At their core, libraries offer participatory learning environments geared towards optimizing the potential for the creation and distribution of knowledge, a paradigm developed around traditional concepts of literacy. Libraries traditionally facilitate literate practices; they are institutions by which patrons can locate, contextualize, contribute to, and create information. However, with the continued proliferation of digital technologies, our notions of literacy—of how institutions assess informational fluency or aptitude—are being challenged. Digital literacy has become a hotly debated buzzword in both corporate and educational settings, often used as a stand-in to mean everything from communicating in digital environments to creating digital artifacts. These conversations seldom account for the actual institutional or pedagogical needs to address the dynamic, associative qualities essential to digital media. Discussions in the digital humanities, on the other hand, often hinge on what effects digital media and methods have on the liberal arts, and what liberal arts disciplines have to offer to studies of digital media. Like all new inscriptive technologies, digital media practices fundamentally disrupt our traditional paradigms of authorship and research, which require new theories and methods in order to maximize their rhetorical potential and educational outreach.
For the library to continue to best serve the educational needs of a rapidly evolving, technologically mediated public, it might be time to rework the concept of digital literacy into less ambiguous and more generative terms. In a recent blog post for Adobe, Sid Dobrin argues that we seldom account for the complexity of digital literacy and that it might be more advantageous to break the term up into terms like digital competency, digital proficiency, and digital fluency. Dobrin offers this “fractured definition” as a means of getting at much more specific educational goals that can, in turn, be more directly addressed, suggesting that literacy within digital contexts means vastly different things to different people. If we consider that literacy traditionally referred to the ability to read and write print media, it might be worth abandoning the term altogether, rather than trying to force a literacy 2.0.
Media studies scholars have long examined the operational shifts that occurred in Classical Greece when the oral culture was augmented with the invention of writing and print. Writing fundamentally transformed the way we interface with information and culture and, thus, required the invention of an apparatus—what we now call literacy— to cultivate and refine the skillsets necessary to realize its full communicative potential. Literacy facilitated the basic tools for a scientific worldview, radically altered notions of the self and democracy, and laid the foundation for our modern relationship with information and knowledge. And of course, Classical Greece also played a crucial role in the development of the early library, which opened the door for new practices in art, law, medicine, and education.
Rather than forcing digital media to function according to the same logics and poetics developed for and from print technology, electracy opens up an invitation to create new inventive potentials that better address the affordances and constraints posed by digital media.
The library should continue to play a growing role within the emerging forms of thought beckoned by digital technologies, and electracy offers a potential model for institutional adaptability. Organizations such as the American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) have long played an integral role in shaping what academic libraries, universities, and their patrons view and understand as literacy. The ALA released its recommendations on digital literacy in 2013, an attempt to ensure that “libraries of all types—school, academic and public—play a vital role in ensuring all people have the skills and abilities to succeed in the Digital Age.” And the ACRL moved from prescriptive information literacy standards to the information literacy framework as an attempt to adapt to issues brought forth from digital technological change. Early attempts at leveraging digital media in this way, such as the Library 2.0 movement with Web 2.0, often provided mixed results, and adapting electrate practices might help such successes create adaptive frameworks to account for further technological developments. But in the short time since then, our definitions and understandings of the “digital” have already undergone a massive change. As these organizations continue to make moves to better account for digital theories, methods, and practices, there is massive potential in considering the history of literacy in terms of its development out of orality as we now face the emergence of a new apparatus.
An electrate library recognizes the interstitial space between topoi and chora, how the two influence one another in the creation and contestation of meaning, and the necessity of inventing practices better suited to this emergent paradigm.
Electracy does not replace literacy but creates new potentials for digital media by foregrounding inventive, born-digital practices, rather than enforcing restrictive holding patterns bound up in simply interpreting and taxonomizing digital artifacts. If the library’s success as an institution stems from its foundation in an ontology of print media, what stands to be gained if we expand that to include ontologically digital practices and ways of thinking? Such an operational shift creates an opportunity for us to challenge and help shape the future of libraries and the digital humanities.
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