Further Refining Transliteracy


I owe a debt of gratitude to my former classmate Lane Wilkinson for the discussion about transliteracy we shared via email. More importantly for you, dear reader, is that Lane writes a blog called Sense and Reference with some of the best and most thought-provoking posts in the library world.

If you’ve followed the series of posts about transliteracy on this blog, perhaps you’d agree that I’ve approached the topic somewhat backwards:

  1. First, I proposed a new definition as a solution to a problem I barely identified
  2. Next, I put the proposed definition into context and clarified what I meant by some terminology
  3. I then identified a number of issues with the current working definition that necessitate the redefinition

In this post I’d like to illustrate that the issues with the definition are causing problems: namely inconsistent communication among transliteracy researchers.

Definition Type

In his post, On defining transliteracy, Lane asserts that since transliteracy is a young term, it may not be appropriate now (or ever) to define transliteracy intensionally. I would absolutely agree with this notion if transliteracy were defined extensionally.

In the literature, the PART working definition is not only the current definition of record, but the basis for a functioning intensional unit. If we acknowledge that transliteracy is trans- plus literacy without making the necessary pre-assumptions of my previous posts, people still naturally use the word to mean “An ability to [do something] across [something].”

Do Something

The first blank, “the ability to [do something]” is much less contentious among transliteracy writers. The PART definition fills the blank with “read, write, and interact” while my suggestion instead goes for “encode and decode information.” I think in both instances the intent is largely the same:

  • A sensory ability that goes beyond basic perception. A literate being takes sensory input, recognizes certain patterns, signs, or symbols, and can then use that input cognitively
  • The entity can often produce similar or identical patterns, signs, or symbols and transmit them over the same or similar channel
  • This sensory ability applies to more than just the written word

My review of the literature confirms the agreement on these conditions of the first blank, despite the difference in wording I suggest.

Across Something

A review of the literature (which you’re free to contribute to) shows us what transliterate entities are purportedly doing something across:

The agreement isn’t total, but the clear majority of those discussing transliteracy have latched onto ‘medium’ as the unit that transliterate people are literate across. As such, the “precise necessary and sufficient conditions for being an instance of transliteracy” are asserted overwhelmingly by writers in the field to be met by being able to read, write, and interact across media.

But medium is used inconsistently with regard to scope, and often outside of the usage of any other field. As such, the condition-facilitating uncertainty that would otherwise be attached to an extensional ‘transliteracy’ is instead confusing the word ‘medium’.

For instance, is facebook a medium? What about twitter? Is there a single “facebook literacy” or “twitteracy”? Is medium intended as it is in the field of Communications? Of Art? In a McLuhan sense of the word?

There is no agreement in the literature.


The word ‘medium’ is being used as a placeholder for an ill-defined unit of literacy. This placeholder isn’t serving anyone because of the stark variation in usage.

I’ve made a case for language to be the unit instead, clarified what language means, and showed that it can function across all contemporary literacies. What else is necessary to get the discussion away from medium and toward language?