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Daily Archives: March 18th, 2008

The definition of literacy has changed.  This afternoon while I was working in the Education and Job Information Center at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central building I was struck by a concrete example of the redefinition of literacy.  Consider the different skills a job-seeker would need for a successful employment hunt in 2008.

In 1975, a person interested in creating a resume for an administrative assistant position would have looked through books of sample resumes and then sat at a typewriter to build their resume in a directional, linear fashion, from beginning to end.  In 1995, that same person might have had the luxury of using a halfway decent word processor on a computer.  That word processor would give them the ability to track forward and backward as they create the document, enabling text editing in a two-directional linear fashion.  Now, with internet connectivity, resume writing tutorial software or layout programs like Quark, Adobe InDesign, writing a resume becomes a simulated spatial experience.  The writer can edit in any order and manipulate the “page” on the computer screen in much the way they would manipulate a piece of paper.

What about the way a person would actually look for employment listings?  In 1975, an individual looking for an administrative assistant position via their local public library would have picked up the classified section of the local newspaper, browsed, found some phone numbers and addresses and made contact with another human.  In 1995, that same person would have more opportunities if they looked for their job via a local paper on the internet, emailed their resume to a person and eventually made contact.  Now, in 2008 separate services offer job-seeking guides, and the public library does its best to conglomerate all of these resources by creating pathfinders and guides that link to the many individual services.

“Computer literacy” is no longer computer literacy, it is just plain LITERACY. 
This presents a challenge.  With computer literacy comes a whole new rhetoric, essentially a series of vocabularies, literacies and grammatical structures that nobody can be expected to just guess or intuit any more than they can be expected to just guess and intuit Moby Dick. It comes naturally to anyone reading this that the icon in your browser that is shaped like a little house is a metonym for “home”, but what is home, what does that mean?  It is part of the 21st century public library’s mission and responsibility to see to it that everyone in this country has access to the tools they need to answer these questions. The library mission is not just to provide access electronic texts on the computer, it is to provide an understanding and context for the access itself.  Not understanding the grammar of computing in 2008 is like not being able to read in 1975.

Our patrons know this!  This is why they come to us in droves to use our free, publicly available internet access.  Libraries will always be in the book business, but the masses have spoken. People come to the public library to use the computers: electronic content is the book of the future.  A teenager in 2008 indulging in an afternoon of goofballetry and knuckleheadedness on myspace is the same thing as a kid in 1975 reading a Marvel comic book. Each one is unconsciously honing his or her literacy skills; only literacy means something a little different.  So how can we, the librarians, maximize the number of people who benefit from all of the information and content that exists on the internet, all of the vetted content that we offer through our databases, and at the same time assist people in gaining the skills needed to understand the intricacies of access?

Offering mile-long tables of PCs is not the answer.  We need to go mobile, so that everyone can take their little piece of the library, customize it, and bring it with them.  I don’t believe that it is sustainable to simply make ourselves easily available through peoples’ portable devices (though I absolutely support efforts to create library Facebook apps, iPhone-ready catalog interfaces, and anything else that works on the device-a-la-mode this week).  Libraries need to create a wireless, loanable, library-content device.  Librarians have caught on to the fact that we need to design our own software tools.  I think we need to take the next step and design and build our own hardware, something specifically made for our mission and vision.  A lot of people read my last piece about the Library Outpost as a smaller service node within our larger network of physical spaces; a different means by which we can effectively deliver physical content without storing everything on-site.  Now I’m suggesting that a loanable mobile device is the content delivery model of the future.  Lets build a prototype.

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