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?