Literacy, part 2

Being literate is sort of like being conversant, except in writing. Now, some people are just all around good conversationalists, good talkers; but normally we say that we are conversant about something in particular, good at discussing some particular subject. The same goes for literacy. Being able to read and write organization-theoretical texts does not guarantee you’re going to be able to read and write about quantum mechanics. But this specification of the concept of literacy has, to my mind, been misapplied in the construction of extensions of the concept of literacy like “visual literacy” or, to hit closer to home here in the Library, “information literacy.”

I agree with Gunther Kress when he argues, in Literacy and the New Media Age (Routledge 2003), that we need to find “new terms for the use of the different resources” of communication:

It may be that when we speak in popular, everyday contexts, these metaphoric uses, extending infinitely–visual literacy, gestural literacy, musical literacy, media literacy, computer-, cultural-, emotional-, sexual-, internet- and so on and so on–are fine, though I have my doubts even then. I would want to exclude another currently fashionable use of the term, which is to indicate certain kinds of production-skills associated more or less closely with aspects of communication, as in computer literacy, or (aspects of) media literary. (p. 23)

Kress puts it well when he defines literacy as the ability to make (and take) messages “using letters as the means of recording”, that is, it’s essentially about reading and writing. It will not do to say that someone is “literate” about music just because they are really good at playing music, or have really good taste in music. Likewise, being a great lover does not make you a great writer or reader of love letters. As a writing coach, of course, I will always insist that improving your ability to write about music will improve you ability to make it. Improving our ability to write about it will also improve your ability to make love. I have to promise a real-world, bottom-line pay off, right? But being “literate” about something is simply not the same thing as being competent at it.

I think these extended or metaphorical uses of literacy have distracted our attention from the specific competence of writing and reading. (Imagine if someone proposed to refocus our attention by “extending” the term again to include “reading literacy” and “writing literacy”!) But the notion of information literacy is a special case because so much of the information that we need to know how to find is recorded precisely in letters. So being a competent user of information already requires a certain measure of literacy, and, indeed, being literate involves a distinct information competence.

So what I want to do, I guess, is to get rid of the separate notion of “information literacy” and instead think of “information” simply as an important component of being literate in the information age. Kress has given me a lot think about in this regard. And I’m sure there are few more posts to come in my reading of him.

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