Response to Eveline Houtman – Lonely at the front? We need an International Transliteracy Network

Libraries and Transliteracy totebag by Bobbi Newman

Eveline Houtman at Robarts Library, University of Toronto, has written a very detailed overview of the progress of transliteracy since I and my colleagues published the first paper on it in 2007. In New literacies, learning, and libraries: How can frameworks from other fields help us think about the issues? she observes that today’s leading promulgators of the concept have come from the library community, and asks “Do we really want to adopt a term not recognized by people in other fields?” She goes on to say that although “librarians want to take part in the larger debates and discussions on new digital literacies together with educators, researchers, and policy makers… it sometimes feels as if the library world is invisible”.  She writes “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” and concludes with the question “Do we really want to continue to carry the baton for transliteracy?”

I empathise with her frustration but she’s not correct. The term is recognised by people in other fields, but it’s true that since many are working in isolation she may not be aware of them. I would also ask that librarians not be daunted, since in my experience they are very often the first people to recognise new trends in information technology. After all, librarians, you are working at the coal-face with real people, whereas many theorists are not. They rely on the academic echo chamber, whereas you know the practical day-to-day realities. So don’t be down-hearted if you’re lonely at the front, you’re still at the front!

Although quite a few people worldwide are working on transliteracy they often don’t know about each other. In fact last year Kate Pullinger and I applied for AHRC funding to establish an International Transliteracy Network to remedy this, but we were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, I’ve watched from afar as the transliteracy/library movement has grown in the USA, so I’d like to offer some other examples of transliteracy research that may have gone unnoticed.

NB these examples are all personal because (except for the India example)  I learned about them from people contacting me out of the blue.

  • In 2012 I was invited to keynote at a Transliteracy Symposium at the Sorbonne. The team there had already obtained UNESCO funding for a project about transliteracy, young people and social capital. I had no idea they existed until they emailed to invite me. See Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris3, France (oops sorry, dead link, will try to find a better one)
  • The same year, I was also invited to give a transliteracy keynote at Presidency University in Kolkata. On this occasion I did know the conference organiser because he had worked with me in the UK, but now he wanted to bring transliteracy to India. I couldn’t make the trip unfortunately so I gave the talk live over Skype. Presidency University. Kolkata, India
  • I was asked to give a keynote about transliteracy at the 3Ts conference – Transliteracy, Technology, and Teaching – at SUNY Empire State College, Saratoga, New York. I hadn’t heard of that either, but it was their 3rd annual conference! And as it happens I’m giving a live presentation via their Metaliteracy MOOC this coming Monday. Please come if you can, it’s open to all.)
  • And I was contacted by Suzana Sukovic at the University of Sydney, Australia, where she is researching transliteracy and story-telling. We met up in England and had a great conversation about her work.

I have also taught online classes on transliteracy several times for the University of Alberta, and this year I was invited to bring my transliteracy research to membership of the Digital Reading Network, based at Bournemouth University, UK. Beyond this, I’m regularly emailed by people who want to tell me about their transliteracy research.

The examples given above come from Social Science, English, Distance Learning, Media Studies, and Storytelling, and of course there must be many more I don’t know about. So, since there’s as yet no official network, perhaps the people involved in these projects might like to get in touch with each other and ensure that transliteracy does what it is meant to do i.e. break down disciplinary boundaries.

If you want to publicise your own transliteracy project, please add it here in the comments.

And thanks to Eveline Houtman. I think she raises some very good points in her article. This is an important conversation.

PS: after posting this, I reflected on Eveline’s comment that I haven’t published much more about transliteracy. I have, actually, (see my CV) but I’ve been more engaged in actually doing it through various social innovation projects (see CV again). I’m not defensive about this, but just saying that the First Monday essay was a flag in the sand to share for discussion, after which I wanted to do it, not endlessly write about it. Hope that makes sense.

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