Defining Transliteracy For Librarians

I have been asked this question many times by librarians so I am way overdue for this post.

Most recently I was asked “….are librarians the people best equipped to define and interpret transliteracy (as opposed to say cognitive scientists, anthropologists, or critical theorists).”  This is a modified version of my original answer.

No librarians are probably not the best people to define and interpret transliteracy. Fortunately we are (or at least I am) not defining it, and we certainly are not the only ones thinking about it.

Where did the word transliteracy come from?
Transliteracies came first, introduced by the Transliteracies Research Project directed by Alan Liu, Dept of English, University of California at Santa Barbara.

“Established in 2005, the Transliteracies Project includes scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and engineering in the University of California system (and in the future other research programs). It will establish working groups to study online reading from different perspectives; bring those groups into conjunction behind a shared technology development initiative; publish research and demonstration software; and train graduate students working at the intersections of the humanistic, social, and technological disciplines.”

Sue Thomas attended the first transliteracies conference and was inspired to form the PART Group (Production and Research in Transliteracy, now

” PART is a small group of researchers based in the Faculty of Humanities but researching in the Institute of Creative Technologies. The IOCT, which opened in 2006, undertakes research work in emerging areas at the intersection of e–Science, the Digital Arts, and Humanities”. – Thomas, et al.

What is transliteracy? Sue Thomas and her group use this working definition

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.

How is transliteracy different from media literacy or digital literacy or technology literacy?

…because it offers a wider analysis of reading, writing and interacting across a range of platforms, tools, media and cultures, transliteracy does not replace, but rather contains, “media literacy” and also “digital literacy.” Thomas, et al

It also includes technological, economic, social, cultural, and global issues (convergence). While it can be easy to tie transliteracy to technology

it is important to note that transliteracy is not just about computer–based materials, but about all communication types across time and culture. It does not privilege one above the other but treats all as of equal value and moves between and across them. Thomas, et al

Is transliteracy new?

No, but it has just been named recently. We are not seeing any new communication styles, only new ways of capturing and sharing those communications.  We are now using video or audio equipment to capture content that could only have been witnessed live.  We are using computers and other technology to share information that we would have previously shared over the phone or face to face.  Getting information from people you know rather than from a reference book or librarian is traditionally information seeking behavior.

What we are witnessing today is thus the acceleration of a trend that has been building for thousands of years. When technologies like alphabets and Internets amplify the right cognitive or social capabilities, old trends take new twists and people build things that never could be built before. – Rheingold (pdf)

Will all this new technology change how we think and act?

Probably. But even the bemoaning of the change in the format in which content or information is shared is not new. Socrates beat us to it when he complained the the written word is

an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. Pluto, The Phaedrus


22 thoughts on “Defining Transliteracy For Librarians

  1. I had never heard the term before, but I think it makes perfect sense. And it makes perfect sense that libraries are taking it up as an important task. Thanks for making the libraryworld aware 🙂


  2. Hello
    finaly I found what I was looking for

    how did you guys found this information??thank you for your blog I found it on Yahoo And I saved it .I like. Please send me updates

    thank you and have a nice day


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