The Whole Elephant: librarians arguing about transliteracy

This year conversation about transliteracy has really taken off amongst North American librarians. Bobbi Newman's work  initiated a lot of interest resulting in a great collaborative blog Libraries and Transliteracy  and gave rise to many other blog posts and discussions which come through to me almost every day via Google Alerts. Recently Google brought me a discussion on David Rothman's post  Commensurable Nonsense (Transliteracy) which starts "It is entirely possible that I’m just dense, but everything I’ve read recently about libraries and “transliteracy” seems like nonsense to me." That post has set off a long argument which seems to involve just about every US-library-related name I've come across in the last year, and it continues in the comments to a follow-up post.

This is great, because when the term was first developed here at the Institute of Creative Technologies we knew we could not find all the answers but we  felt sure that others would take it up and bring new insights we had not been able to imagine ourselves. However, most of the conversations I have read around libraries and transliteracy tend to be internal facing within the community, with few references to the Transliteracy Research Group blog, so I would like to recommend it as an excellent source of new transliteracy thinking across many perspectives and subjects. As it happens, the library world has been the first to take up the baton, but it could have come from any number of other disciplines as our collaborative blog demonstrates, and it's important to keep that diversity going.

Elephant-car-404a_670724c In my view, transliteracy is a bit like the story about the blind men and the elephant, where the elephant = massive changes to the way we understand the dynamics of communication media. Everyone encounters individual aspects of the beast and applies their own meaning, whether the topic is talking face-to-face, on TV, on Skype on your iPhone, or via an aboriginal campfire story. Or whether it is written in newspapers, carved onto tablets, typed into email or copied by hand (with mistakes) into parchment scrolls. Or whether it is read in a book, on a poster, a website, or from the smoke-trail of a plane. Or in body language, via touching, dancing, clapping or simple gesture. I could go on and on. But few realise the enormity of the whole animal.

All of this makes transliteracy very hard to pin down, and the predicament is made worse by the fact that this elephant is also a shape-shifter. For example,  ten years ago we had no idea of how important the literacy of using a cellphone would become, or that it would help regions like Africa deal with the hurdle of desktop computing by jumping over it all together and going straight to mobile. Seeing the whole elephant is about realising that ALL of these are interconnected and can be understood in relation to each other through history, culture and context.

So transliteracy is a shape-shifting eco-system of behaviours and it is probably neither possible nor desirable for anyone to understand enough to know the whole elephant. The vital thing is to remember it is always there and in constant motion. This means recognising the limits of your own knowledge and acceptng a degree of messiness and uncertainty.

I appreciate that some people are uncomfortable with that and prefer to use concepts which are locked down and straightforward, but that's not likely to happen with transliteracy and could even diminish its flexible strength.  Those who need that kind of tool should probably look for something else. But I hope they will occasionally set aside a moment or two to consider the elephant in all its complexity.

Photo Source: Daily Telegraph

Story Gardens: 3-D, immersive, interactive, social and offline

During our MA studies, it was suggested that digital storytelling is non-linear whereas text-based storytelling is linear, and that engaging with online stories is immersive, active, interactive and social, as opposed to offline reading which is less immersive, relatively passive and often solitary.

Those of us who since childhood have known the pleasures of immersing ourselves in a book, imagining our own versions of scenes described, placing ourselves in characters’ shoes, and engaging our friends in repeated acting out of the stories in our own gardens or living rooms (accepting with good or bad humour the inevitable story variations that arise when actors, props and locations do not exquisitely reflect the text), initially found it hard to accept these distinctions.

In one online discussion with classmates, I said,

I was quite startled to realise that … new media art might be defined by non-linear narratives. Is it always a requirement that the reader not be offered, or be able to choose not to follow, a linear storyline? … when I think about the interactive possibilities of the new media, I can see ways to engage the reader and enable them to contribute, but still have them follow a narrative chosen by the writer.

I went on to say,

I think of the non-linear approach as more ‘poetic’, in the sense of the genre of poetry. The best way to engage with this kind of work is in a meditative frame of mind, where one takes the time to dwell with sounds, images and associations and follow these imaginatively. A poem may, of course, have a strong narrative structure, but much of the pleasure if offers is found ‘along the way’, before one reaches the conclusion or the resolution of any ‘plot’. Even in a linear story, attempts to evoke the emotions and perceptions of characters or of the reader may create ‘poetic’ moments during the story. If one maximizes these moments and reduces the linking narrative, even to the point where it is implied rather than described, one may produce a relatively ‘non-linear’ story (although the idea of story inevitably contains linearity).  I suppose that this is my perception of how Inanimate Alice works. There is a linear chronology, but this is suggested rather than detailed, and my experience as the reader is of poetic moments at intervals along that chronology.

This was my limited view of new media’s potential at the time and, of course, it turned out that there was some sense in what our teachers were saying and we learned to identify and value the different kind of immersion, as well as the relative autonomy, creative freedom and social discourse offered to the reader by many online stories.

However, I still felt that these comparisons, necessary though they might be, could devalue the power of text-based stories. I longed to hold on to them while still embracing video games, MMOGs, cross-media narratives and all the other online possibilities… I did not want the new literacies to supplant the old.  Thus, I was delighted when a recent visit to a Story Garden (“Gan Sipur”) in Israel suggested a way of creating and maintaining a transliterate approach to the enjoyment of stories.

Holon, a large city south of and adjacent to Tel Aviv, has 31 of these Story Gardens. Along with the Children’s Museum, the Mediatheque Cultural Center and various other youth-friendly initiatives, they contribute to Holon’s growing reputation as a “children’s city”. Hana Herzman, managing director of Holon Municipality, and Moti Sasson, Mayor of Holon, are credited with originating and driving the development of the Story Gardens project. They explain the concept further in this video:

Story Gardens of Holon (view on YouTube)

In other words, Story Gardens are landscaped sculpture installations where the sculptures are characters, objects or abstract representations of thoughts and emotions from well-loved children’s stories.

Each garden (there may be several within a park) is a visually identifiable, cohesive space for one particular story, but offering unlimited points of access and egress.  A path suggests the author’s original linear progress through the story, but nothing prevents the experiencer from being attracted to or seeking out alternative routes through the story.

Thematic and aesthetic cohesion for a particular story is established by having one sculptor per story, so only one artist works with a particular writer or text to interpret that story, but these unique story gardens are then united by tasteful, spacious landscaping in and between each “storyverse”, as though an editor had placed them in an anthology. See some more examples in Yair Karelic’s photos here:

Holon’s Story Gardens (1 of 2)

Holon’s Story Gardens (2 of 2)

Besides the simple pleasures of experiencing the gardens themselves, from an analytical point of view, the collaborative creation and the confluence of literacies here is wonderful.  In creating a story garden, an author’s text is interpreted by a selection committee, a sculptor, and architects, environmental planners and engineers (often in live discussion with the author), and then re-interpreted with great satisfaction by teachers, parents, grandparents and, most importantly, by the children at whom the entire exercise is aimed.  And taking transliteracy a step further… some of the stories have even morphed their way into the world of philately through photos of the sculptures!

And the text is never far from the story experience, despite its outdoor, 3-D, immersive, flexible and very social nature: apparently the most popular books in Holon are those featured in the Story Gardens. They are borrowed from the Mediatheque library and are taken to the gardens to be read aloud or home to be enjoyed again, by parents, teachers and children.

In a recent wide-ranging post, Reading in the Digital Age or Reading How We’ve Always Read, Kassia Krozser of Booksquare muses most engagingly on the technological developments required to facilitate social reading in the online environment, but what struck me is her assertion that reading has been a social activity for much longer than it has been a solitary one. She reminds us that

Social reading is normal reading. …  Even after the invention of the Gutenberg press, the possession of books was outside the reach of most people. …. The tradition of people reading to each other remains alive and well. …  It wasn’t until mass market books became available that reading, as we know it, was identified as a (almost-solely) solitary activity (overall literacy rates had to catch up as well, but that’s another issue).

I sometimes think of reading as “story absorption” to remind myself that stories were not always bound in books, but I am also glad that, at this point in the evolution of storytelling, when “wreading” happens in a Story Garden (because analysis, comment, reinterpretation and embellishment are inevitable parts of creation and of play), texts may still be part of the discussion.

Magpie Storytelling


I have recently been experimenting with an exciting new tool called Storify. This allows you to collect bits and pieces of content from around the web and weave it into a narrative. You can use tweets, images, slideshows, blog posts or web pages as artefacts within your narrative to illustrate, provide dialogue and create different textures of experience within one platform.

So far I have only used this journalistically in my capacity as an event amplifier to pull together conference materials and audience responses, as in this example:

See the full story at

Here, I am using Storify as a curation tool to bring together disparate materials which all relate to the same story. I can add a commentary around these materials to contextualise them and make direct comparisons between sources without fragmenting navigation. This type of curation tool is effectively making snippets of the web into objects or props that can be collected by a magpie storyteller, always on the look out for shiny things, and represented.

As I consider the reading experience this presents, I find myself wondering what these web artefacts lose by removing them from their context? How much of transliteracy is about contextual indicators around a unit of communicative material? Some web artefacts can stand on their own and are regularly embedded into other contexts, but others may lose clues to their interpretation, making it harder for someone who is not a competent reader to deduce meaning or make a trust judgement about the message being conveyed.


From a curatorial perspective, Storify is very much like running your own museum: you get to decide what to present, what significance to give it and how to weave it into a story in the context with the other objects in your collection. As a storytelling platform, it has the potential to incorporate the key ingredients of action (videos, interactive slideshows, flash animation), description and dialogue (embedded tweets) in a graphical way more akin to poetry.

I can certainly see potential for this type of tool as a way of helping people to develop familiarity with different types of online literacy within a narrative context, without the need to move around between different platforms and sites with competing skills requirements. It may also be useful for teaching about the different elements of a narrative, the balance between those elements and different ways in which the pace of the reading experience can be changed using different types of media in an interactive way.

I have written more about how Storify works in practice and the role it could play in communicating conference content here