Redefining Information Literacy for the Networked World

Please welcome another guest, April Martin!

April L Martin is a second year MLIS student at the  University of Washington.  Her interests include reference, preservation, anti-Googlization, oral history archives, historical research, Facebook scrabble, reading great books, Nina Simone, talking, and long walks on the beach.

One of the hot topics on the HLS wiki was information literacy — Here’s April’s take on redefining it.


As a fundamental of librarianship, information literacy is pretty well established and has managed to remain so through ambiguity, as in the following ALA definition: “To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”   The ambiguity found in this definition allows any informational context to be incorporated or addressed without amendment.

However, traditionally, information literacy is understood to promote the development of skills to critically evaluate information in print and thus resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency of that information. This understanding has led to several accompanying and equally important forms of literacy: visual literacy, audio/video literacy, media literacy, cyberliteracy, digital literacy, the list goes on…

Essentially, these literacies have surfaced because of the overwhelming attitude that information literacy does not specifically address the particulars necessary for competency in understanding information found in non-print formats.  Likewise, the above definition stresses the “ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively” information.

But what about creation?  What about collaboration?  What about dissemination? We are not simply passive learners absorbing and citing the information we find.  As librarians (and future librarians), we do not promote passive learning.  In the age of social media, information sharing is so common and nearly effortless that anyone can be in the information creation and dissemination business which means that we can no longer only look to print publication with evaluative skills.  Obviously.

Enter Transliteracy:

The concept of transliteracy was originally developed by the Transliteracies Project group at the University of California-Santa Barbara.  Initially, the concept addressed online reading and ways of adding value to this experience beyond the addition of special features.  Now, transliteracy is being embraced in the library world as the new way to think about information literacy for the 21st Century.  The ALA Transliteracy Interest Group defines transliteracy as: “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.”  In a recent article for C&RL News, Tom Ipri outlined transliteracy’s appropriateness to the library environment and emphasized the way transliteracy, “explores the participatory nature of new means of communicating, which breaks down barriers between academia and the wider community and calls into question standard notions of what constitutes authority by emphasizing the benefits of knowledge sharing via social networks.”

This article and several subsequent discussions with fellow MLISers has led me to question transliteracy’s ultimate goal: is it de-compartmentalizing scholarship and “everyday life” to legitimize information found on internet sources (like social media) or is it really just challenging the “privilege of print?” How does transliteracy intend to promote the specific evaluative skills necessary to read, write, and interact across media types to incorporate the various literacies listed above?

Enter Metaliteracy:

In the January 2011 issue of C&RL, Thomas P. Mackey and Trudi E. Jacobson introduced metaliteracy as an approach to this issue that “requires us to recognize the relationships between core information literacy competencies and emergent literacy frameworks.  At the same time, however, metaliteracy is a concept that promotes active engagement with emergent technologies and learner-centered production of information.” Through this conceptual approach, differences in skills, technologies, and media formats are not challenged.  Instead, metaliteracy is proposed as an umbrella term where all the literacies can coexist equally while maintaining the importance of critical evaluation for each distinctly.

I must admit that my interpretation of metaliteracy comes from a much less cynical place than my interpretation of transliteracy but I am not quite ready to fully embrace either because both have the potential to be only buzzwords: relevant today; passé tomorrow.

What do you think?  As MLIS students, do you think that information literacy needs to be/can be redefined to meet the rapidly evolving technology environment?  Can information literacy (as a core concept) handle being retooled or is it too closely associated with print to shrug off its limitations?  Should transliteracy and/or metaliteracy enter the librarian lexicon?

Editor’s Note: Check out Libraries and Transliteracy for ongoing discussions on this topic as well.

Editor’s Challenge: Give us your visual understanding of metaliteracy and transliteracy (chart, photo, image, sculpture, etc.)

18 replies

  1. This is a great post–I love that you give useful and engaging descriptions of metaliteracy and transliteracy. I definitely agree that we need to redefine literacy as info pros, because people are exposed to so many information sources and so many formats. That being said, I don’t think throwing print-based literacy out the window is the answer either: despite many arguments over whether print is dying and books will become obsolete, I think it’s very possible to have and enjoy both books and digital media!


  2. As someone with academic interests in information literacy, I find it important that information literacy continue to evolve and be redefined in ways that balance and privilege critical attention to changing information environments and reflective attention to the way we speak about them.

    As an instructor of information literacy, however, I’ve found that these theories do little to guide or develop effective information literacy instruction. Hidden amongst these discussions of literacy, trans-literacy, fill-in-the-blank-literacy, is the real need for librarians to develop pedagogies. To design curriculum. To develop a set of information literacy based best practices for our field.

    I think we do a lot of redefining in this field without digging deeper and looking behind what we’ve said and what we do. I think it is time for a critical awareness and and systematic unpacking of the term literacy in all its iterations.


    • Kudos for being the first to use the word “pedagogy” on HLS! I agree that we can redefine out the wazoo (which seems to be a default postion for libraries and LIS education) but you’re absolutely right that the terms need to go somewhere. Its the Theory vs. Practice argument all over again.

      I’d be interested to see how, after this economic turn and increasing numbers of post-grad, interdisciplinary, even many PhDs, start to flood the LIS world, these sorts of issues will be tackled. I was encouraged to go into LIS by Dr. Wayne Wiegand for the very purpose that I had a critical studies background, and he blatantly told me that is what is needed in librarianship.


      • I’d like to add a kudos to you for mentioning Dr. Wiegand here: he is an awesome mentor and uses the respect he’s gained in the field to guide and encourage others. Now that’s awesome pedagogy! I agree though with both of you, we need to be more critical of the changes we’re making and be able to describe the whys and hows. I think this goes back to why I love the idea of librarians who also have an understanding of the research process, because it allows us to critically examine what we’re doing that works (or doesn’t) and allows us to go step by step and unpack the reasons behind it.


  3. @kateldh – Just this morning, I was considering the need for librarians to do just what you say.

    At first, I was very stand-offish about transliteracy, because it seemed like a buzzword with little new meanings – a repackaging of information literacy for the sake of drawing attention. I’m still figuring it all out, however.

    Here’s how I understand it at this point: I tend to agree with this post at Sense and Reference about the definition of transliteracy (or metaliteracy if you prefer, since it seems like adding “meta” to any term makes it trendier). He says “transliteracy only addresses the rather specific IL area of linguistic competency. That’s all. Information literacy is a a general concept; transliteracy is a specific concept entailed by information literacy…Sure, we already engage in transliteracy, but by giving it a name and discussing it, we can better understand how to incorporate it into our instructional practices when we teach information literacy.”


  4. Courtney, I think April (author of this post) is arguing that Trans and Meta are in fact two different ways of approaching literacy, not interchangeable terms. Regardless, and the buzziness of the terms aside, the point is that we, and thus our patrons and users, need to develop and grow to accomodate a variety of competencies for accessing, interrogating and repurposing information that exists in a variety of formats and across a variety of platforms. Vague enough, for you?

    To me this whole debate ends up moot (and I love talking about Transliteracy) when we can all agree that stuff is out there, we need to organize it, learn how to use it, and help others do the same. Call it what you will… the point is doing stuff with stuff is important, and we’re good at it. amiright?


  5. Great post April. Thank you for your definitions of transliteracy and metaliteracy. This is kind of pathetic but I don’t think in my almost two years of my MLIS program we have discussed either topic, and I’ve taken a pretty varied assortment of classes, including user instruction where we talked about information literacy quite a bit honestly. So this seems to be another topic that I may have to go about teaching myself. But what do people think…how would you integrate these ideas into curriculum? As Micah and Kate have mentioned, perhaps this is just part of that greater idea of theory vs practice…


  6. Oh, I am so glad my post has encouraged such fruitful discussion. Kate and Micah, I think you are both absolutely right about this being a theory vs. practice issue which, of course leads to the concept vs. semantics issue.

    And Nicole, we also didn’t talk about this at my iSchool; well, we did but I brought it up. I think while MLIS programs are increasingly technology focused, they also try to stay true to accepted fundamentals. Even in theory-based programs like the one I am in, there isn’t often enough time to address new (tangentially technology based) concepts or ideas in any sort of meaningful way beyond the superficial introduction. So, yes it is yet another thing we’ll need to teach ourselves but you are interested in life-long learning, right? 😉

    And finally, @Saucurriculumlib: I am not sure transliteracy can be relegated to linguistic competency alone although I really appreciate Wilk’s treatment of this convoluted topic. Thank you so much for sharing.


  7. I’m glad that students are hitting the ground running on these issues!

    For the sake of self-promotion, I’d like to direct you to posts on my blog about transliteracy; especially the one where I show that Information Literacy is a dumb name for good principles, and the other that tweaks the crappy common-use definition of transliteracy.

    WRT to metaliteracy: Latin-wise it should be a literacy of literacies. So, metaliteracy would be something that literacy specialists would possess (and might be something y’all are engaging in now), but would otherwise be a poor term for the practicalities of serving patrons.


  8. Thanks for the great post! I agree with information literacy is often treated in a very print centric manner. I think we can definitely take some cues from the education field and incorporate critical literacy and pedagogy into our practices. It addresses many of the problems with our information literacy standards (ie how we focus on skills instead of info lit as an iterative process), and encourages us to remain learner centered and critical in our practices. There’s a great new book out on the topic that I’m digging right now, Critical Library Instruction: implications for instructional practices, and of course Elmborg’s article (2006)Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice are great places for uprooting what you think you know about info lit and libraries


  9. why is it being assumed somewhere (?)above that information literacy of olden days meant “in print” only?

    have i missed something…reading quickly

    there have always been other types of non media even before digital/web resources etc

    many library schools used to teach courses in non media
    just questions as i read … definitions & perspectives? cheers, KarenW


  10. How can IL be construed as being completely passive? The last part of the definition “ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” sound active to me. All the questions in the italicized paragraph are answered by the verb “use.”

    Transliteracy and Metaliteracy are great ideas, and yes, we should teach them, but the should be used as extensions of Information Literacy, not replacements. before you can get social with the information, you need to know how to find it and how to analyze/deconstruct it, which I see as both falling under the definition of IL.


  11. Not sure what redefinition actually does. Everything I’ve seen about transliteracy has been proffering definitions; no one’s articulated any programmatic tactics for teaching it. I’m not even sure one would need a definition before being able to teach the subject, e.g. isn’t transliteracy the sort of thing web designers need to know, how to juggle video, graphics, typography, various languages (programming and otherwise) in a way which communicates effectively? Right now transliteracy (and certainly metaliteracy) are just terms. Hopefully soon they’ll become practices.


  12. It seems a little clarification is in order here.

    Hi Karen, Because the concept of IL began in a print-only environment, acknowledgment of other literacies is often considered secondary or tacked-on. This secondary status is lamented by advocates for non-print literacies b/c, for example, evaluative skills for visual literacy often differ from those for print literacy.

    And Brian, as I see it, “use” does not equal “create” and does not even address community information sharing made simple through social media.


  13. re: my post above i should have said “non print media” instead of ‘non media’ thinking and typing too quickly…
    I find many of these terms transliteracy for example also very vague when i read it lately in different forums/discussions becoming a new buzzword / trend of theories and practices that have already been out there
    just being looked at with fresh eyes more often.
    metadata still is cataloging etc old/new buzz


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