Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Transliteracy and Staying Positive in the Library

If pressed to choose a side in the debate over transliteracy, I think I ally myself with David Rothman, a medical librarian who’s done some very good work in pushing transliteracy proponents to define their terms. As a recovering social scientist, I recognize the need to flesh out what exactly transliteracy is, and proponents haven’t done that. I also think that the best teachers of information literacy were using some of the techniques of transliteracy, showing patrons how to search across multiple platforms and media, for example, long before this term was coined. And yet, as an information literacy practitioner, I think there is something to transliteracy. The debate over what it is and isn’t is often frustrating, but it’s also helped me accentuate the positive when I teach.

My university doesn’t have an information literacy requirement (well, one school does, but the librarians don’t teach it and we have to put out a lot of metaphorical fires caused by the faculty that do), so the best I can do is often a one-shot, one session (one hour) tutorial in which I discuss library resources and common search behaviors on Google (and how to improve those search behaviors). Over the past semester, the point at which I became aware of the transliteracy debate, I read something that resonated and I’ve taken it with me since: our students are really good at searching. Granted, they’re skilled at using Google, that’s the platform I’m talking about, but it’s something. It’s a start. And I’ve got help, because database vendors are increasingly making their interfaces and platforms look like Google, part of a broader point that Lane Wilkenson makes about “the Library” and “the Internet” blending together (for better and for worse, that’s another post for another time). This positivity is key for me in the classroom. The university draws the far majority of its students from dysfunctional schools and school systems, and the smarter students recognize structural impediments to their success long before they meet me. This makes focusing on what they already can do, what they’re already good at, very important. From there I can teach them a few Google tricks, like how to search just one website, or to search for something with limited copyright restrictions. From there I can show them Encyclopedia Britannica Online in place of Wikipedia. And from there I can show them that gathering information through the library website, databases, and other resources, isn’t that different than what they’re already good at: finding information on something they're interested in via Google.

And that’s not nothing. So beware of buzzwords, and of gurus and false prophets as well, but even then, in the discussion you might learn something useful.


  1. Actually the post you're linking to is by Lane Wilkinson not me.

  2. For the second time today, corrected. Thanks and apologies.

  3. Hey Jake, I just found your blog and think it's great! I too love beer and libraries. I'm actually considering applying to Catholic U.'s library science program. It would be great if you could do some posts about careers in the field, outlook, library science programs, and that sort of stuff. Keep up the good work!


  4. Thanks, Dan. Good luck to you. Our reference librarian went to CUA for library school. Posts on those topics seem to be all the rage, so I think I'll join that conversation soon.