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What Exactly Is Transliteracy?

By: , Posted on: September 15, 2016


Transliteracy as a concept originated in the work of academics who were involved in digital building and tinkering, people who got their hands dirty with some practical work while thinking theoretically (see Transliteracies Project and Transliteracy Research Group Archive). And that is the essence of transliteracy – it is an abstract idea, but also an embodied practice and sensory experience. Transliteracy is neither an idea nor a practice: it is both. It is hardly surprising that librarians at the coalface of information and digital work embraced the concept as they recognized it in their everyday work with information, knowledge and technology.

But what is it exactly? A short answer is that transliteracy is about a fluidity of movement across a range of technologies, media and contexts.

A longer answer is more layered as it is based on a careful analysis of research data:

Transliteracy is an ability to use diverse analogue and digital technologies, techniques, modes and protocols

  • to search for and work with a variety of resources
  • to collaborate and participate in social networks
  • to communicate meanings and new knowledge by using different tones, genres, modalities and media.

Transliteracy consists of skills, knowledge, thinking and acting, which enable a fluid ‘movement across’ in a way that is defined by situational, social, cultural and technological contexts.

A study into transliteracy on which this definition is based provides plentiful examples of transliterate behaviors. A historian presents research data on a website for community use, responds to online queries about family connections, puts people from the community in touch with each other and notes their experience for research purposes. An academic studies parks as public spaces and uses GPS, digital and hard-copy maps, hand drawings made by park visitors, audio-recordings and then publishes reports, brochures, academic journal articles and a website with multimedia.  A teenager explores a known fictional text by taking a perspective of an inanimate object or a minor character and expresses her creative reading in a digital story. High school students and scholars alike use resources in analogue and digital forms, create new content, and collaborate and communicate in a variety of modes.

As any educator would have noticed, there are a number of skill sets and capabilities packed in the definition and examples. We can represent transliteracy conceptually with different capabilities as its main components.


Transliteracy comes to the fore in information and technology rich environments, so it is based on information and ICT capabilities. It also encompasses creativity, critical thinking, and communication and collaboration. These are the main skill and knowledge components of transliteracy. These defining components are not situated wholly in the transliteracy framework as they can be observed regardless of transliteracy. Literacy and numeracy underpin transliteracy in the same way they enable any learning.

In order to understand and appreciate transliteracy, it is helpful to understand ‘ICT’ as a label for analogue and digital information and communication technologies, and their many combinations. ‘ICT’ often refers to digital technologies. However, the book, and traditional radio and television are also technologies designed to carry information and facilitate communication. As the line between different types of technologies becomes increasingly blurry, familiar technologies become a thing of the past and old technologies undergo a revival, any technology that helps us to transmit information and communicate is relevant to transliteracy.

Transliteracy existed well before digital technologies, but contemporary ways of interacting with information and digital tools sped up, broadened and changed our daily ‘movement across’ information and technological fields. As technologies, skills and contexts in which we live and work are constantly changing, transliteracy becomes a literacy of the modern era. It is integrative in a sense that it doesn’t want to replace other useful ways of thinking about information and technology. Rather, it provides an integrative framework for bringing together modern literacies (e.g. information, digital, media literacy). It also provides a framework for connecting rational-emotional, analytical-creative and theoretical-practical ways of thinking and working, which enable us to live effectively and creatively with abundant information around us.

The next post in this series will introduce transliteracy palettes and consider the development of transliteracy in formal and informal learning environments. See the previous post: Transliteracy: the art and craft of ‘moving across’.

This post was first published on the LARK blog here.

transliteracy in complex information environments

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2 thoughts on “What Exactly Is Transliteracy?

  1. Hello! I’m probably a bit late on the whole transliteracy thing, but there is something I have been wondering for some time since I first heard of it.

    What does it actually mean for someone to have low transliteracy, or to be transilliterate? I’m approaching this from the perspective of one who is not actually a librarian, so perhaps the answer to my question is simple and obvious to the librarians here. Please forgive me if that is the case!

    Anyway, I have known several people who, in retrospect, I might describe as “transilliterate”:

    – A musician who could send and receive email and also take pictures with a digital camera, but couldn’t figure out the multi-step process to download a picture from the digital camera and attach it to an email.
    – An elementary school teacher who could set up, operate, and troubleshoot a film projector while sleep-deprived and delerious, but who couldn’t set up a digital LCD projector to play a DVD even when fully sober and well-rested.
    – A mechanical engineer who claimed to need to use software to complete their taxes, despite apparently having sufficient basic math, reading, and handwriting levels to understand and complete basic tax paperwork by hand.
    – A retired World War Two veteran who refused to use any computer other than a Macintosh, claiming that Macs were the easiest to use.
    – An accomplished Renaissance Faire costume designer who could make high-quality corsets at home, but who admitted defeat in trying create a 3D model of one of their works that could be imported into a Virtual Reality (VR) environment.

    At first, I thought these were simply examples of people with low computer/ICT skills and/or basic literacy (3 R’s) skills, but, after reading about what transliteracy supposedly is, I am struck by the idea that these people did in fact have ICT as well as basic literacy skills and that what they lacked was transliteracy. The musician was not computer illiterate – they could check their email, send email, do basic word processing, and snap photos with a digital camera. They did not have low basic/traditional literacy either, as they could communicate effectively over textual media for a variety of purposes. What they could not do, however, is *link* the digital camera domain with the email domain so that their photos could cross over to a new medium (email). That’s a transliteracy competency! Or is it?

    Are these examples of people living with low transliteracy? If not, what characterizes a person who has low transliteracy, is functionally transilliterate, or similar? Is it tied to an assessment (e.g. some beefed-up multimedia version of the GED)? A lack of a certain finesse, fluency, or je ne sais quoi whose subtle signs can be recognized by a librarian trained in best practices in transliteracy intervention? Is there a practical, working definition of transilliteracy as it exists today or a specific intervention process/methodology for remediating low transliteracy?

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