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

2 thoughts on “The Whole Elephant: librarians arguing about transliteracy

  1. The numbers give a certain indication as to why the TRG blog isn’t cited in the US-library-based discussion. For instance, just the L&T blog has posted 163 items (often directly related to libraries) since it started on February 9, 2010. In the same time period this blog has only output 42 items. Among those 42 items were tweet commentaries, job postings, and other administrative items; so the actual level of discussion-worthy posts is less than 35. Of those, at least I’ve found, the content is often only tangentially-related to discussing transliteracy. As such, I think the level of citation of TRG is entirely commensurate.
    The elephant in the room: the analogy to the original Jain/Buddhist story quickly fell apart to comply with the realities of transliteracy. A shape-shifting elephant that some people can see sometimes but that others can’t? I think this confusing ambiguity is exactly why American librarians have taken to arguing.
    Under what definition of “communication medium” are Skype-on-an-iPhone and body language meaningfully comparable media, for instance? Given that transliteracy is an open source concept, I’d like to formally ask that my concerns (and proposed changes to the working definition) be addressed:
    Thank you and Happy New Year!

  2. Hi Sue – Thank you for weighing in our discussion. You’ve managed to stress the key points I felt many missed so much more eloquently than I did.
    Happy 2011!

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