Last week, David Rothman posted Commensurable Nonsense (Transliteracy), a post critical of transliteracy from an Information Literacy perspective. David’s arguments were plausible-sounding fallacies, leading to some serious confusion.
Information Literacy is a bad name for really good concepts. Let’s change the name (again!) to avoid confusion.
Rothman’s post starts with the two most common definitions of literacy:
- an ability to read and write
- knowledge of a specific subject
Nothing wrong there. However, it’s implied that for the purposes of transliteracy the second definition is the important one. I don’t see how one would reach that conclusion, given that the definition of transliteracy quoted later in the post starts “Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact…,” pointing to the first definition rather than the second. Transliteracy is about reading and writing (or their equivalents in other senses/contexts); working from some different assumption is a straw man.
The second problem is that Information Literacy is not a literacy per his own criteria. If a literacy is an ability to read and write or knowledge of a particular subject, where does “Information Literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information” fit? The common definitions of IL as critical skills are incompatible with the extended-but- conventional literacies of transliteracy. As such, comparing IL to transliteracy in such a manner has no bearing.
This framing of transliteracy as a subset of Information Literacy was implied by Lane Wilkinson’s post Transliteracy and Incommensurability, further implied by Rothman’s, and elaborated upon by Meredith Farkas, Lane Wilkinson, and others.
The second problem I mentioned — that Information Literacy isn’t a literacy — underlies the growing misconception. IL requires conventional literacies, but is not encompassing of them by definition. IL advocates apparently consider IL to be all- encompassing, but that’s a difficult-to-defend position. As such, the topics important to transliteracy, at least before last week, are distinct from IL.
The ensuing discussion has led to confusion over the practical boundaries of these terms. For instance, it isn’t clear how big transliteracy’s domain is per this newly-thin-air-pulled definition. In Why Transliteracy?, Lane insinuates transliteracy encompasses the Venn diagram of IL:
For me, transliteracy is the bridge between isolated spheres of information literacy,…
But on his personal blog, he writes:
I’m only using transliteracy as a catch-all for one particular slice of information literacy that I haven’t seen before.
This leads me to wonder: is transliteracy an umbrella over Information Literacy and other literacies as most everyone seemed to agree prior to last week, or just some small sliver of IL?
Call to Deprecate
It’s neither, of course! Information Literacy is the notable exception to the transliteracy umbrella. I hinted at this in my Redefining Transliteracy post and a smidge on twitter; here are the charges against IL’s compatibility with transliteracy:
- Transliteracy is an ability to read and write across things (which I frame as languages, while others prefer platforms, tools, and media for some unknown reason), whereas IL is an ability to find and critique information
- From a reading/writing lens, or any lens for that matter, all literacies are information literacies. IL as a term is redundant and overly-broad
- However an information literate entity interacts with information, that interaction is indirect, as information does not exist in any raw form. IL as a term is non-specific to the point of triviality
I cite these charges as more than just a reason not to compare Information Literacy and transliteracy directly; I also contend that it’s reason to deprecate Information Literacy and call its skills something else.
We’ve done this before. As a field of study, Library and Information Science effectively deprecated the term “Bibliographic Instruction” in favor of “Information Literacy.” The reasons behind this switch, it appears to me, were fourfold:
- Proponents of Bibliographic Instruction became entrenched in out-moded concepts and techniques, and were unwilling to adapt BI to new technologies and methods
- The word ‘Bibliographic’ itself implies books. Library-ish instruction is about much more than books
- Information Literacy as a term focuses on the skills of the learner, whereas Bibliographic Instruction as a term was about teaching those skills
- Information Literacy sounds really frickin’ good
If David Rothman is correct about anything, librarians are pedants of language. As such, clarity in the terminology we use for our core principles should be paramount. Additionally, re-re-coining this set of skills might cure what many seem to agree is cyclical entrenchment (per #1).
Here’s what I’m proposing: From some point in the near future on, people talking about the useful, respectable principles currently referred to erroneously as “Information Literacy” should instead use the term [insert term here]. Previous references to Bibliographic Instruction, Information Literacy, and other less-than-ideal terms should be considered [insert term here] by implication.
I think transliteracy and
Information Literacy are like peanut butter and jelly. You can have one without the other, but they’re usually better together. If we can remove the myth that IL is a literacy of comparison (through deprecation or social agreement), we can more effectively work to develop a helpful instructional ecosystem for our patrons. We can look at transliteracy for all the different ways people encode and decode information, and Information Literacy for the critical skills associated with that information parsing.