New literacies, learning, and libraries: How can frameworks from other fields help us think about the issues?

Using the Computer at the North Greenwood Library (Clearwater, FL) / CC-BY-NC-SA

Using the Computer at the North Greenwood Library: Photo by Flickr user Clearwater Public Library System Photos (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In Brief: In the library world, we may look to other fields to help us make sense of new digital literacies. Their frameworks may offer us new perspectives, challenge our assumptions, or give us greater clarity on the issues. Transliteracy is one non-library-centric framework that has been promoted for this purpose. It has also been critiqued, and I argue we need more debate before we take it as a settled concept in our field. I briefly introduce some alternative frameworks from education and literacy research as a way to move the discussion forward.



The negotiations among kids, parents, educators, and technologists over the shape of youth online participation is also a site of struggle over what counts as legitimate forms of learning and literacy. Any discussion of learning and literacy is unavoidably normative. What counts as learning and literacy is a question of collective values, values that are constantly being contested and negotiated among different social groups. Periods of cultural and technological flux open up new areas of debate about what should count as part of our common culture and literacy.  – From the report of the Digital Youth Project (Ito et al., 2010, p. 23)

Our notions of learning and literacy are in flux. New technologies and new practices clamor for our attention, including an increasing array of social media platforms and mobile devices; new participatory practices, such as gaming and gamification; and new forms of scholarly communication, such as academic blogging and peer review via tweet. Educators, including librarians, have responded to the challenges of 21st century learners by identifying skills, competencies, fluencies and literacies to be taught, but these are also in flux, with the concepts and methods often contested.

Learning and literacy are core values in librarianship. We’re having our own discussions and debates in our workplaces, at conferences, online, and in the literature. Our associations have also weighed in. This year, the American Library Association has published two reports dealing with digital literacy. The report of the Office for Information Technology Policy’s Digital Literacy Task Force (2013) defines digital literacy and discusses public policy as it affects digital literacy and libraries. The Association of College & Research Libraries’ (2013) white paper looks at the intersections between new models of scholarly communication, information literacy, and digital literacy.

We also look to other fields to see how their perspectives and frameworks can inform and enrich our discussions. Librarianship is a relatively small field, and like a small country we need to be aware of the language and culture of our larger neighbors. Frameworks from other fields may enrich our discussions by challenging our assumptions, pointing us in new directions for action, or giving us new ways to communicate with our communities.

In this article, I look at a number of frameworks from other fields that have something to say to us in the library world. A conceptual framework is simply a structure or model that helps us make meaning of issues or phenomena in ways that lead to greater clarity and coherence. A framework can be thought of variously as a lens through which to view the issues; a map of the territory under consideration; or a working tool (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2012). Conceptual frameworks can allow us to step back from the day-to-day to frame issues in a larger context. Alternatively particular frameworks may guide our day-to-day actions and practice.

Even within the same field, different frameworks can map the same territory in different ways. For example, the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards (2000) can be understood as one framework for information literacy in the context of higher education. The SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy (2011) provide an alternative framework for the same area. Unless they rise to the level of standards, frameworks are not fixed and unchanging but rather evolve together with our changing understandings and changing circumstances—and even standards undergo periodic revision. Frameworks from other fields push us to think outside the librarianship box. We can then work elements of what we discover back into our own frameworks.

Transliteracy is one non-library-centric framework that has already been presented to the library world as a way to help us conceptualize the new digital literacies. The brainchild of U.K. new media researcher Sue Thomas, it first emerged in 2007. Thomas and her co-authors define 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 films, to digital social networks” (Thomas, Joseph, Laccetti, Mason, Mills, Perril,& Pullinger, 2007). Academic librarian Tom Ipri (2010) adds that “the essential idea here is that transliteracy is concerned with mapping meaning across different media and not with developing particular literacies about various media.”

Transliteracy has been heavily promoted in the library world over the last few years, with discussion taking place on librarian blogs, particularly the Libraries and Transliteracy blog, in journal articles (Andretta, 2009; Ipri, 2010), in conference presentations, and even in entire conferences. The term has penetrated into all areas of librarianship (although this doesn’t necessarily equate to widespread adoption): public, school, special, and academic librarianship. The idea of transliteracy resonates for many people, who see it as capturing important ideas about the new kinds of communication taking place all around us. The promotion of transliteracy has certainly brought to the fore the issue of how to incorporate the new digital literacies into our practice.

The term has also been critiqued and debated; even its promoters recognize it as divisive. Lane Wilkinson describes a presentation he gave at LOEX in 2011 in which he asked his audience how many people thought transliteracy was a “meaningless buzzword without substance.” According to Wilkinson, half the standing-room-only crowd put up their hands.

For this reason, it can be surprising to see transliteracy being presented as a settled concept in a number of venues, including at the association level. For example, the ACRL (2013) white paper suggests that transliteracy may be useful in understanding the intersection of digital literacy, scholarly communication, and information literacy. The recommendations made by the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards Review Task Force (2012) include incorporating transliteracy into the revised information literacy standards.

There’s a need for further discussion and debate. A key piece missing from the library community’s discussion of transliteracy is any consideration of other possible, alternative frameworks that might provide insight into the issues of new digital literacies. It’s important to remember that transliteracy’s creator, Sue Thomas, is just one of the many thousands currently researching new media and new literacy practices. In addition, transliteracy was introduced to the library world as an emerging concept, something to keep our eyes on (Ipri, 2010). Before we fully embrace transliteracy as a settled concept, it’s worth looking at how it has developed since Thomas first brought forward the idea in 2007.

Most people in the library world, I suspect, know transliteracy through its definition, which has been widely quoted. Thomas and her co-authors (2007) go further, however, and propose transliteracy as a “unifying perspective on what it means to be literate in the twenty–first century.” They stress that it’s not just about digital literacy but “about all communication types across time and culture,” that it’s “an inclusive concept which bridges and connects past, present and, hopefully, future modalities.” Their examples draw on “history, orality, philosophy, literature, and ethnography.” Transliteracy as presented here encompasses everything from forty-thousand-year-old cave paintings and the earliest forms of writing through oral traditions, including non-Western traditions such as the Dreaming songs of the aborigines of Australia, to the problem of Western graphocentrism, as well as blogs, wikis, and media convergence. The authors identify issues for further articles, for example, whether transliteracy is a practice or a way to analyze practice. They also open up transliteracy to other researchers for further development, in particular suggesting a need for ethnographic research into transliteracy.

I’ll come back later in this article to look at how transliteracy has developed since it first emerged in 2007. First, though, I’ll briefly introduce some alternative conceptual frameworks from literacy research and education, two major fields also grappling with the issues raised by new digital literacies—and surely the major fields to consult on issues of literacy.

Which frameworks we choose to draw on matters. Different frameworks raise different issues and lead us to different questions. They also involve different bodies of research. Librarians will get this right away: try searching in Google Scholar on “digital literacy” versus “new literacies” versus “transliteracy.”

Literacy, literacies, New Literacy Studies

Literacy is a complicated topic even before we get to digital literacy and new literacies. There’s no single definition. And it’s actually still a relatively new and evolving term; not that long ago, educators simply spoke of teaching reading and writing (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011).

Literacy can be conceived of as a cognitive process that takes place within an individual, as a set of autonomous skills that can be standardized and tested—in other words, as the ability to read and write. This is still the dominant paradigm for literacy. Digital literacy, too, is often framed in terms of skills. For example, the OITP Task Force (2013) writes that “digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, create and communicate digital information. Basic reading and writing skills are foundational; and true digital literacy requires both cognitive and technical skills” (p.1).

However, literacy can also be conceived of as social and cultural practices situated in particular contexts. Literacy practices are what people do with literacy (Barton & Hamilton, 2000, p. 7). This view, of literacy as sociocultural practices, arose in the last decades of the 20th century as literacy studies took a “social turn” (Gee, 2000). Studies in fields such as linguistics, psychology, and anthropology looked at literacy in different contexts, non-Western as well as Western, and found very different practices. This is where literacy (singular) came to be seen as literacies (multiple). New Literacy Studies (NLS) is an umbrella term for the research, often ethnographic in nature, that looks at literacy as situated practices.

Mills (2010) reviews a decade of NLS studies (1999-2009), 39 studies in total, that take a “digital turn,” applying the NLS lens through ethnographic observation to new digital literacy practices. The research sites include schools as well as online communities and out-of-school practices; they include such practices as anime fan sites, relay writing on microblogging sites, Web quests, and digital movie making.

The Digital Youth Project, a large, three-year ethnographic study of youth’s new media literacy practices, explicitly uses New Literacy Studies as one of its frameworks (Ito et al, 2010, p. 24). The researchers conducted 23 case studies that looked at new media literacy practices from “hanging out” (casual participation in friendship-based activities, e.g. on Facebook) to “geeking out” (intensive participation in interest-based activities, e.g. the creative production involved in augmented gaming).

In NLS, literacies are seen as bound up with issues of identity and ideology. Jim Gee writes of ”discourses,” which he defines as

ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing, that are accepted as instantiations of particular identities … by specific groups…. Discourses are ways of being “people like us”…. Each discourse incorporates taken-for-granted and tacit “theories” about what counts as a “normal” person and the “right” ways to think, feel, and behave. These theories crucially involve viewpoints on the distribution of “social goods” like status, worth, and material goods in society (who should and who shouldn’t have them) (Gee, 2012, pp. 3-4).

Academic or school discourse, for example, which requires particular kinds of academic literacies, has traditionally conferred social goods such as status and jobs. A student’s home and other out-of-school literacies may be very different; in fact, the gap between youth’s everyday literacy practices and their in-school practices may be widening (Ito et al. 2010).

Literacies are seen as embedded in power relations, with the dominant, established literacies in conflict with newer, emerging literacies. It’s not hard to find examples of ideological struggles over literacy, including attempts to ban particular books and struggles over curricula. This lens can be applied to new digital literacies as well. The researchers in the Digital Youth Project see a contest between new and traditional literacies, as reflected in my opening quote. In fact the researchers, without endorsing the idea of the digital native, see an “intergenerational struggle over authority and control over learning and literacy” (Ito et al, p. 14). They add, “Although some of the literacy practices we describe may be keyed to a particular life stage, new media literacies are not necessarily going to ‘grow up’ to conform to the standards of their elders but are likely to be tied to foundational changes in forms of cultural expression” (p. 26).

The NLS lens can be applied to new forms of scholarly communication as well. For example, academic bloggers may get pushback from more traditional scholars. Dan Cohen, now the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America, provides an example from digital humanities (although he doesn’t use the NLS framework himself). After writing a how-to book about digital history on the web, he was disappointed at the resistance it faced. He is now writing a new book, The Ivory Tower and the Web. In an online draft of the first chapter, he looks at the academy’s non-acceptance of new media practices and sees inertia, conservatism, and prejudice. To some extent, he sees this as understandable: “Almost by definition, academics have gotten to where they are by playing a highly scripted game extremely well. That means understanding and following self-reinforcing rules for success.” This involves tenure, for example, as a social good.

Cohen sees his book as a polemic to convince the hesitant:

 We have done far less than we should have by this point in imagining and enacting what academic work and communication might look like if it was digital first. But the web and the academy are not doomed to an inevitable clash of cultures. Viewed properly, the open web is perfectly in line with the fundamental academic goals of research, sharing of knowledge, and meritocracy.


The multiliteracies framework takes the concept of multiple literacies and asks what it means for pedagogy. This framework came out of discussions of the New London Group (1996), a group of ten educators including Gee, Gunther Kress, Allan Luke, and Courtney Cazden.  Their original article was reprinted in a seminal collection pulled together by two of the Group members, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis (2000), a collection that continues to be cited today. This article has been described as “the central manifesto of the new literacies movement” (Leander & Boldt, 2012, p. 22).

The New London Group saw existing literacy pedagogy as a “carefully restricted project—restricted to formalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule-governed forms of the language.” They proposed broadening this pedagogy to include “negotiating a multiplicity of discourses” (p. 61), a multiplicity having two main aspects. One aspect is the increasing social, cultural, and linguistic diversity of a globalized society—today’s shifting communications landscape isn’t only about technology. The other aspect is the increasing multiplicity of communications channels and media stemming from the rise of digital technologies, with texts becoming increasing multimodal, that is, drawing on modes such as visual or audio, as well as linguistic modes. Kalantzis and Cope (2012), who have further developed the framework, summarize these two aspects as the two “multis” of multiliteracies: multi-contextual and multimodal (for more on multimodality, see the next section).

The New London Group (1996) proposed changing both the content (the “what”) and the form (the “how”) of literacy pedagogy (p. 63). Kalantzis and Cope (2012) outline a series of guiding questions for the multiliteracies approach to pedagogy that could be useful to us in the library world. These include:

  • What and how do we teach in the context of enormous changes to the modes and media of communication?
  • How do we promote understandings about literacy relevant to our contemporary times when our ways of making meanings are changing so radically?
  • If literacy has traditionally been understood to be two of the three “basics” (the proverbial three “r”s of reading, writing and arithmetic), what might be considered “basic” today?
  • What is the continuing role of the traditional basics, and how do these connect with “new basics”? (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012, pp. 2-3)

What are the new basics for information literacy? One place to start might be the reports of Project Information Literacy, which look at the information behavior of college students in the digital age. Another place might be the area of threshold concepts, that is, identifying the key big ideas in information literacy that could transform student learning (Townsend, Brunetti, & Hofer, 2011). Barbara Fister identifies the tacit knowledge we hold about information and how it works that our students may not share. What does it mean for our teaching if, for example, our students have no experience of print-based newspapers or journals?

More broadly, the New London Group saw transforming literacy pedagogy as part of a “larger social project” (p. 72). They wrote that “literacy educators and students must see themselves as active participants in social change, as learners and students who can be active designers—makers—of social futures” (p. 64). This is also reflected in Kalantzis and Cope’s (2012) questions:

  • How do we enable all learners to make and participate in meanings that will enable them, as children and later as adults, to be effective and fulfilled members of society; to make a contribution to society according to their interests and abilities; and to receive in return the benefits society offers?
  • How do we redress the ongoing and systemic inequalities in literacy learning and broader educational outcomes for learners from different backgrounds and with different dispositions? (p. 2)

Issues of inequality speak to the core values of librarianship. The OITP Task Force (2013) reminds us of libraries’ work towards not just digital access, but also digital inclusion.


Multimodality, which Gee identifies as a new interdisciplinary field of study, deals with meaning-making across different representational modes, including language both written and spoken, as well as image, movement, sound, gesture, posture, and facial expression. Gunther Kress, the leading theorist of multimodality, sees a shift from the dominance of “the constellation of mode of writing and medium of book/page” to the dominance of “the constellation of mode of image and medium of screen” (Kress, 2004). On the screen, text is secondary to image; it is image that shapes the design.

Different modes have different characteristics and take on different roles in communicating. For researchers, multimodal research provides a fine-grained method of analyzing digital data and environments. For creators, design and choice are key issues: they decide which modes to use in communicating meaning in a particular context to a particular audience (Kress, 2004).

For educators, multimodality has profound implications for the teaching of  “reading” and “writing” for the 21st century. As Jewitt (2005) writes, “As words fly onto the computer screen, revolve, and dissolve, image, sound, and movement enter school classrooms in ‘new’ and significant ways, ways that reconfigure the relationship of image and word.” She looks at “the changing role of writing on screen, in particular how the visual character of writing and the increasingly dominant role of image unsettle and decentre the predominance of word” (p. 315) and argues that school literacy must take into account the multimodal environment of the wider world.

Even in formal scholarly communication, the range of modes now available can go beyond written text. For instance, the online journal JoVE (Journal of Video Experiments) features peer-reviewed videos. My colleague Heather Cunningham, has been looking at new media in traditional medical journals, and has found peer-reviewed images, podcasts, videos, and interactive quizzes, though she has also found problems of discovery and access.

There is a large and growing body of literature on multimodality, including work on multimodal composition, storytelling, texts, reading, literacy, research, and analysis. Practitioner researchers have described and analyzed classroom literacy practices incorporating multimodality (for example, Vasudevan, Schultz, & Bateman, 2010; Miller & McVee, 2012). Multimodality has been used as a lens to analyze new forms of text (for example, Simon, Acosta & Houtman (2014) use an academic blog as data). The Routledge handbook of multimodal analysis (Jewitt, 2009) presents a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches.

Although often associated with digital texts, multimodality also takes into account communication beyond the digital. Kress, for example, has conducted research on multimodality in both the classroom and the operating theater.

New literacies

New literacies is a term often used in the field of education, particularly in literacy studies, for various digital literacy practices. A key concept here is that literacy is no longer a stable entity, but rather something that is continuously transforming:

 To have been literate yesterday, in a world defined primarily by relatively static book technologies, does not ensure that one is fully literate today where we encounter new technologies…. To be literate tomorrow will be defined by even newer technologies that have yet to appear and even newer discourses and social practices that will be created to meet future needs. Thus, when we speak of new literacies, we mean that literacy is not just new today; it becomes new every day of our lives (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, Castek, & Henry, 2013, p. 1150).

Leu et al. (2013) use the term “deictic” to describe new literacies; something that is deictic changes its meaning from day to day. For example, at this moment the word “tomorrow” refers to a specific date on the calendar. In 24 hours, it will refer to a different date. So, too, with the word “literacy”; what it references is constantly changing.

So what was considered a new literacy yesterday may not be new today; what’s new today may not be so new tomorrow. Lankshear and Knobel (2011) emphasize this does not mean new in the sense of the latest fad, but rather new in the sense of shifting paradigms. They see new literacies as needing both new “technical stuff” (this generally means digital) and new “ethos stuff”—a new mindset, new values (p. 28). In the category of new “ethos stuff”, they see new literacies as, for example, more participatory, collaborative, and distributed; less published, individuated, author-centric, or expert-dominated. Another key difference is the greater use of multimodal forms of expression that include images, video, and sound with written text. Eventually, however, the new “ethos stuff” will become sufficiently established to become conventional, and then that literacy will no longer be new.

When looking at digital technologies, we should always ask “what is new here?” suggests Neil Selwyn (2012), who has extensively researched new media and technology use in education. The flipside of “what’s new?” is “what’s still conventional?”  These are simple but surprisingly useful and clarifying questions when looking at any new literacy practices.

Consider Wikipedia. It’s a crowdsourced wiki (new), but because it is still an encyclopedia (conventional), it should be treated by college students like any other encyclopedia: use it for background and references (with maybe some extra care), but generally avoid quoting from it. I’m constantly surprised how many students know the “rule” not to quote Wikipedia, but can’t explain why this “rule” exists. If we want to dig deeper, we can look at issues like an encyclopedia’s claims to neutrality and authority and how these change (or remain stable), or how an encyclopedia constructs knowledge.

As another example, consider scholarly journal articles. The initial move from print to digital was enormously disruptive to libraries, but today a journal article published as a PDF in a commercially published online journal looks entirely conventional. Open Access journals often look and feel equally conventional, maybe as a way to be taken seriously as scholarly journals, but Open Access itself is still new “ethos stuff” and remains disruptive. Going further afield, we may find hybrid forms: blog-journals like In the Library with the Lead Pipe; journals that feature editor-selected blog posts, such as Digital Humanities Now; forms like the “blessay”, Dan Cohen’s coinage for a hybrid blog post-essay. We may find open peer review or the Open Scholar, whose work at all stages is fully open source.

New “ethos stuff” also encompasses new skills or fluencies, such as Henry Jenkins’s (2006) list of the social skills needed within a participatory culture. He writes, “The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking.These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom” (p. 4). His list includes play, simulation, multitasking, and transmedia navigation. Several relate to information literacy (although the term isn’t used), particularly judgement, or the ability to evaluate sources; appropriation, or the remix of cultural materials; and networking, the ability to “search for, synthesize, and disseminate information” (p. 90).  Although Jenkins gives many suggestions for ways educators can promote these skills, librarians, sadly, are only referenced in the context of traditional gatekeeping functions that are seen as no longer appropriate in the online environment.

The question remains of what to do with these continuously transforming literacies in our practices. In education, the focus is on what happens in the classroom, discussions that have relevance for many librarians. Leu et al. (2013) see a more important but changing role for teachers in an environment where no single person can expect to keep up with all the new literacies, so “teachers will increasingly become orchestrators of learning contexts rather than dispensers of literacy skills” (p. 1163). Students may take the lead; I could see librarians taking the lead as well. And surely we have an important role to play in what Leu et al. call the “new literacies of online research and comprehension.” Unfortunately, these authors discuss online research and comprehension at length (pp. 1163-69) without once referencing information literacy, though they reference related concepts such as media literacy and critical literacy.

As can be seen in this section, the language around new literacies can often seem uncritically utopian. Neil Selwyn (2011) argues that researchers in the areas of media, education, and technology too often tell optimistic stories of how technology could be used, focusing on “‘state-of-the art’ rather than ‘state-of-the-actual’” (p. 211), possibly because they themselves are high-tech early adopters. He urges researchers to focus more on everyday stories in order to tell the whole story.

Frameworks “in conversation”

I’ve presented these frameworks separately, but in practice the theorists, researchers and practitioners developing or drawing on these frameworks are often “in conversation.”  Gee (2010) for example talks of “new literacies studies” (just to further confuse the terminology), that is, new literacies studied through a New Literacy Studies lens as sociocultural practices. Rowsell, Kress, Pahl, and Street (2013) argue for New Literacy Studies and multimodality as complementary perspectives.

Leu et al. (2013) propose New Literacies (uppercase) as a new unifying theory that brings together all the theories of new literacies (lowercase), including multiliteracies, multimodality, and New Literacy Studies. They call for researchers in various traditions to collaborate on a broader theory of New LIteracies. So far, they have identified eight central principles:

  1. The Internet is this generation’s defining technology for literacy and learning within our global community.
  2. The Internet and related technologies require additional new literacies to fully access their potential.
  3. New literacies are deictic.
  4. New literacies are multiple, multimodal, and multifaceted.
  5. Critical literacies are central to new literacies.
  6. New forms of strategic knowledge are required with new literacies.
  7. New social practices are a central element of New Literacies.
  8. Teachers become more important, though their role changes, within a new literacy classroom. (Leu et al., 2013, p. 1158)

The pieces sit together somewhat uneasily. In particular, critical literacies (practices that interrogate the social and historical contexts of texts; Christensen, 1999) seem to have been included in a halfhearted and apparently uncritical manner. The critical component is central to New Literacy Studies and multiliteracies, but here it’s poorly integrated and developed. Although New Literacies (uppercase) aims to draw on multiple perspectives, it’s clearly still a work in progress.

It’s interesting to note that in explaining “New forms of strategic knowledge,” the authors write, “new literacies will often be defined around the strategic knowledge central to the effective use of information within rich and complexly networked environments” (p. 1162)—possibly an opportunity for librarians, as information literacy experts, to join the conversation?

Information literacy is present in the Handbook of research on new literacies, where U.K. media researchers Livingstone, Van Couvering, and Thumin (2008) discuss a possible convergence of information literacy and media literacy. They first contrast the two literacy traditions:

In general, the media literacy tradition stresses the understanding, comprehension, critique and creation of media materials, whereas the information literacy tradition stresses the identification, location, evaluation and use of information materials. Metaphorically, we might say that media literacy sees media as a lens or window through which to view the world and express oneself, while information literacy sees information as a tool with which to act upon the world…. Both metaphors are problematic…. The research questions asked within the two traditions also differ. Information literacy research has attended more to questions of access, while media literacy research has paid more attention to questions of understanding. (p. 5)….

While they address broadly the same theme, media literacy and information literacy do so from different standpoints. The language of skills and abilities, everywhere to be found in information literacy discussions, is rarely present in media studies, being considered psychologically reductionist, neglecting the important ways in which actions are culturally and historically conditioned. (p. 7)

It’s interesting and useful to see our framework, information literacy, from an outside perspective. The authors see a convergence already happening, and map a way forward for research in new literacies in which information literacy and media research work together in a complementary manner.

Transliteracy reconsidered

If we consider transliteracy alongside these other frameworks, we can see that there’s considerable overlap, particularly with multimodality, but also with the ethnographic approach of New Literacy Studies.

Thomas sees transliteracy as providing a “unifying perspective on what it means to be literate in the twenty–first century,” but it’s unclear how transliteracy would unify or mesh with these other frameworks. Transliteracy seems at once too broad and too narrow. Too broad because it tries to encompass every aspect of human communication’s past, present, and future. Too narrow because it fails to take into account issues of importance to the library world, such as pedagogy and digital inclusion.

It’s also unclear what structure Thomas proposes within her work that would provide clarity and coherence. How does her “messiness and uncertainty” help us think through the issues? Does it generate fruitful questions? Does it point us to action?

Transliteracy was introduced to the library world as an emerging concept. Given the deictic nature of new literacies, new concepts and theories are constantly emerging and it can be difficult to determine which will take hold and which will fade away. So how has transliteracy developed since 2007, when Thomas first introduced the term?

There were early nibbles of interest from some literacy researchers (e.g. Alvermann, 2008), but this interest seems to have faded (Alvermann, for example, is co-editor of the volume in which the Leu et al. article appears). Thomas’s 2007 article invited other researchers to develop the concept of transliteracy, but this call has largely gone unanswered. Although Thomas says that she was inspired by Alan Liu’s research on online reading, which he calls transliteracies, there is no further connection between their work. Thomas herself has established no research agenda around transliteracy, and the further articles she promised have failed to materialize. In practice, the term transliteracy hasn’t gained significant traction anywhere but the library world. Check out Google Scholar for confirmation; Thomas herself acknowledges the library world for being “the first to pick up the baton” on transliteracy.

This raises new issues. Do we really want to adopt a term not recognized by people in other fields? Librarians want to take part in the larger debates and discussions on new digital literacies together with educators, researchers, and policy makers. Our frameworks also have something to say to other fields, but it sometimes feels as if the library world is invisible. I’ve given examples above where researchers were oblivious to a possible role for librarians or for information literacy. The OITP Task Force (2013) also notes that “the role libraries play in digital literacy is not always recognized and valued, even within institutions or communities in which libraries are embedded—an issue of invisibility” (p. 20). Surely we’ll communicate better with our peer communities if we’re not using a term and a framework that no one understands, that separates us from the conversation and muffles our voice.

Do we really want to continue to carry the baton for transliteracy? Or might we want to look at and draw on some alternative conceptual frameworks from other fields? It’s not a settled issue at all.


I’d like to thank my reviewers, Rob Simon of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and Brett Bonfield of In the Library with the Lead Pipe, for all their helpful comments and for pushing me to make this a better article. They made open peer review a pleasure. I’d also like to thank ITLWTLP editor Erin Dorney for her assistance at the earlier stages of the submission process.

References and Further Reading

Alvermann, D. (2008). Why bother theorizing adolescents’ online literacies for classroom practice and research? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52 (September), 8–19. doi:10.1598/JAAL.52.1.2

Barton, D. & Hamilton, M. (2000). Literacy practices. In D. Barton, M. Hamilton, & R. Ivanic (Eds.), Situated literacies: Reading and writing in context. London, UK: Routledge.

 Christensen, L.M. (1999). Critical literacy: Teaching reading, writing and outrage. In C. Edelsky (Ed.), Making justice our project: Teachers working towards critical whole language practice. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Cope, B. & Kalntzis, M. (Eds.) (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. New York, NY: Routledge.

Gee, J.P. (2000). The New Literacy Studies: From ‘socially situated’ to the work of the social. In D. Barton, M. Hamilton, and R. Ivanic (Eds.), Situated literacies: Reading and writing in context. London, UK: Routledge.

Gee, J. (2010). A situated-sociocultural approach to literacy and technology. In E.A. Baker (Ed.), The new literacies: Multiple perspectives on research. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Gee, J. P. (2012). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (4th ed.). London: Routledge.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., . . . Tripp, L.. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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42 Responses

  1. Hi Eveline; excellent article! And thanks for linking back to my blog. Though, you may notice that I haven’t written or presented on transliteracy since late 2011. What gives?

    Well, looking over my old posts and presentations, my angle was pretty consistent: transliteracy is simply about making sure that what we teach when we teach information literacy will transfer across platforms and media. That is, we should teach information literacy concepts across many media, not just with respect to library resources. It sounds obvious and, indeed, many library instructors criticized transliteracy for being otherwise obvious. But, to many librarians, the idea of incorporating multiple media in library instruction was (and still is) novel. As far as I’m concerned, transliteracy is and has been a fairly simple, relatively obvious, and rather narrow little concept that we can add to our toolbox and then move on. It was never a movement. Or, it shouldn’t have been.

    So, the fact that transliteracy was mentioned in the ACRL standards revision really bothered me for precisely the reasons you covered and, when I was drafted to the committee (to be fair, probably only because of my involvement in transliteracy), I made it clear that I didn’t want transliteracy to appear in the revised standards. Don’t worry, it won’t. :-)

    1. Eveline Houtman

      Hi Lane, thanks for your comments! Interesting that you’ve moved away from transliteracy, the term at least.

      Besides blog posts, I’ve also read your 2012 article on transliteracy in Information Literacy Beyond Web 2.0, where you derive pedagogical principles from transliteracy and use these in your workplace. You also divide literacy into descriptive (transliteracy) and evaluative (information literacy). What are your thoughts now on these ideas? Not to put you on the spot, but because I’m genuinely curious.

      As for the ACRL standards, I attended the webinar this week and I gather the focus is now on metaliteracy. I haven’t looked at this in any detail, so I’m not commenting on the substance. However, I’m concerned that the creators of metaliteracy also draw on transliteracy. For example, Sue Thomas will speak on transliteracy at the Metaliteracy MOOC.

      1. Given how many putative “literacies” are discussed in the library literature, I still think it helps to separate them into those that deal with information use (descriptive, though I now prefer “communicative” literacies) and those that deal with information evaluation (evaluative). It just seems to me that when we talk about print, computer, digital, or visual literacies we’re talking about skills that are categorically different than the higher-order skills discussed in information, media, or critical literacies. I suppose my thinking has evolved a little insofar as I now believe that the communicative literacies are first-order, and the evaluative literacies are second-order.

        As to metaliteracy, I appreciate the idea that information literate learners ought to be reflective about their information habits, though I’m unsure that metaliteracy is sufficiently distinct from more general critical thinking skills. Personally, I don’t really follow the trans/metaliteracy discussions anymore. If anything, I’ve learned that my understanding of trans/metaliteracy is far more restricted than that of trans/metaliteracy aficionados.

        Just give it a year and we’ll have a new (prefix)literacy to argue about. Postliteracy? Protoliteracy? Autoliteracy? Ethnoliteracy? I guarantee it.

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