Friday, March 23, 2012

Transliteracy, information literacy, and librarians

Following a link trail from one of this week's readings led me to blogger and librarian Wilk's "philosophical library blog" Sense and Reference, where I found the very interesting Reorganizing Literacy post. The post contains a chart titled "A Taxonomy of Literacies" which divides literacy into communicative and evaluative categories. The Communicative category includes print, signing, visual, computer, and digital, and is subtitled "Transliteracy". The Evaluative category includes both specific literacies such as scientific literacy, and non-specific literacies such as media literacy. It is subtitled "Information literacy".

Wilk's chart struck a chord with me, as I've been trying to put my finger on this distinction but finding it slippery. In my own experience, I can see that my 14-year-old daughter is more literate than I am in specific "communication" categories (Facebook comes to mind), and she might be considered more transliterate than I am because of the ease with which she moves between communication tools. On the other hand, through the sheer advantage of years, I have broader literacy than she does in the "evaluative" categories, so, applying Wilk's taxonomy, I might be considered to have a higher level of information literacy.

Wilk goes on to employ a container/content distinction, and says that: ". . . information literacy addresses the problems of meaning, [while] transliteracy addresses the engineering problem . . . We need information literacy so we can think about the meaning of information. We need transliteracy so we can think about the communication of information" (Wilk, 2011, Containers and Content sect., para. 6).

So, is transliteracy separate from information literacy? Thomas et al. (2007) state that, "Our current thinking (although still not entirely resolved) is that because it offers a wider analysis of readings, writing and interacting across a range of platforms, tools, media and cultures, transliteracy does not replace, but rather contains, 'media literacy' and also 'digital literacy'" (Tracing transliteracy sect., para. 1). This statement doesn't stake ownership over information literacy - but implies that the breadth of transliteracy does allows it to contain many kinds of literacy.

In the comments section of Reorganizing Literacy, one reader comments that youth may have stronger ability to communicate across media, while older people may have stronger evaluative ability. Wilk responded by saying that:
". . . creating 'information literate' students may exceed our reach. Transliteracy, on the other hand, is well within our grasp as least, transliteracy in the restricted sense in which I'm approaching it . . . As a librarian my first concern is whether, and if so how, students are able to access the right information at the right time" (2011, Comment 4).
Wilk's suggestion that teaching transliteracy may be easier than teaching information literacy helps to reinforce the distinction between containers and content. It also sheds some light on one of this week's questions regarding how libraries position themselves to remain relevant. It makes sense for librarians, who stay at the forefront of information and knowledge management, to help library users find their way through the increasingly complex media ecology by teaching transliteracy "best practices". In contrast, becoming information literate in one of Wilk's "specific" evaluative categories would require deeper study, and would be beyond the scope of the services libraries provide.

However, media literacy and critical literacy, both listed by Wilk as "non-specific" evaluative literacies, are particularly entwined with the tools of transliteracy. If I were to rework Wilk's taxonomy chart, I would probably move the non-specific evaluative literacies into the communicative literacies.

I'd be curious to know others' thoughts on this distinction.

P.S. - As a bonus to those of us in the MACT program, in Wilk's post there's a nice tie-back to the Comm Theory course we all started out with - Wilk quotes Shannon on the "engineering problem" of communication. I had sort of moved cybernetics into the back of the cupboard, so it was interesting to see its relevance to this question. McLuhan is also standing at the doorway on the container/content discussion. To what extent is the medium the message? I can't say I have the answer but it's still somehow reassuring to see course content dovetailing, and oddly rewarding to see how the breadth of material we've covered in the program allows us to consider a variety of perspectives on questions like this.


Thomas et al. (2007). Transliteracy: Crossing Divides. First Monday, Volume 12 Number 12 - 3 December 2007. Retrieved March 23, 2011, from:

Wilk. (2011). Reorganizing literacy. Sense and reference: a philosophical library blog. Retrieved March 23, 2011, from:


  1. I also found Wilk's chart helpful, but thought that when he talked about transliteracy being about the containers, I thought, no, it's more about the relationships between the media. I think I'd move media literacy over to the communicative literacy side, but I'm less sure about critical literacy.

    In the end, perhaps it's possible to teach people transliteracy skills, but only possible to encourage information literacy and critical thinking.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Judith. I've realized that I'm fairly hazy on what media literacy and critical literacy actually are - making it more difficult to talk about where these skills "belong" and how they can be learned. I had trouble finding standard definitions of these terms, especially since, when the word "critical" is introduced, there's a connection to Marxist theory, and when the word "media" is introduced, the discussion can diverge into many streams of thought around the influence of mass media, advertising, digital technology, social media, etc.

      I did find some interesting sources, though: Curriculum Services Canada offers a series of webcasts for educators on critical literacy, with a focus on critical thinking about texts and an appreciation for multiple perspectives.

      And interestingly enough, The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada lent financial support to a 2012 qualitative study produced by the Media Awareness Network: "Young Canadians in a Wired World Phase III: Teachers' Perspectives". The study addresses such issues as "Teaching Tech vs. Using Tech to Teach".

      After this week's readings I was inspired by the idea of librarians as transliteracy leaders in schools, so it was disappointing to find no mention of librarians in the Media Awareness Network's report, especially since one of the issues discussed in the report was how teachers received little to no professional development support on incorporating tech into their classrooms. It sounds like the perfect place for a librarian to take a leadership role, resources permitting (and that might be the sticking point).

  2. Thanks for an interesting post and discussion, Linda and Judith.

    Some musings on the topic-

    I have also struggled with the term media literacy, in particular. Before the Internet and the explosion of digital communications, I thought media literacy, as taught in high schools, referred to educating students to evaluate the information that comes their way in a variety of formats - at that time being newspapers, magazines, and movies. Now we would add YouTube videos, blogs, etc to that list. This would seem to fall under the evaluative side of the chart as described by Sense and Reference.

    But that also sounds like a definition for critical literacy - can you think critically about what you hear and see, can you question validity, can you reach your own conclusions.

    Perhaps media literacy does not separate the container from the content - perhaps it includes considering the container as well as the content. In media literacy, to be able to evaluate or critique, do you also need to understand and consider the format? Messages in film can be critiqued differently from messages in editorials or magazine articles. Should knowing the culture and capability of YouTube or Twitter or the blogging community affect my critique of their content?

    Separating the content from the containers seems to answer questions that have been raised by myself and others in past postings. Taking this analogy and reflecting on the digital native and digital immigrant labels, digital natives may be more literate concerning the containers, while digital immigrants may be more literate about the content. Note I say "may."

    The question remains, can you separate the container from the content?

    I think you can if you consider as the blogger muses you can read and be considered communicative literate but still not understand what you have read, thus not evaluative literate. On the other hand, students can post messages on Facebook and Twitter and a blog and thus be considered transliterate on the communicative side, but not understand the potential impact of what they are saying - such as cyber bullies - and therefore be evaluative illiterate.

    Perhaps media literacy is an umbrella category over communicative and evaluative literacies. Or is this called sitting on the fence?:-)