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Being Articulate and Finding Context

Submitted by Michelle Boule on January 13, 2011 - 9:10am

I was thinking about the verbal skills of my two-and-a-half year old and his peers last week and it made me realize something. There are two main reasons that people have trouble understanding little kids, articulation and context.

Most kids my son’s age have an articulation problem. They either do not say the word correctly or they make up a nonsense word that stands in the place of an actual thing. My son has a context issue. His articulation is usually sound, but he randomly throws sentences into a conversation that have absolutely no bearing on either the situation at hand or the current conversation. As adults, we expect to hear certain things in relation to a situation or conversation, so when our expectations are not met, it all sounds like inarticulate babble, though the words are all correct. Of course, parents frequently know what the babble or the out of context conversation holds, though strangers usually do not.

It occurred to me that librarians have the same problem as most two-year-olds; we are talking and no one can understand what we are saying, regardless of the import of the message.

We have an articulation issue. Sometimes we use words that are complicated and make sense to only a few people. One recent example is the word transliteracy, the current version of information literacy, with a few extra tweaks to encompass new media. There are committees, discussion groups, and serious researchers who are very committed to the idea that we must help our students and general public be more transliterate.

The problem? No one cares about transliteracy outside of a few librarians and higher ed researchers. The top Google results for transliteracy are almost all from librarians and universities, with Wikipedia being the exception in first place. There is a lot of conversation going on around this, but we are the only ones listening. We were never able to make the general public, or K-12 education for that matter, care very much for Information literacy and I do not think transliteracy will be much different, regardless of how important it might actually be. It is a problem of articulation. No one, outside of libraries or higher ed, really understands the concept.

Other notable articulation examples include DRM and net neutrality. Even though these two items are frequently in the news, I challenge you to find a non-geek off the street who can tell you what these two words really mean and the impact they may or may not have on their daily lives. In these two cases, not only is articulation as issue, but people have no context for the issue.

We have a contextual issue and context is just as important as articulation. If we want people to care about something, we have to make it relevant to the conversation, relevant to their lives. Otherwise, we are only talking to ourselves or people like us and that is not the way successful social change is made. We have to find a way to appeal to people in a way that makes sense in the context of their lives. Until we find that perfect contextual niche, which is probably different for every group with which we interact, librarians will be fighting the good fight with only other librarians as an audience.

I hate being the person pointing out the issue without some strong solutions, but unfortunately I do not have the answers or even the inkling of a direction. How do we get people to care about literacy, no matter what fancy word we give it? How do we get people to understand that anything they put on facebook not longer belongs to them and can be used by anyone with a computer for whatever purpose they deem appropriate? In September, CNet reported 1 in 10 Americans have an ereader and that number, after the holidays, has likely gone up. However, how many of those people understand the full ramifications of the DRM used on their device?

I think we have to stop thinking only about the issue itself and start thinking about how to make it relevant to people. We should speak in words that make sense and use them in a context that people understand. Perhaps the answer is telling stories. Stories can be a powerful way to share experiences and raise awareness. How can we tell stories that give articulation and context to issues that we know are important and impact our community?


Comments (12)

I agree with the main

I agree with the main argument - much of our language is careless and derived from insider-isms. But we should be careful we don't lose all our color in trying to make things plain. People dig language. Being a fan means getting to adopt some local argot, being a part of that community. You see this everywhere in sports and in online communities. In contrast, perfect clarity can often mean only dry, colorless descriptors. I'm not sure that serves anyone best either. A little attention and creativity, maybe, is what we're really looking for.

Thanks for all the great

Thanks for all the great comments. What a wonderful conversation! Here are some replies:

Tom - I know transliteracy is not the same as Info Lit, I was just drawing a parallel between the trend to use that word as a drive for teaching and discussion with people outside our profession who often have no idea what we are trying to convey.

Veronica is basically right in summing up my point, that whatever we call things, we want people to want what we want. We just need to realize that we have to label things in a way that makes sense to people. We should not choose labels then scream and yell to make people care. We should use other means, stories perhaps, to SHOW people, not TELL them why a thing is important to them as an individual and to our society as a whole.

If we want people to care

If we want people to care about something, we have to make it relevant to the conversation, relevant to their lives. Otherwise, we are only talking to ourselves or people like us and that is not the way successful social change is made. We have to find a way to appeal to people in a way that makes sense in the context of their lives.

God yes! And this is not only a problem with how librarians talk to faculty or students, but how librarians talk to each other. We don't seem to know how to tailor our message to the individual(s) we are speaking to in order to make it compelling. Transliteracy is a perfect example of this. I honestly still have no idea really what a transliterate person looks like nor what I can do to make my students more transliterate and I've read lots of articles/posts on it from inside and outside of the profession. Maybe I'm just dense, but I'm deeply interested in user education and preparing students for finding and using information in the world they live in (which includes the online world). I think those who are promoting transliteracy really need to communicate their message in a way that's compelling to their audience. This whole the field of inquiry is very young excuse seems like a cop-out to me. If a transliteracy proponent can't even describe what they believe a transliterate individual looks like or what their vision is for transliteracy in libraries, I don't see how they can expect to effectively communicate transliteracy to others.

In spite of what some early commenters have written, I think we do "sell" information literacy to students, but we don't call it "information literacy." In order to get students to pay attention to the instruction we do, we have to give them a compelling reason to listen by making sure they understand the relevance of it to their lives and work. With faculty, I don't talk about information literacy either. I talk about meeting General Education Goal 1 at our institution (which includes "critical inquiry") and improving student research skills. That's what our faculty find compelling, because it's what they actually care about.

This is a really fantastic post, Michelle and I really appreciate your clear articulation of what I agree is the biggest barrier to librarians selling our ideas: our own language.

I think this is a phenomenon

I think this is a phenomenon that has roots much farther back in our profession. I, for one, would still like to see public library staff replace many more 'library speak' words such as 'circulation desk', 'juvy department' (even 'j' cataloging),'I.L.L.', etc. with words that have meaning for people in the real world such as 'check-out desk, 'children's department' 'interlibrary loan'. Even the lowliest non-professional picks up the jargon and runs with it leaving the patron to stand looking bewildered while trying to follow what the staff person is saying. In a time when libraries are facing such devastating cut-backs, it might be a good idea to avoid seeming like a foreign country to those who ultimately pay our bills.

The issue of how we talk to

The issue of how we talk to each other vs. how we talk to "others" is, I think, exactly the point. I talk with my students regularly about how the language they use when talking to their friends is different from the language they use when writing a research paper. We need to become more adept at this code-switching. I use different language and explanations when working with different teachers, based on what I know of their background and comfort level; if I use language and stories that are accessible to them, I'm far more likely to get their buy-in.

And it really is about the stories we tell. I care about information literacy, and DRM, and net neutrality, and myriad other issues because they are central to my work; I have stories that go with each of those issues that makes them relevant to me. If I want them to be relevant to other people, I need to be talking about the stories, not the concepts. Analogies are another great way to help people make a connection.

Hey great post. Myself and

Hey great post. Myself and some other Info Pros have been trying to articulate aspects of this problem (no pun intended) and have given it the tag '#echolib' - a shorthand for the Library Echo Chamber. If you're interested, there are some presentations we've done, articles and tweets etc, here: http://www.netvibes.com/nedpotter#The_Echo_Chamber

We have tried to crowd-source some solutions, but we're still a long way off being able to say "here's the answer" - so all further debate amd suggestions gratefully received!

A great post, and I couldn't

A great post, and I couldn't agree more. I think our main problem is presenting what we have to offer in terms that are relevant to the user - and for the most part, while we're fixated on tools, the user is interested in the process ... So I don't teach library databases or 'information literacy', but classes called 'How to do a literature search' and 'Referencing without tears'.
As Veronica says, go with the stories.

A great post, and I couldn't

A great post, and I couldn't agree more. I think our main problem is presenting what we have to offer in terms that are relevant to the user - and for the most part, while we're fixated on tools, the user is interested in the process ... So I don't teach library databases or 'information literacy', but classes called 'How to do a literature search' and 'Referencing without tears'.
As Veronica says, go with the stories.

Hey Michelle: At the risk of

Hey Michelle:

At the risk of upsetting a bunch of librarians (sorry!) I'm going to venture to guess that the reason we have an articulation/contextual issue with information literacy is that we tend to want to "sell it" the way WE want other people to "buy it." We expect our students/faculty/patrons to be excited about and interested in information literacy (or transliteracy, or bibliographic instruction, or open access or whatever we think is important) because it's good for them. Our argument is neither sexy nor convincing.

You say you don't have strong solutions for this issue, but I think your suggestion of telling stories is a really good one. I'll present my husband as an example. He never understood me getting all worked up about this "DRM business" until I shared the NPR story about Amazon deleting copies of 1984 from people's Kindles. This story really hit home with him, and helped him understand how this issue might impact him. Stories are good. I vote for stories. :-)

Michelle, I agree that we

Michelle, I agree that we have to be attuned to how we use language, but I have to agree with Brad that you seem to miss the mark when referring to some of the underlying concepts that inform how we provide services. Librarians don't teach about information literacy but teach skills that bridge whatever gap exists between a novice and expert regarding a specified set of skills. As with any realm of education, we expect students/patrons to demonstrate particular outcomes without requiring any explicit knowledge of the pedagogy needed to reach those outcomes. We don't need to articulate "information literacy" but provide the education needed to create what we consider an "information literate" individual.

I also want to point out that transliteracy is very distinctly NOT "the current version of information literacy." The term originated outside of the library realm and in its purest form is a descriptive term. It strives to understand how individuals navigate from one medium to another. Librarians who are interested in transliteracy feel it's important for those in the profession to play a role in helping to create citizens who can easily map skills from one medium to another. Information literacy could very well be the means of doing this. Transliteracy is in no way a competitor to information literacy and understanding the concepts being explored could potentially improve how we deliver information literacy.

This field of inquiry is very young and decrying the fact that it is only being discussed (at least on the web) in academic realms seems a disingenuous complaint since we have yet to see what the impact of this curiosity may be on library services.

Thank you for the post! I am

Thank you for the post! I am particularly fond of pausing to consider how we use language everyday.

Yes, librarians use terminology that the general public doesn’t understand; however, that isn’t entirely the problem. Every field uses expert terminology that is not immediately comprehensible to the general public. When you study a field in-depth, it is necessary to create language to discuss the finer points of that field (e.g. information literacy). Terminology within our field allows us to discuss and analyze various aspects of our job. We shouldn’t expect the public to understand these terms, just like you wouldn’t expect the public to understand very specific scientific terms.

I agree with you that if we don’t expect the public to understand the expert terminology we use, then we frankly shouldn’t use it with the public. We need two registers of speech, or two ways of speaking: librarian-librarian and librarian-other (public, administration, funders, etc.). Rather than try to education the public about important information needs/trends by using our preestablished expert vocabulary, we should ditch the vocabulary lesson and use plain words to describe our points. The issue isn’t that the terminology exists, it’s that we use it in circumstances we shouldn’t, and we think other people actually care to learn our vocabulary, when they likely have no interest in doing so.

What about some type of solution? All I can offer is that 1) we first work individually to understand the concepts behind the terminology we use, so that 2) we can explain the concepts to others using only plain speech, and 3) we keep talking about these issues until we’re blue in the face because they are important topics that needs to be discussed both by librarians and the public. Perhaps we can save the “transliteracy” mumbo jumbo for the library-related conferences.

Michelle, you've written some

Michelle, you've written some excellent food for thought here. I think you're absolutely right about DRM and net neutrality: not necessarily that librarians/libraries should be the people leading the PR charge, but that the general public probably knows far too little about legal issues that affect their digital lives.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure Information Literacy or transliteracy are words that our patrons need to know about. They're concepts topical to librarians and other people concerned with literacy. And, as Andy Burkhardt points out, teaching Information Literacy by that name could make patrons feel as if they're information illiterate, which might not be a great feeling.

I think of transliteracy as akin to JavaScript; tons of documentation is out there for the end user to learn about it conceptually, but I'm not going to require their knowledge of it just to use the product.