• Anne Pemberton

Like Literally, There Are So Many Literacies

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

Dear Interwebs,

I accept that there are terms we use every day that do not have a singular, universally accepted meaning. That is one of the many challenges of communication and information work. I also accepted long ago that I have naturally curly hair but it continues to piss me off.

I wish that when someone used a term or phrase that has multiple meanings or is unclear to you as the listener or reader that the universe would pause and you would hear RUN DMC clarify that person's definition or conceptualization (ala "not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good" from RUN DMC's "Peter Piper"). But we do not have that magic (yet) and rarely do people stop each other to clarify, "So we are on the same page, how are you defining that?" Although I do find myself asking this in nearly every conversation I have about "digital humanities" but that is just an internal mental block I need to resolve. Anyway, there are some terms and phrases that cause polarizing confusion and sometime lead to strong emotion (e.g. "defund the police"). So while I spend over half an hour a day using my hair straightener, I find myself frustrated that this confusion exists and that it absolutely exists in land of literacies. There is no agreed upon nomenclature to use to frame the discussion of metaliteracy with faculty. It is widely noted in information literacy literature that faculty often have their own definition or have adopted the adopted version of their discipline. You name the literacy and I can find you multiple scholars and researchers even within the same discipline who have different definitions; not necessarily contradictory but still different.

A lot of smart people have written about this and across many disciplines. "Literacy" has its own meanings and contexts of course. The other now-we-have-technology-and-need-to-address-that literacies are discussed in a wide variety of disciplines. There are several studies focused on how, when, and where these literacies are discussed. Stordy's "Taxonomy of Literacies" is a good overview if you are interested:

Stordy, P. (2015). Taxonomy of literacies. Journal of Documentation, 71(3), 456-476.

Note that this article was published in the Journal of Documentation described on the publisher's website as providing "a unique focus on theories, concepts, models, frameworks and philosophies related to documents and recorded knowledge."

To compound the literacies confusion, there also is uncertainty about what we mean by “literacy” versus “competency” versus “fluency.” "Digital literacy" has been upgraded to "digital fluency" and a few authors have recently used "digital agility" as perhaps "digital literacy" on steroids. This is a really helpful piece: “Competent, Literate, Fluent: The What and Why of Digital Initiatives.”

Within each literacy, there are different definitions and models. Information literacy for example:

All of this reminds me of the EBSCO research databases over the years: Academic Search Elite, Premier, Complete, and Ultimate. One of the main reasons I stay in the field is so that I can be one of the first to find out what comes after "Ultimate."

Related, I remember when "Information Commons" and "Learning Commons" became buzzwords in academic libraries. I recall my confusion. "Wait. Spaces that encourage learning and have access to multiple services and resources? Like the entire academic library?" These phrases seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years. In higher education as is the case in life in general, we will always be introduced to buzzwords. Making bingo cards each year to reflect the recent crop of buzzwords can make it a little more tolerable. We will also apparently always have differing definitions for terms that seem universal and well understood.

My colleagues and I have discussed our frustrations induced by the lack of consistent terminology, definitions, and conceptualizations of the habits of mind (like mindfulness!*) and skills that this blog focuses on. I find it can be paralyzing at times. Just when I think we are all under the same thought bubble I realize we aren't. "Wait, are we talking about critical literacy, singular? Critical literacies, plural? Information literacy? Information fluency? Wait, critical information literacy? Digital literacy? Transliteracy? Visual literacy? Data literacy?"

I am not alone though! It has been a huge relief to stumble upon others facing the same challenge.

It does make it challenging to describe a set of skills that is important now and in the future but does not yet have a tried and true label because it is evolving. Nobody in the country or whole world for that matter can even agree upon what college students should be learning and how they should be learning it. But this is the twisted fun of it all! I cannot imagine a job or career that has no evolution or some uncertainty. So I am working on embracing it.

For librarians, "information literacy" has been our umbrella term for many years with some authors tracing its use all the way back to the 1960s with its more wide acceptance in the late 1980s. Entire books are devoted to information literacy so I will not dare recap everything here. But it is worth noting that embracing "information literacy" as "the one" took time and effort across the profession and beyond. I can actually remember when we still used "bibliographic instruction" to describe the instruction we provided to students on using resources in the library.** I remember feeling like a radical when we changed the name of our "BI Room" to just the room number. Many brains exploded but everyone survived. I think our profession could benefit from a shift similar now. If "information literacy" is the "bibliographic instruction" of 2020 (I know these two concepts are not interchangeable but roll with it), what is the term or phrase moving forward? The original article by Mackey and Jacobson introducing metaliteracy was titled, "Reframing Information Literacy as a Metaliteracy" (2011). I would love to see "metaliteracy" embraced more widely but it is too early to tell what will stick in the profession as well as in higher education.

In what seems like a week ago, I was involved with my university's last Quality Enhancement Plan which focused on applied learning. To this day (many years later), faculty will define "applied learning" differently. And that seems to be the most uncomfortable struggle for me now. It feels embarrassing not to be able to agree on a term or phrase that encompasses what we are writing about and talking about. My university DOES have its own definition of applied learning based on many other definitions and a review of the literature and you can find it on many webpages. Maybe that is enough glue to hold together a new-er concept of information literacy? Maybe collectively the university can decide on the most useful and widely-applicable topic/subject/skill set/literacy/competency?

Perhaps the very nature of librarianship amplifies this struggle. We created controlled vocabulary and classification systems for libraries to address this very issue for god's sake! Subject headings! "Tags" are so silly! There is a way to do this "right," people!

4&#*$&#**#***!!!! I mean clearly everyone will use "motion pictures" and "cookery' for all eternity and it will always make sense! Interesting read when you can make the time:

Howard, S.A., & Knowlton, S.A. (2018). Browsing through Bias: The Library of Congress Classification and Subject Headings for African American Studies and LGBTQIA Studies. Library Trends 67(1), 74-88. doi:10.1353/lib.2018.0026.

"New literacies" has been proposed as an umbrella term. My hesitancy in being the president of the new literacies fan club is that it is not all new. But there is some great work out there to consider (Kansas State University New Literacies Alliance for example. "Multiple literacies" is accurate but again, hesitancy. But great work being done here: University of North Texas Multiple Literacies Lab.

I have also discovered that the U.S. and other countries have different conceptualizations of all of this stuff. I feel like I can envision the full set of skills and habits of mind needed but I cannot name it. At least not now. But dammit, can we not just use "metaliteracy" at least until I retire? It is not my goal to mention pornography in each post but when it fits, I will. The classic "I know it when I see it" is apropos here. I feel like I can envision the full set of skills and habits of mind needed but I cannot name it. At least not now. But dammit, can we not just use "metaliteracy" at least until I retire?



*A side note: Want to learn about the attitudes to develop mindfulness? Read the classic "Full Catastrophe Living" by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Or use some good click restraint and find an overview online (such as

**Another side note: I remember the months, if not years, it took to get my (then) library administration to allow us to stop using "bibliographic instruction." I remember feeling so frustrated by the resistance and I try (often unsuccessfully) to remember this when colleagues suggest changes to library policies, procedures, services, etc.

***Last side note: I love that this book is an OER:

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