~A Libraries and Transliteracy Q&A with Ned Potter
How did you discover transliteracy?
How does it have meaning for you personally?
For me personally, transliteracy is an umbrella term that encompasses all the relevant literacies – information literacy, digital literacy, technology literacy, media literacy, and, crucially, any yet to be determined literacies that become relevant in the future. It is both the sum of, and the constituent parts of, the understanding you need to interact and function successfully across the range of platforms that shape modern communication. I like the fact that transliteracy allows different literacies to exist together and have equal merit, rather than bow to the ‘ONLY ONE CAN LEAVE!’ mentality that is popular these days. (I sound like an old man…) Why anyone would have any hostility to all of that (as some people in the library community have shown towards the term) is pretty baffling to me.
This stuff is really important. One of the realities of the newly fragmentary society in which we live is that consensus is really hard to come by. So I can see why people have come up with other names that they feel better express the same concept, and I can see that no single name is likely to stick across the board. But it is the concept that is vital, not the name – personally I think transliteracy is the right name for it and I want to build on all the work around libraries and transliteracy, not undo it. But that said, I’ll be talking and thinking about it whatever it is called – I just wish more of us could back the same horse, in terms of giving it a label. We need to be on the same page to move forward, and it’s frustrating that we could very well be on the same page but not know it because we’re reading books with different titles.
Why is it important to libraries?
The future of libraries is transliteral. This is the stuff we need to be teaching, to be providing for our communities. The worlds of public library, academic library, special library and archive collide, or rather fall into sync, under the umbrella of transliteracy – because it’s vital to all the communities those disparate libraries represent.
People can get lost in the debate about the definition of transliteracy, and particularly who defines it. What matters is that people need to be literate in all sorts of ways, and libraries are best place to provide support for that. Certainly cognitive scientists and critical theorists may be better placed to discuss, define, and rationalise transliteracy – but how much use is that for the man off the street who’s afflicted by the digital divide? A library offers him a place to go and use the internet; a librarian supports him in the literacy required to do so effectively (plus, obviously, in many other ways too). Libraries are the on front-line, or should be.
How do we become transliterate?
For the normal person on the street, becoming transliterate involves becoming educated in all the literacies relevant to them. Not everyone needs to know about all types of literacy – ‘trans’ doesn’t mean ‘all’, it means ‘across’. Across all literacies. You can have a working knowledge of all the literacies you personally require, and consider yourself transliterate.
But for the Information Professional, the challenge is greater. We really do need, insofar as is possible, to become expert in all forms of literacy, in order to lead the way for others to follow. That means investigating new trends, becoming early adopters of new technologies and platforms, and not burning any bridges with more traditional information literacy either. Building on sound pedagogical principles is important, particularly in the academic community, but so is being flexible and able to move with change and encompass new developments.
There are few better ways to become transliterate than to immerse yourself in the world of each kind of literacy, and naviagte between them. Read, write, listen, watch, and interact.
What is your favorite example of transliteracy in action?
Can I have the new Google Art Project? It may not be the most obvious example of transliteracy, but I’ll make a case for it…
For me, transliteracy serves an extremely serious purpose – particularly in the online environment, it can help protect people and facilitate really important things such as being able to navigate financial or medical websites properly, or understand what privacy they are giving up by agreeing to a social network’s terms and conditions. But it can also serve a more joyous purpose, which is to allow people to experience the extraordinary new world we are entering now.
If you’re technically literate enough to use a PC, and digitially literate enough to go to the Google Art Project site and navigate, Street View style, through the museums and galleries, then a whole world is opened up to you. There are 17 galleries involved (all of them among the greatest in the world) and they allow you to experience art you could never hope to see all of in your lifetime. There is low-level interactivity involved in that you can move around the museums (and, unlike in real life, there are no other visitors to crowd the view) and you can even read the little plaques next to the paintings that explain what they are. What really makes it transliteral, for me, is the fact that the extreme high-res nature of the pictures is allowing people to notice hitherto undiscovered details about the paintings. For example in Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Harvesters (a 16th century masterpiece), you can make out a family playing a traditional game of throwing sticks at a tied up goose – it’s absolutely tiny, a minuscule detail in a massive picture, so most people were completely unaware of it. Now people are going back to the original art, incredibly famous art that we’re almost overly familiar with, and viewing it with new knowledge, with fresh eyes. It’s the analogue becoming digital, and then the digital informing the analogue anew.
From this, new dialogues emerge; new interaction between scholars and between all of us. Some schools are teaching literacy using art now – asking students to construct narratives based on imagining what it would be like to be inside a painting. The Google Art Project facilitates that further, and makes it fun as you make your way around a deserted MoMA or Tate gallery.
There are two common assumptions – a general one that digital supersedes analogue, and a specific one that art is always better experienced in person than online. This new project blows both of those out of the water – the analogue and the digital aren’t competing with or replacing one another, they’re working together. Art is amazing in the physical domain, and it can be experienced via a digital surrogate in the online domain. But the two are now acting upon one another, to create something new – a new understanding based on both domains, based on the back and forth, based on the ability to interact across different platforms and media. It’s that relationship that makes it transliteral, for me.
Ned writes and presents on the subjects of library advocacy, technology, and new professionals. He is currently writing a book for Facet Publishing called The Library Marketing Toolkit and has been involved with various online movements, spearheading the campaign to get libraries out of the echo chamber ; creating a network for new library professionals calledLISNPN; and helping to run the Buy India Library Project. He has been named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker for 2011 as a marketer.
He works in higher education, as the Digitisation Coordinator for the University of Leeds in the UK. (Views expressed here and elsewhere are his own and not those of his employer.) His website can be found at www.thewikiman.org.