After reading this rather funny take on transliteracy over at LISNews, I feel compelled to say something about what ‘transliteracy’ means. Is ‘transliteracy’ a buzzword? Is ‘transliteracy’ hopelessly vague? Is this just a rehashing of old ideas in a fancy new vocabulary? Well, yes and no…
An adequate definition?
The working definition of ‘transliteracy’ is: 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. (from the Transliteracy Research Group). This definition has been a point of contention and I am sympathetic to those who want to overhaul it. Yes, the working definition is a poor definition, but how problematic is this? I’d like to say that it isn’t that big of a deal…yet. But, perhaps I owe a word of explanation.
How do we define?
There are several types of definition: lexical, stipulative, precising, descriptive, and beyond. We can further define terms either by intension or by extension. In the case of the former, we craft a definition that specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions of being a member of a given set. In the case of the latter, we create a definition that enumerates the members of a given set. Adequate examples and explanations abound elsewhere, so I won’t burden you with a long exposition, but it would help to read some secondary literature. (FWIW, Wikipedia is incoherent, try the SEP)
So, what does this mean for defining ‘transliteracy’? Well, consider the options:
- An extensional definition would entail fully or partially enumerating members of the set to which the term ‘transliteracy’ applies.
- An intensional definition would entail specifying the properties that all and only members of the set, ‘transliteracy’, have.
Defining ‘transliteracy’ by extension
So, I propose that we treat ‘transliteracy’ as a nebulous concept that is still being sorted out. We have a rough idea of what it is (hence, the working definition) and an idea of what it is not. We can’t describe the necessary and sufficient conditions for being an instance of ‘transliteracy’, nor should we have to at this point. (Heck, we’re still equivocating over what part of speech ‘transliteracy’ is!)
So, is ‘transliteracy’ a buzzword? Sure, why not. But, if it’s generating fruitful discussion, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Is it hopelessly vague? Well, it’s vague, but not hopeless and at this stage its vagueness might very well be its strength. Is it a rehashing of old ideas with a fancy new term? In some respects it might be, but we’re still collecting exemplary cases and we can at least say that either something interesting is going on that hasn’t been discovered previously, or that something previously undiscussed supervenes on the interplay between those old ideas.
Wait, I thought this was a library blog?
One last thing…why should librarians be involved in transliteracy? It’s simple, really. Libraries are on the front lines of traditional literacy initiatives. But, libraries are also the vanguard for information literacy and digital literacy. In fact, if you can call it a type of literacy, you’ll probably find it in a library. This is important because it follows that libraries should be the natural proving grounds for exemplary instances of transliteracy. As a reference and instruction librarian, I see potential transliteracy every day. Whether it’s the cognitive code-switching when students effortlessly glide between touch-screens, keyboards, and pencils, or it’s the cognitive effects of 140-character constraints, or it’s the preference for digital access over print, or any other activity I see daily in the library, I can tell that that something is happening to our conception of literacy. Some sort of information related cognitive process is very well-developed in some patrons, and not so well developed in others. I can’t give a precise definition yet, but I can point to similarities, and, for the moment, that is how we should be approaching ‘transliteracy’. Librarians are perfectly situated to contribute to the extension of ‘transliteracy’ and, moreover, once a sufficient understanding of exemplary cases is reached, librarians are perfectly situated to explain why transliteracy matters.