Transliteracy: Information Literacy by Another Name?

I have spent the last months reading and writing about digital divide, information literacy and other related concepts, attended conferences and spoke with several experts about this topic. The culmination of these activities led me to feel like I was on my way to becoming a subject matter expert. That was until I came across “Why Transliteracy?” in the 2011 American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual Conference program guide. The description read:

The skills needed to be an active participant in today’s society are rapidly evolving. Literacy is changing, more is needed than the ability to read and write. This session will explore the theoretical aspects of transliteracy, explaining why it is important and how it is tied to libraries. We will look at transliteracy from the varying perspectives caused by serving different populations including schools, universities and the public.

I thought to myself, “hmmm, this sounds exactly like what I have been reading, but why are they calling it transliteracy?” Although I was hoping it was an error, I knew it wasn’t and so I added it to my list of programs to attend. At the very least, sitting through the session would allow me to see if what they were describing was information literacy by another name. With five (5) people—Bobbi Newman, Gretchen Caserotti, Tom Ipri, and Lane Wilkinson—scheduled to be on the panel, I was looking forward to a comprehensive description of a term that was foreign to me.

As I expected, the session proved to be informative. Still, I left the session with more questions than answers. I will present what I felt were the key points and provide commentary (especially regarding things that were most troublesome).

Transliteracy Definedtransliteracy_umbrella

A natural starting point, Bobbi Newman began by defining the term. She stated that

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media

Gretchen Caserotti talked about how the literacy landscape has changed. Where print was once supreme, new forms of technology have been introduced, creating new forms of user experience, affecting how people interact with information. As a result, “new” literacies are called for. She goes as far as implying that transliteracy is now the overarching term that other literacies fall under (more on this later).

Providing a list of characteristics, Tom Ipri puts “clothes” on the term. Among the elements that he says makes transliteracy distinct is that it:

  • maps (look for synonoms WHAT DOES HE MEAN) meaning across different platforms without requiring an individual to become familiar with those platforms
  • focuses on the “interactions” between different literacies.
  • although it is not tied to any particular technology, it has the ability to show relationships that may exist between the two

Ipri implied that transliteracy is unique because it “questions authority and devalues hierarchical structures” (Why Transliteracy, 2011). I would challenge that statement to say, that is the very foundation of information literacy, questioning authority, determining accuracy, etc.

I felt like what was being described was information literacy and did not agree with the idea that transliteracy the overarching concept. One factor that led me to this conclusion was ALA’s definition which states,

information literacy as a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.

Another source defines information literacy as a

set of competencies that an informed citizen of an information society ought to possess to participate intelligently and actively in that society (Shapiro, 1996).

The definitions above are not tethered to a specific format. Additionally, the term “use effectively” in the first definition and “participate intelligently and actively” in the latter in account for the “interaction across platforms” stated in the definition of transliteracy. Just when I began to try to mentally draw lines between information literacy and transliteracy, Lane Wilkinson loaded up a ppt entitled, “Information Literacy vs. Transliteracy: Lessons for Library Instruction” aimed at removing the confusion. Boy was I relieved. Having Wilkinson do it meant I wouldn’t have to do any of the dirty work later on, so I thought.

TIP: Teach how information sources interact, not only the difference

Wilkison started by discussing traditional notions of literacy—reading & writing. He goes on to state that literacy is primarily concerned with communications, at least in a descriptive sense. This is where things began to get a foggy for me. Wilkison proceeds, describing some specific types of literacy (health, scientific, media) which deal with being able to evaluate and follows by saying they are NOT about communicating information. (My notes got a bit messy at that point, so there is a chance I am misrepresenting this).

I am not sure I buy the that information literacy does not address the way we communicate information. Especially since I have come across models that do. For example, the 4th step of the Big6 information literacy model is “Use of Information.” As far as I can tell, that would encompass communication. Furthermore, the ETS, which draws on the ACRL’s definition of information literacy for their tools have a digital assessment test, whose last indicator deals with the ability to communicate.

What does this mean for Information Literacy?

A significant portion of Ipri’s presentation was dedicated to explaining how transliteracy effects information literacy. He asks some really relevant questions. Questions that scholars will be involved in trying to develop responses for. Those questions included:

  • Do information literacy standards provide a framework that allows researchers to capture the new rich interactions technology affords?
  • If not, should the standards be expanded or should information literacy share the floor with transliteracy?

Because I am not familiar enough with transliteracy or the arguments for and against it, I am reluctant to take a solid stance. However, my gut tells me that information literacy can probably remain the umbrella term. This does not dismiss the need for the term transliteracy. However, I don’t see transliteracy as being the all-encompassing term.

What Can Library’s Do?

The speakers believe that transliteracy is concerned with many of the same skills and issues librarians have been concerned with for sometime. Subsequently, information professionals need to support library patrons ability to evaluate and communicate across platforms.Libraries can start by creating spaces for potential library users to develop these skills. Other suggestions included:

  • Change: Newman, like many information science professionals emphasized the importance of being able to keep up with changes in a rapid changing landscape. Being unable to keep and carve out a space for ourselves as things continue to change leaves us at risk of become irrelevant.
  • Support Each Other: Newman also implied that working together and not against each other will help us better position ourselves in an environment where transliteracy can be accomplished.
  • Learn: Caserotti highlighted the importance of using informal opportunities to learn about new tools and how they can be used
  • Connect with Users: Create opportunities that place the library at the center of transliteracy. Hold
    • e-book summer reading program
    • collaborative computer classes
    • seminars that allow participants to create

What Next?

I don’t know about you, but what I have to do now is read more about transliteracy and see if I need to change the language I am using in discussions and research. Thanks to Bobbi Newman, I know exactly where to begin. Are you interested in reading more about transliteracy? Start with the resources listed below:

New to transliteracy? Start here (Short Reading List) (Retrieved from:

Just when I thought I was beginning to wrap my head around information literacy, I am introduced to transliteracy. An interesting concept indeed! But what does it all mean in the larger scheme of things? Many of the ideas expressed in about transliteracy (e.g. communication is distributed across information sources, Wilkinson, 2011) can be said about information literacy.

So, did I get it right? Is information literacy still the over arching term? Do you disagree or agree? Let me know.

3 comments to Transliteracy: Information Literacy by Another Name?

  • Wilk
    July 15, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Reply

    Hi Lassana, thanks for attending the panel.

    To be honest, every time I talk about transliteracy I ask the same question: “Isn’t this just information literacy?” I suppose it depends on whether we’re talking about transliteracy in the weak sense or the strong sense.

    In the weak sense, transliteracy is merely a particular pedagogical approach to teach information literacy. This is the sense I put the most time and energy into, and the sense I intend when I talk about teaching the interactions and focusing on transferable skills. It’s a way for us to break down the conceptual barriers between students’ familiar information skills and the skills needed in the library. This weak sense is just one possible way of getting at information literacy.

    However, in the strong sense, transliteracy is an overarching theory that covers the skills not explicitly covered by information literacy. This is the more popular sense, and my discussion of communicative versus evaluative skills was an attempt to give the strong sense some teeth, so to speak. The distinction I wanted to get across was simply that information literacy typically does not figure into how we teach students to read and write, use a word processor, upload a YouTube video, or post a status update on Facebook. These are strictly communicative skills that obtain regardless of the quality of information being communicated. In info literacy, the nature of the information matters a great deal. Regarding the Big6, it seems to me that the “Use of information” stage is more about extracting information from a source, rather than extracting information from the interaction between several sources. The ACRL standards are a tricky case, and I’m writing something about them that I’ll try to put on the blog next week.

    In any event, I would hope that the weak sense of transliteracy is at least somewhat defensible. As to the strong sense, if information literacy programs do in fact meet all the goals set by the advocates of transliteracy, then I’m happy to stick with the weaker sense.

    • Lassana Magassa
      July 16, 2011 at 7:22 am | Reply

      Greetings Lane,

      I was delighted to attend! Someday it’ll be me up there sharing my knowledge.

      With regards to your comments. First, I’m delighted to hear that you too ask yourself about the “real” differences and that my confusion is not due to me being unfamiliar with the term. Next, with the exception of reading, I would agree that information literacy instruction typically didn’t (but that’s beginning to change) not cover using the tools that you mentioned. Digital literacy would cover the remaining items.

      In terms of reading not being covered in information literacy, I remember quite clearly instructors talking about what to look out before during and immediately after the read process. They stated it would help me accomplish some of the tasks associated with information litearcy.
      The “trans” part of transliteracy is a little more clear now, I think. “Trans” is being used as a label and wireframe to remind people to move between the respective literacies. Yes that’s a crude way of saying it, but that’s how I currently understand it.

      Your interpretation of “Use of Information” is certainly not wrong, however, “extracting information from the interaction between several sources” is forseeable at that stage as well. For example, student x has been assigned a project and goes through several sources of information looking to see if the same message is being conveyed across platforms with the intent being having a well witten essay written at the end of the process.

      I think I’ll stop here. Thank for the feedback.

      PS, I’m looking forward to reading your post that will comment ACRL’s definition of information literacy.

  • A reasonable objection to transliteracy « Libraries and Transliteracy
    August 5, 2011 at 9:42 am | Reply

    […] post, and it is an excellent approach to information literacy. Yet, as Lassana Magassa has pointed out, the fourth Big6 step, “Use of Information” seems to cover transliteracy. Looking at […]

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