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Inflammatory Statement: Transliteracy is Information Literacy for latecomers

I’ve been reading and listening to the discussions about Transliteracy, and last week went to a one-day conference on the topic. And I’ve come to a conclusion. “Transliteracy” is what people who’ve been doing Bibliographic Instruction and calling it Information Literacy have started calling Information Literacy now that they’re finally on board with Information Literacy’s goals.

Generalization? Admittedly. But try as I might, I can’t see how aiming for transferable skills is any different from what we’ve been doing for years.

Here’s how I see it. Years ago, library instruction was called “Bibliographic Instruction.” Typically, when people think of Bibliographic Instruction, they think of librarians teaching students “here is how you use an index, and here are the 4 best indexes for your topic, and here is the library catalog and here are the important parts of the library catalog.” Typically, people think of it as being very much about teaching the few, finite ways to find sources.

Then about 20 years ago a bunch of us said “enough of this, let’s do Information Literacy, which is about teaching students how to recognize that they need information, find it, evaluate it, and use it well. And we want them to grapple with the politics of information production and publication, and we want them to be able to apply these skills to all kinds of tasks. We want them learn to be life-long learners!” Now, some people were more on board with this than others, so some people or institutions have really continued to do something much closer to Bibliographic Instruction while adopting the name Information Literacy. Meanwhile, other people have almost entirely dispensed with teaching specific databases and catalogs in favor of teaching concepts and processes. And, of course, there’s everything in between.

Then last year or the year before, some people coined the term Transliteracy, which focuses on transferable skills and (they say) does this rather than teaching tools. I contend, however, that Information Literacy was never primarily about teaching the tools and always about transferable skills. Telling me that I should stop doing that stuffy old Information Literacy, with its emphasis on where exactly to click in which databases, tells me that you never really understood Information Literacy in the first place. It’s not called Database Literacy for a reason, you know.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. Robin Robin

    I usually just lurk, but I have to thank you for saying this!

  2. Abby Abby

    Ah, Bibliographic Instruction, or as I like to call it, “The Dog & Pony Show”.

  3. I gotta say, though, “BI” trips off the tongue a lot easier than any of the alternatives. :-)

    Quite a few people are talking about this over in the FriendFeed LSW room:

  4. Hi Iris. Sounds like you got a bum-deal on an explanation of transliteracy. Coincidentally, I presented last week at a one day conference on transliteracy, though it seems I presented with a different approach. In my presentation I explicitly argued that we need to embrace information literacy now more than ever. My take is that transliteracy is a complementary idea, not meant to replace IL in the least. I agree, anyone seeking to replace “stuffy old information literacy” with transliteracy clearly doesn’t understand either.

    I also agree that “information literacy was never primarily about teaching the tools.” But, we’ve got a hell of a lot of tools now, so that’s where I see transliteracy living: it is primarily about teaching the tools, though doing so in a maximally efficient way based on transfer of learning (which, for some reason, is almost completely absent in the IL literature).

    You might be interested in the slides I used in my presentation, where I make it explicit that transliteracy is not a replacement for IL and that transliteracy is strictly about the tools (or about communication rather than evaluation, as I put it). Here’s a link: Constructing knowledge and networks.

  5. Hi Lane, thanks for stopping by and for your clarification.

    Not coincidentally at all, actually. I was there on Friday (and I’m friends with Colleen and Griffey, so it was nice to “meet” another member of the UTC tribe). I didn’t write this as a response to you, in particular, which is why I left things a little vague on that point. Yours was one of many voices I’ve heard and listened to and read over the last year or so, and I was responding to the gestalt.

    However, I’m interested to hear your take above on the point you intended to make last week because that’s not the point that I had heard or that people I talked with had heard. I heard that transliteracy is part of information literacy, yes, but I also heard “We need to stop teaching where to click on the lefthand navigation menue and start teaching transferable skills,” and “There are too many tools now and they change so frequently that it’s time to concentrate on teaching people how to learn new tools.” These and many statements like them led me to understand that you were inferring that we have so far been teaching where to click on the lefthand navigation menue and that we haven’t so far been teaching people how to learn new tools, neither of which is remotely true. Teaching people how to learn new tools and generally to be lifelong learners has always been my focus.

    Anyway, this is why the message that I’ve been hearing and reading — that transliteracy is about transferable skills and that it’s the next step from information literacy — got reinforced even as you were saying information literacy is still relevant and important. And I liked your pillars a lot, but I see them as being an integral part of plain old information literacy rather than being an offshoot.

    Does this make sense?

  6. It’s one hell of a gestalt, I’ll admit to that. And in all fairness, I completely agree that the vast majority of discussion about transliteracy makes me cringe; there’s just so much bullshit masquerading as novel insight. I think that’s why I started the keynote by straightforwardly admitting that it’s a silly buzzword and I’d be perfectly happy consigning it to the fires.

    As to your question about clicking and tools and such, I can only say that it’s complicated. You see, I’ve tried to be consistent over the past year, and if you go through my posts all the way back to when David Rothman got mad at me for using big words, you’ll see that (for me) it’s always been about the tools and it’s never been about replacing information literacy. Rather than drink the Kool-Aid, I’ve just tried to read as much as I can and try to find common threads, hence the three pillars common to all. Really, I just ignore anything outside of those three concepts.

    The problem is that for librarians like yourself this is all water under the bridge and it’s already wrapped into IL. But, it’s not part of IL in the official ACRL standard sense of IL and for librarians who adhere strictly to official dogma, it’s something new. Moreover, I’ve worked in a library that was stuck in the “click here” mentality: our IL courses went like this: OPAC->Academic OneFile->LexisNexis->PsycINFO->JSTOR->time to search. And I’ve talked to a lot of librarians in similar “click here” situations (the 20 minute Q&A on Wikipedia should give you an idea of where a lot of IL programs are. 2006, apparently.) So, I guess my talk was directed at the those librarians who try to (1) cover IL standards while (2) also trying to show students where to click. Trust me, there are a LOT of instruction programs like that.

    Basically, my take on transliteracy is, and has always been, about finding a more efficient way to teach tools so that we have more time to teach evaluation which, as I see it, is the heart of IL and is by definition a transferable skill. Like I said in the keynote, we do a great job with evaluation but, given how many tools are out there, and my unwillingness to demo every damned database interface we have access to, I’ve adopted transliteracy as simply a pedagogical approach to teaching tools. Innovative librarians will see it as bullshit, because they already do it. But, if a buzzword can bring the latecomers up to speed, then I can get behind it for purely pragmatic reasons.

    So, yes, your question makes sense. And I’m glad you asked it, transliteracy needs more people to beat the shit out of it. Actually, I kind of wished you’d have asked during the keynote. For my part, I’m done with the word, the concept, what have you. It’s a tiny concept that’s easily to understand, half of us do it already, and that’s that. And if you get any grief from the true believers over your inflammatory post, tell ’em that Lane says “STFU”.

  7. I think it *is* part of the ACRL IL standards, and it’s a large part of what I took away from ACRL Immersion. Now, personally, I kind of hate the way the ACRL standards are worded and laid out. They are too positivist and far too linear. However, the concepts under the poor rhetorical choices stand up, particularly if we understand “information” in a broader sense than “published literature accessed through library-provided tools.” Looked at this way, the standards call for critical thinking about your purpose and goals, having strategies for figuring out how to get at the evidence you’ll need to satisfy your curiosity or provide you with the evidence you need for your claim and argument, using that information effectively (which certainly includes communication, manipulation, and knowledge building), and understanding that information is part of a vast, organic, interlocking and often political system. The standards are tool-agnostic, which is a good thing since they came about before the internet really took off. But not mentioning tools doesn’t mean that tools are excluded.

    And yes, I know that there’s tons of “here are all the databases” teaching out there. I did a bunch of it myself until I realized my students and I weren’t getting a whole lot out of it, and until I went to Immersion, and until I started working on a large-scale evaluation of student writing produced at my college and realized that one of the main problems is that undergrads don’t know WHY they’re supposed to bring outside voices into their papers — that the other aspects of IL are perhaps MORE important than “how to find” particularly now that finding is one of the easier parts of IL. But none of this makes me think “Aha! What we need is another name for what we teach. That’ll change it all.” I think what we need are more opportunities to practice and learn from each other about how to conduct one-shots that embrase more of the aspects of information literacy.

    Anyway, I’m headed off to a fully-booked day so won’t be able to check back until tonight.

  8. I haven’t been to Immersion, though I’ve applied for the 2012 Intentional Teacher Track this Fall in Nashville (fingers crossed). That being said, I can’t speak to any comparisons between Immersion and transliteracy. If effective tool-based teaching is a part of the Immersion curriculum *in addition* to effective teaching of information evaluation, then I’ll gladly give up on transliteracy and admit that information literacy really is a panacea. But, I’m not seeing effective tool-teaching in the literature or in a lot of professional practice. Again, I’ll defer to your experience.

    However, I am curious about the information as “published literature accessed through library-provided tools” viewpoint. I’ve never met anyone that shares that view and I think it might be a bit of a straw-man. I follow Floridi’s General Definition of Information: information is well-formed, meaningful data. Here’s a good explanation: (Though, I will admit that I disagree with him that information must also be veridical.). I don’t know, I’m kind of an information theory nerd, so it works for me.

    As to whether we need another name for what we teach, I agree that we don’t. I recognize that a lot of people are throwing the word around as if it were magic and making some incredibly naive and stupid claims on behalf of “Transliteracy”. I hate that stuff, too. I guess my take is that the word is here, it’s not going anywhere for a while, and I might as well attempt to ground it in something respectable, rather than ignore it wholesale or get pissed off at yet another trendy neologism.

    I guess my overall take is that I’m perfectly fine with accepting a model to the effect that transliteracy is a part of information literacy (as the critics argue). But, there’s no reason we can’t provide a name to a part of a whole. (I often wonder if IL purists also get defensive about terms like “critical thinking” that are a part of information literacy). Then again, I’m also fine with a model that says information literacy covers the evaluation of information and transliteracy covers the tools we use to access information. That is, the model that tries to stop shoehorning every thing into an already bloated conception of information literacy. This second model is my approach. I see transliteracy as a means of taking the tool-based skills and separating them out so that IL can properly focus on information evaluation. It’s a heuristic, plain and simple. Not a revolution.

    Then again, I don’t know why I’m writing all this. I’m supposed to be done with transliteracy. It’s a mole hill surrounded by a great big mountain that’s obscuring my view. I found a way to streamline tool-focused instruction in my program, it isn’t in the library literature, it works, and I don’t really care what it’s called.

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