Yeah, I’m looking at you Moustache Man. ‘Literacy’ sucks. Not the concept, mind you. I mean the word ‘literacy’. We have digital literacy, visual literacy, transliteracy, critical literacy, information literacy, scientific literacy, health literacy, computer literacy, digital literacy, media literacy….the list goes on and on. Of course, nobody colors within the lines, so there’s a lot of confusion out there. This sucks. Well, today I started writing a post trying to organize these various literacies, but after almost 4,000 words, I said, “WTF? Anglo-Saxon etymology? Metonymy? Walter Ong? This is going to bore the hell out of everyone.” So, I figure I’ll just throw the “brief” version of my taxonomy out there and see what sticks…
|“A Taxonomy of Literacies” CC 2.0 BY-NC-SA Click here for original.|
Allow me to explain…
Two senses of ‘literacy': media specific and media neutral
For all of the variants out there, it’s actually pretty easy to identify two separate ways of thinking about literacy. On the one hand we have the literacies that have to do with particular media. These are the literacies in the literal sense. On the other hand, we have the literacies that are media neutral. These are the literacies that use ‘literacy’ in the more figurative sense. So, this is the first division: media-specific literacy and media-neutral literacy.
Media-specific literacies are those that have to do with particular communication media. We usually think of reading and writing in this category, but when we step back, we realize that reading and writing describe just one possible way of communicating: i.e., print media. This isn’t anything new, if you read Orality and Literacy in library school (or any number of similar works), you’re already familiar with the concept of reading and writing as the technology of the written or printed word. But, other media are out there. Orality is actually a communication medium with specific skills required for mastery (everything from pronunciation to dialectic). Visual literacy is a relatively new term, but the ability to communicate and interpret meaning in images dates back at least to Lascaux. Computer literacy refers to the skills needed to use computing technology (word processing, saving, typing, using a mouse, etc.). I just made up web literacy, but it might be the skills specific to navigating the internet (URLs, email, downloads, etc.). I know of others out there, so the list isn’t meant to be complete. The important thing is that each of these is treated as a separate medium for communication, and these literacies can be grouped accordingly. However, I acknowledge that there is a significant overlap in communicative media. For example, it’s hard to surf the web if you can’t read. I’ll address the overlap further down the post.
Media-neutral literacies are those literacies that encompass skills or concepts that are independent of any particular communication method. Information literacy is neutral with respect to print, video, orality, etc.. The same holds true for health literacy, scientific literacy, critical literacy, and the rest. When we focus on information literacy or scientific literacy, we aren’t concerned with instruction in grammar or spelling. Likewise, when we focus on the reading and writing of print literacy, we aren’t concerned with evaluating information sources or understanding the scientific method. These media-neutral literacies really are neutral with respect to the particular technology medium we use to communicate information.
Domains of media neutral information
Yet another division is appropriate: domain-specific and domain-neutral literacies. Put another way, some of the common literacies are tied to particular subjects or domains: science, health, economics, social networks, etc.. Other common literacies are more conceptual: critical literacy and media literacy are good examples. Uniting them all is the general, media-neutral, information literacy.
Information literacy is just literacy independent of specific media. Evaluation, access, and related IL concepts exist independently of any one medium…they apply to any medium. But, information literacy is a multi-faceted thing. It can apply to narrow subject areas or to general, evaluative tactics.
Domain-specific literacies are those subject-specific literacies that fall under the umbrella of information literacy. For example, health literacy “is not simply the ability to read. It requires a complex group of reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations” (nnlm.gov). Examples provided include “the ability to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles, appointment slips, medical education brochures, doctor’s directions and consent forms.” Obviously, these skills are specific to health and medicine…you aren’t going to cover them in a general information literacy course, neither would you cover them in a specific scientific literacy program. Speaking of which, scientific literacy covers the scientific method, empirical observation, experimentation and other concepts that are, again, not media specific. As before, the list in my chart is not meant to be exclusive. Economic literacy, agricultural literacy, statistical literacy…the possibilities for subject-specific literacies are boundless.
Domain-neutral literacies are more conceptual and are not tied to specific subject areas. These literacies are tied to more robust, though narrow, evaluative concepts than are encountered in general information literacy. For example, critical literacy is a particular approach to information literacy based in Marxist theory. It emphasizes evaluative criteria such as social justice, inequality, and the search for hidden subtext (1). Applicable to all subject domains, it is separate from the scientific, health, and related literacies. The same holds true for media literacy, and its focus on propaganda, censorship, journalistic bias, and other evaluative competencies for understanding media (typically the newspaper/radio/TV/website sense of media, not the general sense I used earlier). The subject domain is irrelevant, these types of literacy trade in evaluative methods.
You knew it was coming: transliteracy. The buzzword of the day.The enfant terrible of the library blogosphere. Well, it’s not so bad. In fact, looking at literacy through the lens of this current taxonomy, I think I’ve found a way to make transliteracy less controversial and more palatable…
For one thing, I take back my previous remarks to the effect that transliteracy is just “a particular approach within information literacy.” I’ll also retract the whole “spheres of information literacy” approach. I think I was mistaken in how I understood information literacy, but not, mind you, in how I understand transliteracy. I still believe that transliteracy deals with transferable skills, analogical reasoning, and whatnot. If anything, transliteracy is our way of addressing the increasing overlap between medium specific literacies. Orality, print, images, social networks…the skills needed to move between these media show an incredible amount of overlap and cross-pollination. I think that’s how we can best make sense of transliteracy. It has nothing to do with information literacy and related, medium-neutral literacies. I think that most of the work coming out of the various transliteracy interest groups is consistent with this medium-specific approach (though there are regrettable exceptions).
In sum, there are multiple literacies out there, but they can be organized in a way that makes sense. In fact, I think they should be organized better. I’ll admit that the organizational structure I tossed up there is a work in progress and may be completely, utterly idiotic. But, it’s a start. Feel free to criticize, compliment, or call me a moron, but at least let me know what you think. I’m always open to suggestions for improvement.
(1) For the record, I want nothing to do with “critical literacy”.