Think that social media and social networking are passing fads? Do you believe digital and media literacy aren’t essential literacies because they are not heavily assessed on a high stakes test? Does your learning community view information literacy as a secondary literacy? Take a look at the report from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. In the introduction, the commission underscores the importance of information literacy, which includes new literacies, in today’s society:
The information revolution is benefitting those in the middle class and up and, in a different way, many young residents of urban and suburban communities. They have never had greater access to more relevant information. But many Americans are in danger of remaining or becoming second-class citizens in the digital age, whether because of low income, language barriers, lack of access to technology, limited skills and training, community norms, or lack of personal motivation. The poor, the elderly, rural and small town residents, and some young people are most at risk. Those who belong to more than one of these groups are especially vulnerable.
The commission provides fifteen recommendations for improving access and use of information by Americans and how these efforts can increase individuals’ ability to fully participate in a democratic society. The warnings in this report remind me of Deborah Brandt’s ethnographic study, Literacy in American Lives , in which she explores how cultural institutions and individuals function as “sponsors of literacy” and how access to certain kinds of literacy either increase or limit one’s participation in a democratic society.
In June 2005, I wrote the following response after reading Literacy in American Lives as part of an independent research project I conducted under the direction of Dr. Mark Faust at the University of Georgia:
This critical and sociolinguistic stance on literacy is reflected in the work of Deborah Brandt. In Literacy in American Lives, an ethnography of the literacy histories of eighty Americans, Deborah Brandt critically examines literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities through the critical lens of sponsors of literacy: “…any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstracts, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way…sponsors are delivery systems for the economies of literacy, the means by which these forces present themselves to—and through–individual learners. They also represent the causes into which people’s literacy usually gets required” (19). Brandt views literacy a “valuable—and volatile property” (2) that can potentially help individuals gain “…power or pleasure, [accrue] information, civil rights, education, spirituality, status, [and] money”(7). These literacy sponsors are analogous to Bakhtin’s concept of “thousands of living dialogic threads” because an examination of a person’s literacy sponsors, “… exposes the deeply textured history that lies within the literacy practices of institutions and within any individuals’ literacy experiences. Accumulated layers of sponsoring influences—in families, workplaces, schools, memory—-carry forms of literacy that have been shaped out of ideological and economic struggles of the past” (56). All literacy sponsors, past, present, and future, shape a person’s literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities. Through her analysis of the literacy sponsors and literacy experiences of the subjects of her research study, Brandt concludes that economic and political interests, not the democratic ideals and principles set forth by America’s founding father, heavily influence American literacy experiences and learning inside and outside of the public school system. Whereas literacy was once rooted in religious and democratic ideals, the aim shifted to “…nation building, social conformity, and civil responsibility” (28). Furthermore, Brandt warns that, “The more that private interests take over the educational development of our young citizens, the less of a democracy we will have. The more that the school organizes literacy teaching and learning to serve the needs of the economic system, the more it betrays its democratic possibilities” (205). Interestingly, public school libraries were absent from mention in the research study as a literacy sponsor.
Another idea that stood out for me was the relative absence of the library as a relevant literacy sponsor in the lives of the participants interviewed by Brandt. While the American Library Association prides itself on literacy advocacy and as a “…cornerstone of democracy in our communities” (Kranich), very few of the participants identified public libraries as a major literacy sponsor in their lives; no participants mentioned the public school library as a literacy sponsor. The gap between classes, which Brandt asserts is maintained and exacerbated by the status of literacy in our culture (169), was reflected in library use by participants. While public libraries did “…signal cultural value” (151) and a means of self-education (152) to some of the participants, public libraries were primarily accessed by those in urban areas who had easy, safe, and free access to the library (151). The lack of access to libraries in rural areas reflects the historical trend of literacy being least accessible and spreading the slowest to, “…. remote rural areas and newer, poorer industrial areas—a geographic and political legacy that, even today, in the United States, helped to exacerbate inequalities by race, regions, and occupation”(Brandt, p. 88). I could not help but wonder if this finding would hold true if the study were to be replicated? In this age of massive library budget cuts and closings, one wonders the impact on the role of the public library as a literacy sponsor and to what degree these closings and budget cuts may impact access to literacy and the mission of libraries to provide equal access to learning (Kranich).
In conclusion, this reading has left with me with more questions than answers. The idea of literacy as a commodity that perpetuates existing inequalities in American society is deeply troubling to me, particularly when I consider Brandt’s theories in light of my own life and my life as both a librarian and English educator.
Nearly five years later, I still feel troubled by the idea that those who don’t possess literacy (in this case, digital and media literacy) will be “left behind” and limited in their ability to fully participate in our society.
While Brandt’s work focused on traditional print literacy, I am now wondering what results such an ethnographic study would yield about information literacy. Who or what is shaping how people acquire and use information literacy? Media literacy? Digital literacy?
More than ever, libraries (public, academic, school) must carry the banner of these new literacies and be that influential and positive sponsor of literacy in the lives of American citizens, particularly for those who may not be part of mainstream culture and who will rely heavily on the services, educational opportunities, and access to information that libraries can provide. Will we withhold access to these literacies through filtering policies and research assignments that do not cultivate higher level thinking skills and application of these literacies? Will we deny access to these literacies through budget cuts, library closings, and the elimination of certified school librarians in K-12 schools? Will we privilege print literacy over transliteracy? Like Brandt, the Knight Commission posits digital and media literacy as essential to democratic ideals; if we continue to filter information and reduce quality services, we will only perpetuate the inequities that exist in those who have information literacy and access and those who do not.
Recommendation Six speaks directly to educators and school librarians and calls for the integration of “digital and media literacy as critical elements of education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”
It may be tempting for teachers and administrators who are themselves uncomfortable with new media to view digital and media competencies as “addons” to basic learning in “reading, writing and, arithmetic.” These competencies are, however, new forms of foundational learning.
The consequences of neglecting this challenge can be dire. Students who are deeply immersed in the world of online communication outside of school may find classrooms that marginalize new technologies both tedious and irrelevant. For students who lack online access at home, schooling that fails to provide digital and media skills threatens to leave them at a profound social, economic,and cultural disadvantage.
Are our schools providing our students the advantage through well-rounded information literacy instruction and learning activities that value digital and media literacy? Or do we privilege traditional literacies at the expense of this cultural capital our students need? As leaders in our school communities, a role we should be embracing, let us blaze the trail to create a culture of inquiry that encourages students to use these literacies as a lens for understanding more deeply how multiple kinds of texts function within our society. This report reinforces the need to position the standards for learning already established by AASL and ISTE as mainstream standards that are integral, not optional, for all students. As school librarians, let us act upon the proclamtion from President Obama to cultivate information literacy as a central literacy; let us not waste this opportunity to be positive and significant sponsors of literacy, of transliteracy, in the lives of our students.
Many thanks to Bobbi Newman and danah boyd (a member of the commission) for their blog posts drawing my attention to this important report. I also encourage you to take a look at Bobbi’s most excellent SlideShare presentation on libraries and transliteracy:
Bakhtin, M. (1981). Discourse in the novel. In The Dialogic Imagination: Four essays by M.M. Bakhtin (pp. 259-422). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Brandt, D. (2001). Literacy in American Lives. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. (2009, October). Informing communities: Sustaining democracy in the digital age. Retrieved from The Aspen Institute website: https://secure.nmmstream.net/anon.newmediamill/aspen/kcfinalenglishbookweb.pdf
Kranich, N. (n.d.). Libraries: The cornerstone of democracy. Retrieved June 24, 2005, from American Library Association Web site: http://www.ala.org/ala/ourassociation/governanceb/pastpresidents/nancykranich/cornerstonedemocracy.htm