The Future of Libraries is Transliteral – A Guest Post by Ned Potter

~A Libraries and Transliteracy Q&A with Ned Potter

How did you discover transliteracy?

Via Bobbi Newman and Buffy Hamilton, from their online output, and of course later via this very blog. 🙂

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

Knowledgeable to Knowledge-ABLE

I finally had a chance to watch Michael Wesch’s new TEDxKC talk (October, 2010).

When I went to find the code for the video, I came across this article he wrote on the same subject here in the Academic Commons.

This new media environment can be enormously disruptive to our current teaching methods and philosophies. As we increasingly move toward an environment of instant and infinite information, it becomes less important for students to know, memorize, or recall information, and more important for them to be able to find, sort, analyze, share, discuss, critique, and create information. They need to move from being simply knowledgeable to being knowledge-able.

His argument that we need to be able to find, sort, analyze and even create new information in a new media landscape is perfectly in line with the principles of Transliteracy, but the section I was most struck by was around 6:30 when he talks about students seeking meaning in their lives. Near the end he states, “meaning is not just something you find, but ultimately something you create.” As someone also working with young people, I know he’s absolutely right and I find myself thinking more about context.

Knowledge Ability changes over time, based on the communication environment they are in.

Media are not just tools, they mediate relationships and allow us to connect with each other. When media change, our relationships change. Does that sound familiar to anyone who read Transliteracy: Crossing Divides?

The literacies (digital, numerate, oral) may be different, but the transliteracies (social, economic, political) often transect them in similar ways, depending on cultural context.

Wesch says learning is not a one-way conversation anymore – I say neither is librarianship! The old model with youth was “sit-down, be quiet and take in what I tell/give you.” We need to find ways to transform the one-way into two-way conversations.

But here is my great challenge as a children’s librarian in a public library. How do I help teach this in my informal learning environment? How can I help students learn outside the classroom? Wesch’s quote from Neil Postman, “You will do nothing” is not an option for public librarians!

So, what AM I doing? I’m going to do a quick self-audit of Wesch’s criteria to make young people knowledge-able:

  • Connect – We bring together students from across the district with shared interests through our programs and with their friends in the physical space. We’re working toward making our website/catalog (SOPAC) to become a social space where members can connect with each other through the site.
  • Organize – I don’t think I’m doing much of anything to help them organize.
  • Share – Our kids and teens have a voice. They can write comments on the website, write reviews in the catalog and I work hard to hire staff that listens and encourages the kids to share their stories and ideas.
  • Collect – I guess we help kids collect their research, but most often kids come in when they’ve finished their web research and the teacher is making them use a book. The nature of our work as Librarians allows us ample opportunity to collect resources and make them available, but I don’t see us having much of a role in our patrons experience of collecting anything.
  • Collaborate – Staff collaborates all the time using tools like google docs (I have introduced staff in other departments to these tools too) to plan summer reading programs, big events or preparing resource lists. Our Teen and  Kids Advisory Boards collaborate to plan events and collaborate with staff, and sometimes they may work together on a game or craft, but nothing I can identify as an organized effort in our department.
  • Publish – We are experimenting with an elementary school class to digitally publish their personal narratives and make them available on the library’s website. Close, but an unfinished project. Some of us try to “publish” content the kids and teens make in programs, but there isn’t much more I see us doing to publish kids’ creations at the moment. I see lots of potential in this area for public librarians.

Sadly, this makes me realize I am doing a better job of providing this structure for my staff than I am for my patrons. The places I see this type of work happening in a public library are through programming and through our Reference/Reader’s Adivsory with the public. I guess I need to think about those services with an eye toward this concept.

I will take his statement to heart and continue to keep this in my mind:

Knowledge-ability is a practice

I shall practice making more opportunities for my patrons that’s for sure!

March Read – Transliteracy: Crossing Divides

Welcome to our first shared read! The idea is that we all read the same article and discuss it on the blog (like a book club, but with articles). This gives us a way to work through ideas related to transliteracy and libraries together and openly.  This month’s read is Transliteracy: Crossing Divides by Sue Thomas et. al. Remember the article is not written by librarian nor are librarians the intended audience.

How do you participate? Read the article. Leave a comment. Respond to other people’s comments. That’s it! Its easy. Oh and be polite and courteous to each other. I’ll keep a link on the right sidebar for easy access. Enjoy!


Transliteracy might provide a unifying perspective on what it means to be literate in the twenty–first century. It is not a new behavior but has only been identified as a working concept since the Internet generated new ways of thinking about human communication. This article defines transliteracy as “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” and opens the debate with examples from history, orality, philosophy, literature, and ethnography.


What is transliteracy?
Tracing transliteracy
Really new media
Writing and reading are not enough
Going across and beyond
Networking the book
Transliterate reading
Everyday life in a transliterate world
Future development and debate

%d bloggers like this: