Why transliteracy?

I think I’ll back off the technical writing from the previous post and go from the gut in response to a common concern that keeps on cropping up in the general discussion about transliteracy. David Rothman frames the issue this way:

I can’t find anything on Libraries and Transliteracy that makes a compelling case for why the word should matter to librarians or what it means to you all aside from the need for libraries to be active in working with patrons in the use of new technologies (which is right, good, and almost universally agreed-upon without the need for the word ‘transliteracy’).

I can’t speak for everyone at Libraries and Transliteracy, but I can at least give a justification for why I am interested in transliteracy and why I think it is an important concept for librarians.

Most of my actual library work is centered around instruction. Every semester brings over 200 instruction sessions into our library, of which I usually handle 30 to 40. These are generally freshman composition classes and the name of the game is instruction in research methods. Now, library instruction takes many forms, and there are still quite a few academic libraries that focus their instruction efforts exclusively on database demos, Boolean searching, popular vs. scholarly, and similar aspects of “serious research”. What I like about my library is that we make a concerted effort to break down the artificial division between “The Library” and “The Internet”. Whether it’s activities that send students to Wikipedia or open discussions about the sheer awesomeness of Google, we attempt to engage the students on their own turf and harness their existing internet “literacies” for use in the library and beyond. We show students how to make the most out of Google and library resources both in terms of the technical “where do I click?” sort of skills and in terms of the best times to use different resources. In sum, we teach information literacy, plain and simple. But, wait! Doesn’t that take the wind out of the sails of transliteracy? Are you admitting that ‘transliteracy’ is just a silly buzzword for the same old stuff?

Nope. Not at all…
Look at it this way, students have no problem using Google, blogs, Twitter and other services to find every little detail about Justin Bieber…right down to the address of his elementary school (Jeanne Sauvé Catholic School, 8 Grange St., Stratford, Ontario, by the way). But, these same students are often completely lost and unable to comprehend the complexities of “library” research. Indexes? Keywords? Abstracts? OpenURL resolvers? Ack! Why can’t we just use Google?! Here’s a helpful chart that is probably familiar to library instructors:

The two spheres…normal and academic…both fall under “information literacy”, so, yeah, transliteracy is information literacy. But, as I see it (again, I’m only speaking for myself) information literacy is often needlessly segmented and compartmentalized. Popular vs. Scholarly. Library vs. Google. Print vs. Digital. You get the picture. Transliteracy comes into play as a pedagogical method, a way to break down the barrier between the student and the library. It encompasses established methods like transfer of learning and analogical reasoning in the library classroom.  It’s using Wikipedia to find keywords for a search in CINAHL. It’s reading an academic journal article and then looking up the author’s personal blog for more context. It’s comparing hashtags to subject headings and Amazon reviews to abstracts. In a sense, the real force behind transliteracy is encompassed in one little word in the definition: across. For me, transliteracy is the bridge between isolated spheres of information literacy, it’s about bridging the gaps and showing students that there’s nothing to be afraid of…they already know how to do it.

Granted, this sort of approach has been around for a long time. From instruction to reference and beyond, librarians of all stripes are constantly in a teachable moment and many, if not most, librarians already engage in transliteracy (the way I’m approaching it). But the approach hasn’t really had a name yet. With the increasing divergence of our different spheres of information literacies, now is the ideal time to go ahead and give a name to what librarians have been dealing with for a long time. This may be a relatively narrow reading of transliteracy, but it’s what I’m comfortable with. If there’s another word I should be using, let me know.


[EDIT: The second sentence after the chart should read, “information literacy is often needlessly segmented and compartmentalized in our students’s minds.” ]

11 Responses to “Why transliteracy?”

  1. An Excuse To Let Your Mind Run… » Blog Archive » Brief Literature Review: IL Instruction in the Web 2.0 Library Says:

    […] Wilkinson, Lane.  “Why Transliteracy?”  Libraries and Transliteracy.        Librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com, 20 December 2010.  Web.  14 March 2011.  <https://librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/why-transliteracy/#more-    1559>. […]

  2. enough of ‘transliteracy’ for a while… | ruffl Says:

    […] bobbi newman on why ‘transliteracy’ matters to librarians Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Transliteracy: Take a Walk on the Wild SideMore on transliteracy… This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← like father like son LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. davidrothman.net » Follow-up: Transliteracy, Theory, and Scholarly Language Says:

    […] 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:. […]

  4. Languages of a Blueberry Smoothie - hawidu - Brad Czerniak's site Says:

    […] of transliteracy to a satisfactory extent. So before I demolish IL in the Information Literacy vs. transliteracy debate, I figured it would be fun to offer a practical example of the language […]

  5. Transliteracy from the perspective of an information literacy advocate | Information Wants To Be Free Says:

    […] 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 […]

  6. John Jackson Says:

    Lane, I like how you’ve approached this and, if I read you right, you mean to suggest that information literacy, at least in academic libraries, is too narrowly applied, especially, in the classroom. I would entirely agree. If the term “transliteracy” can be used as a catalyst for encouraging librarians to expand their understanding of how IL can be applied and taught, than I say let’s use it.

    In fact, I think you may have shed light on my own misinterpretations. All the activities of TL that you and others here have described, I always assumed those WERE the responsibility of instruction librarians and the need to move beyond the digital walls of library databases was a given. But then, I’ve only been in the field for 2 years and so that current has always been there, moving along the surface, even in the scholarly literature. When I think about specific applications of ACRL’s standards (to name one rubric), you may be right when you suggest that strictly speaking, they rarely encompass anything other than traditional library resources.

    [Insert usual comment about practicalities of offering instruction and one-off sessions, etc. etc. etc.]

    In any case, thanks for following up on your previous post =)

    • Lane Wilkinson Says:

      You’re right, the activities listed are the responsibility of instruction librarians. The segmentation I allude to is on the students’ end, not the librarians’ end. Still, the ACRL standards tell us what to teach, and I’ve got no quarrel there. When it comes to how we hit those standards, that’s where I think transliteracy can be useful.

  7. Stephen Francoeur Says:

    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.”

    • Lane Wilkinson Says:

      You’re right, I do take a very narrow view of transliteracy as an instructional practice that’s probably reducible to “doing information literacy instruction really well.” But, there are a lot of really good instructional methods and I don’t see why ‘transliteracy’ can’t be used as a placeholder term for just one out of many effective instructional practices for librarians.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: