Transliteracy for librarians

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Information (media) literacy wheel ~ where would you put transliteracy?
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 15 June 2017


See also Avatars | Digital literacy | Media literacy | Research Portal for Academic Librarians | Teaching library users

"... 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 ..." — Wikipedia

Transliteracy (related terms: media literacy, metaliteracy) refers to a range of literacies needed to function in the Internet age because of mobile devices, social networking and different forms of media. According to Sue Thomas from DeMontfort University in the UK, 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...". Transliteracy is debated with vigour among educators and new media specialists such as the Production and Research in Transliteracy (PART) group at the Institute of Creative Technologies (IOCT) and librarians such as Bobbi L. Newman, Buffy Hamilton and Marcus Banks. Transliteracy comes from the verb ‘to transliterate’ -- to change (letters, words, etc.) into corresponding characters of another alphabet or language. For example, to transliterate the Greek letter Χ as ch. While not a new concept, transliteracy is an extension of previous ideas and applies the notion of literacy to a range of electronic communication tools. Transliteracy calls for a change of perspective away from print-centred debates (e.g. text bound or analogue) versus the digital. Further, the debate is an attempt to move us towards a more unified ecology that is relevant to reading, writing, interaction and culture in the digital age.

In 2010, transliteracy was described in the CRL News as "...recent terminology gaining currency in the library world. It is a broad term encompassing and transcending many existing concepts. Because transliteracy is not a library-centric concept, many in the profession are unsure what the term means and how it relates to libraries’ instructional mission and to other existing ideas about various literacies. Transliteracy is such a new concept that its working definition is still evolving and many of its tenets can easily be misinterpreted. Although this term is in flux, academic librarians should watch developments in this new field to continually assess and understand what impact it may have on the ways they assist and interact with their patrons and each other."

The American enigmatic digital academic Howard Rheingold is working with Sue Thomas on transliteracy-related projects.


Where does the term originate? In 2005, the Transliteracies conference (Conversation Roundtables on Online Reading) assembled a group of theorists and practitioners from the humanities, arts, social sciences, computer science and industry to discuss reading in the "new media" age. The conference was the beginning of what became the Transliteracies research initiative. ("Research in the Technological, Social, and Cultural Practices of Online Reading," June 17, 2005.)

Synonyms, related terms

Some synonyms related to transliteracy include information literacy, digital literacy and (trans)media literacy. Some media experts use the term meta-literacy (many literacies). There are undoubtedly others.

Is another literacy term needed?

"...research on teaching digital media literacy is in its infancy. Scholarly research moves at a snail’s pace compared with the speed at which information and communication technologies proliferate. The current research does, however, provide ample evidence of the growing need for media literacy instruction that targets the added cognitive demands posed by the Internet..." (David, 2009)

Transliteracy refers to an expansion of literacy skills because of multimedia or to describe the ability to navigate across media, platforms and networks. To support this notion further, think of Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" in the context of social media circa 2011. McLuhan's idea here can be translated roughly as "...each medium has its own language and grammer, asking us to bring our own unique skills, knowledge and abilities to bear on what we are seeing... it codifies reality in a specific way; moreover, different types of media may report on the same event, but create vastly different textual and visual impressions not to mention different messages..." Being able to critique those ideas surely requires more than a text-based literacy of reading and writing.

What seems clear to me is that the distinctive skills we use in navigating ‘new media' are not articulated or fully understood, especially how new media is changing educational practices and literacy. In an effort to understand what exactly is "new", some librarians have suggested that new media is connected to previous literacies - so why come up with a new idea? It seems critical for librarians to pursue a line of questioning that says "what is new about new media, and how does it form the basis of ‘new literacies' and 'new learning’".

The plural ‘transliteracies’ was coined by Alan Liu at the Transcriptions Research Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, and predates transliteracy. Liu spearheaded the Transliteracies Project and explores technological, social, and cultural practices of online reading. In 2006, the UK Production and Research in Transliteracy (PART) group was formed which is based at the Institute of Creative Technologies. The IOCT undertakes research work at the intersection of e–Science, the Digital Arts, and Humanities. It is an interdisciplinary laboratory at the heart of an infrastructure grid that connects significant research centers across the university and providing a faculty–neutral space for transdisciplinary projects.

For a greater understanding of why another literacy term might be needed, listen to Sue Thomas from UK's IOCT speak clearly about it

What makes transliteracy different?

  • transliteracy is potentially a unifying concept for what it means to be literate in the digital age
  • extends transliteracy in 21st century to include multiple discourses, communication platforms and tools
  • calls for change of perspective away from battles over print / digital, moves instead towards unifying ecology of media
  • all literacies are ultimately relevant to reading, writing, interaction and culture, both past and present
  • not intended to replace other terms that refer to print literacy; encompasses both media and digital literacy and (media) convergence
  • not just computer–based materials, but all communication types across time and culture
  • emphasizes lateral approach to historical, contextual and cultural issues / literacies; bridges and connects past, present and future modalities
  • situated in a liminal space between being a new cognitive tool and the recovery of an old one
  • refuses to presuppose any kind of offline/online divide
  • considers ability to understand multiple media and modes of communication and kinds of literacy we apply online


see also Henry Jenkins on Transmedia


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