered under existing information literacy standards. As Meredith Farkas wrote several months ago,

“The way librarians and other instructors teach information literacy instruction has grown and changed in response to the changing information ecosystem…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.” (12/21/2010)

So, existing information literacy standards already have mechanisms in place to cover transliteracy. Moreover, any real or perceived failures to meet the stated goals of transliteracy (communicating across media, reading and writing across platforms, etc.) are failures on the part of lazy librarians who resist change, not on information literacy. So, why do we need some new, faddish term when we already cover the same concepts under information literacy? I think this is a fair criticism, though I’m not convinced that information literacy already covers transliteracy. So, here goes an attempt at addressing this legitimate criticism of transliteracy. I have two responses…

Response 1: Transliteracy is not covered by information literacy.

‘Globe, and High Court’ by John O’Neil (GNU FDL)

One of my favorite aspects of transliteracy is that it is a relatively new concept that’s still being weighed and considered. There is no authoritative definition of transliteracy, and neither are there authoritative standards in place. In contrast, the detail with which information literacy standards are defined has become a sort of model for the kind of precise definition critics demand of transliteracy. So, let’s look at the standards and see if they cover transliteracy. My goal here is to fairly present information literacy and offer suggestions for where critics of transliteracy may want to focus their attention. Unfortunately, even information literacy standards admit of variation, so I’ll stick to three approaches I’ve seen in recent blogs and tweets: ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, Big6 Information & Technology Skills for Student Achievement, and The Four Resources Model. Do any of these models cover transliteracy?

ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards

Perhaps the most popular information literacy standards in U.S. academic libraries, the ACRL standards are detailed and methodical almost to excess. I think that these are the standards most critics have in mind when they allege that information literacy already covers transliteracy. The five overarching standards are:

  1. The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
  2. The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.
  3. The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.
  4. The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.
  5. The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.
Each standard comes with detailed performance indicators and outcomes that you can go through at your leisure. So which, if any, would cover the ability to read and write across platforms? Despite protests that these standards already cover transliteracy, it isn’t clear how. Let me try to pick the best possible candidates from the Performance Indicators. For the record, I’m defining transliteracy as “the ability to communicate meaning between media” (take a look at this post or my ALA slides for an explanation of why this is sufficiently similar to the PART working definition), but even sticking to the original PART definition, the focus is on the idea of interaction, interplay, or transfer with respect to multiple media. I think the following standards and outcomes are most relevant to the use of multiple media:
  • Standard 1, Indicator 3, Outcome (b): The information literate student “considers the feasibility of acquiring a new language or skill (e.g., foreign or discipline-based) in order to gather needed information and to understand its context”
  • Standard 2, Indicator 2, Outcome (e): Implements the search strategy in various information retrieval systems using different user interfaces and search engines, with different command languages, protocols, and search parameters.
  • Standard 2, Indicator 3: The information literate student retrieves information online or in person using a variety of methods.
  • Standard 2, Indicator 5: The information literate student extracts, records, and manages the information and its sources.
  • Standard 4, Indicator 3: The information literate student communicates the product or performance effectively to others.

A closer look at the standards reveals that, though the use of multiple information sources is a component of information literacy, that isn’t sufficient to cover transliteracy. The real meat of transliteracy is in the “between-ness”, not merely in the use of the multiple media. The question raised by transliteracy is whether students (or patrons) can take information from one source, adapt it for use in another system, and understand the interplay between the two. For what it’s worth, I don’t see that the ACRL standards cover the interaction between wildly divergent media. Sure, the standards hint at multiple literacies, but they seem silent on the issue of interacting literacies. In any event, I think the Standards I’ve listed are the best place for librarians to look if they really don’t like transliteracy.

Big6 Information & Technology Skills for Student Achievement

The Big6 program bills itself as “the most widely-known and widely-used information literacy approach to teaching information and technology skills in the world.” Popular in primary and secondary school, the Big6 program is presented as a task-based, information problem-solving strategy. The six steps are:
  1. Task Definition
  2. Information Seeking Strategies
  3. Location and Access
  4. Use of Information
  5. Synthesis
  6. Evaluation
We’ve mentioned Big6 in a previous post, and it is an excellent approach to information literacy. Yet, as Lassana Magassa has pointed out, the fourth Big6 step, “Use of Information” seems to cover transliteracy. Looking at the Big6 Information, Communications, and Technology (ICT) Skills Curriculum (link goes to PDF) Magassa may be right. According to the Big6 standards, core competencies for using information include the abilities to “connect and operate the technology devices and networks needed to access information; and read the guides and manuals associated with such tasks” and the abilities to “know and be able to use the software and hardware needed to view, download, decompress and open documents, files, and programs from Internet sites and archives.”  In fact, transliteracy seems to show up throughout the Big6 curriculum.

However, as I see it, Big6 is not committed to the criticism that transliteracy is a degenerate form of information literacy. According to the curriculum, Big6 seems to be addressing information literacy and information technology skills quite independently. These technology skills and competencies are the same as those discussed by transliteracy advocates, so it looks to me like we could describe Big6 as “information literacy + transliteracy”. Those more familiar with Big6 may disagree, and I think that the best argument to pursue would be that information literacy encompasses technology skills and, hence, encompasses transliteracy.

The Four Resources Model

A few weeks ago someone on Twitter commented that “the way that #transliteracy is described here sounds like what is called drawing on multiple literacy ‘resources’.” She helpfully provided a link to a page describing the Four Resources Model by Allan Luke and Peter Freebody. The model was developed in 1990 and only addressed reading, without reference to other technologies. The four competencies included under this model are:
  1. Break the code of texts
  2. Participate in the meanings of text
  3. Use texts functionally
  4. Critically analyze and transform texts
Extended to non-print and non-textual information sources, the model seems to share some of the same areas of interest as transliteracy, including “drawing on existing schemas” to understand texts, understanding the way information is shaped by new media, and encouraging participatory information use. Luke and Freebody have an excellent overview here.

The Four Resources Model is interesting and may be appealing to librarians interested in a postmodern or Critical Theory approach to information literacy and technology. In particular, the way the model emphasizes the cultural, moral, and political aspects of information use is something we need to pay more attention to. However, it should be noted that the critical theories that underlie the Four Resources Model explicitly require that we abandon notions of authority, meaning, truth, evaluation, and knowledge from our approach to information literacy. Indeed, the model is based on an account of  information literacy that is inconsistent with evaluation, and I’m not sure most information literacy advocates are ready to give up on evaluation.

In sum, it is still an open question whether information literacy already covers transliteracy. The popular standards hint that this may be the case, but they are far from explicit and critics will need to add some substantive clarification. My big worry is that this clarification runs the risk of watering-down information literacy in unattractive ways, casting such a wide net that information literacy becomes an unwieldy concept (for more on this problem with IL, check out this post on Academic Librarian).

Response #2: It doesn’t matter if information literacy already covers transliteracy

'Lunch at Thai Thai III' by Lorenia, on Flickr

For the sake of argument lets assume that information literacy does, in fact, already cover everything that transliteracy researchers are interested in. Does this mean that we should abandon transliteracy as a useless buzzword? I don’t think so. The broad scope of information literacy is at once an asset and a liability, by which I mean that a broad interpretation of information literacy allows librarians to discuss a wide range of concepts and abilities, while at the same time making it difficult to pinpoint what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about information literacy. Is it information evaluation? Access? Use? Ethics? Legalities? Even if information literacy encompasses transliteracy, that doesn’t obviate the need to discuss transliteracy. I say this for two reasons:

First, there is nothing unusual about having a unique term for a specific subset of information literacy skills. For example, ACRL standards claim that the information literate individual “understands many of the ethical, legal and socio-economic issues surrounding information and information technology.” And yet, we don’t hear the argument that intellectual property, copyright law, and information ethics, are redundant concepts. A basic understanding of copyright law is required or information literacy, but copyright law is an area of study all its own, we can’t simply declare that understanding copyright is information literacy. The same can be said of transliteracy: information literacy may require transliteracy, but that doesn’t mean that they are synonyms. Transliteracy may very well just be that part of information literacy that discusses media interactivity.

Second, what looks like old news for some commentators can be brand new to others. It’s no surprise to me that some of the more vocal critics of transliteracy are working within very progressive and innovative information literacy programs. But, just because transliteracy seems familiar to some librarians does not mean it is familiar to all. Perhaps transliteracy is just a new way of looking at one aspect of information literacy, or a new tool to throw in our information literacy toolbox. Whatever the case, if transliteracy provides librarians with a new perspective on information literacy, then it’s worth talking about.

Summing up

I realize that this is a long and somewhat rambling post, but I think it’s important that criticisms be addressed directly and fairly. As I see it, existing information literacy standards may hint at transliteracy, but they are open to interpretation. Even if they do cover transliteracy, that doesn’t establish that transliteracy is a worthless concept. So, if you absolutely can’t stand transliteracy, your best bet is to offer an interpretation of information literacy standards that expressly includes the same issues. Just be wary of watering-down information literacy too much. Further, once it’s established that transliteracy is, in fact, covered under information literacy, you’ll need to explain how transliteracy is different from other, accepted concepts discussed under the aegis of information literacy (technology, copyright, constructivism, etc.). I realize that other criticisms are out there, and I’ll look at them later, but the objection from redundancy seems to be the most common. Meeting that objection head-on is the least that advocates for transliteracy can do, and I hope this post helps.

5 Responses to “A reasonable objection to transliteracy”

  1. A reasonable objection to transliteracy | Teaching & Learning in the Digital Age | Scoop.it Says:

    [...] jQuery("#errors*").hide(); window.location= data.themeInternalUrl; } }); } librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com – Today, 12:03 [...]

  2. A reasonable objection to transliteracy | School libraries for information literacy and learning! | Scoop.it Says:

    [...] A reasonable objection to transliteracy A legitimate criticism 'Transliteracy.' Is it a bold new concept or the current enfant terrible of librarianship? It's no secret that transliteracy has a polarizing effect, with the past year's … Source: librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com [...]

  3. A reasonable objection to transliteracy « Libraries and Transliteracy | transliteracylibrarian | Scoop.it Says:

    [...] A reasonable objection to transliteracy « Libraries and Transliteracy However, there is at least one really good objection to transliteracy as it is currently being applied by libraries, namely, that the concept of transliteracy is redundant…it's already covered under existing information literacy … Source: librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com [...]

  4. A reasonable objection to transliteracy | digital literacy | Scoop.it Says:

    [...] A reasonable objection to transliteracy A legitimate criticism 'Transliteracy.' Is it a bold new concept or the current enfant terrible of librarianship? It's no secret that transliteracy has a polarizing effect, with the past year's … Source: librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com [...]

  5. disobedientlibDana Says:

    A well-thought out post! In the end, just as in every field of inquiry or interest, there will always be disputes over language and labels of some kind. The key argument that I take away from all the great work you and Bobbi and others are doing is that the issues and skills behind transliteracy are important (I would argue, unavoidable). They should be looked at by scholars and hopefully explored by teachers on the ground and discussed in classrooms, in all areas and levels of learning.


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