Author’s Note: When I first started this project I was planning on doing an infographic. I figured it would be the best medium to convey the infiltration of the visual on literacy. However, it turns out my academic tendencies lean strongly to text, since in order to organize my infographic I ended up writing an essay. I still wanted to try something new, hence the accompanying infographic opening my essay. It’s not quite what I had in mind when I started out, but caused me to push my own visual literacy boundaries.
Figure 1: The Evolution of Libraries. Created using easel.ly.com
As technology evolves, so does the role of the library. While some functions, such as private study, are still viable, the library has grown in its services to students and the public. The shushing librarian is a thing of the past. Libraries are now community-centred and the physical spaces grow and morph with the needs of the patrons rather than the number of books. While stacks of reference material still prevail, technology is now a main focus. In fact, they are not just reference centres, but also a place to grow and learn information communication literacy. In other words, people do not just come to study they also come to learn, collaborate and socialize with the librarians, instructors and each other. Many of these changes are in response to society’s need for multiliterate and information communication technology savvy individuals.
In the past, libraries did not even exist. This is difficult to fathom because they are so prevalent today and recent history. Keep, McLaughlin and Parmar (1995) describe early texts, or palimpsests, as manuscripts that were erased and reused for writing over again. Early writing was not coveted or preserved; practicality was important, and vellum was expensive. Furthermore, most cultures were oral, rather than textual, and ideas, knowledge and stories were preserved via storytelling (Ong, 2002). Even Plato railed against the fallacy of writing in the Phaedrus, claiming that writing will lead to forgetfulness (Postman, 1992). Libraries came into existence as the creation of parchment, and later paper, became easier and writing a more accepted form of “memory” storage. Libraries have always and still do focus on two things: service and spaces. It is the definition of these two things that has changed in response to the digital technologies valued by our society.
The original service role of a library was that of a book reference centre only. In fact, the root word of library (libr) means book, emphasizing its importance (library, n.1, 1902). Libraries originated from monastery collections, which were used to encourage dogma among monks, but not the public (Vais, 2012). Even when libraries expanded to the cathedrals and colleges emphasis was placed on books and private study. This is not surprising, considering illiteracy was rampant. Reading was done only by the upper class and production was for church or court (Keep et al., 1995). In fact, during the Middle Ages the upper class was in the habit of writing their own manuscripts and sharing among each other rather than the library (Keep et al, 1995). Most library books were those of science, philosophy and theology and important books were made accessible to all by chaining them to desks (Vais, 2012; Saenger, 1997). Chained books were later removed in the eighteenth century as improved printing led to cheaper books, increased literacy and patrons’ preference for mobility in their reading (Vais, 2012).
As for library space, there was place for private study, but space was only modified to make room for more books (Vais, 2012). Often there was a place for scribes called a scriptorium, denoting another function of libraries. McLuhan describes study carrels of the Middle Ages as “singing booths” because they were often used for dictation. If there was a scriptorium, it was often below the library for security (Vais, 2012). Libraries were a “Meeting point between books and readers” (Vais, 2012, p.57) and not much else.
The traditional library description is vastly different than today’s definition of library service and space. In her research Ercegovac (1997) found while 86% of patrons search the library catalog and 60% borrow or return books, they were also using the library for instructional services (34%), instructional sessions (51%) and reference questions (45%). In the advent of the Internet patrons are also using it for databases (67%) and electronic journals (72%). While these numbers might not be so surprising, how the library space is now used is. Private study is still the number one use (69%) (Ercegovac, 1997) (51-64%) (Given & Leckie, 2003). However, Given and Leckie’s (2003) more recent research shows the space is also used for writing (18-24%), meeting friends (27%), talking to other patrons (12-20%) and using the computer (13-15%).
Given and Leckie (2003) postulate the lower numbers in social uses of the library is due to traditional perceptions of libraries, but point out the increasing popularity shows the need to provide spaces for them. More than ever, libraries are requiring space for breakout rooms and social study space (Marks & Findley, 2005). Some libraries, such as the Las Vegas LIED library provide stackable chairs and movable carts in order to create impromptu collaborative spaces (Marks & Findley, 2005). And if this seems unconventional, some libraries even provide prayer rooms (Bayliss, 2012) and food courts or coffee shops (Given and Leckie, 2003). The idea is the library is more than just a study space, but a place for social interaction and gathering. Libraries are not shrinking; they are growing to accommodate the needs of the community (Boone, 2002).
The physical reading material in libraries has even morphed from the traditional book. Visual literacy, which is defined as the “ability to decode and interpret…visual messages and also to be able to encode and compose meaningful visual communications” (Gross & Latham, 2007, p. 103; Spalter and van Dam, 2008) is prevalent in today’s world. A clear example is the graphic novel, which breaks free of enclosing panels and is longer than of a typical comic book (Keep et al, 1995). It is a hybrid of comic and novel that did not exist even 50 years ago. Bolter (2001) argues visual literacy challenges print literacy because it “claim[s] to achieve greater immediacy and authenticity by integrating images (and sound) with prose” (p. 47). Movement towards visuality can also be connected to the fact that, compared to medieval times, today’s society is largely literate. In fact, Bolter (2001) goes further to describe the present as “postliterate” (p. 55), meaning we are rising from the push for literacy into a new era where visuals are more ubiquitous than text. An educator’s role is to help teach visual literacy because youth are bombarded with and involved in the production of visual materials, but do not always have the skills to assess it. Libraries provide access and instruction to accommodate this.
However, the New London Group (2000) argues more vehemently for not just visual literacies, but multiliteracies, and libraries are providing for this as well. Multiliteracy accounts for more than reading, writing and seeing. Rather, it includes multimedia and information technologies as well as context, such a culturally, linguistically and globally diverse societies (The New London Group, 2000). Dobson and Willinsky (2012) maintain the evolution of digital technologies over the past few decades has directly influenced perceptions of literacy. The word processor provides for conceptual and collaborative work and hypermedia encourages critical thinking, accessibility and “blurs the boundary between reader and writer” (p. 5). Alexander (2002) expands on this idea further in his claim that Web 2.0 “represents a conceptual shift accompanied by blurring and hybridity” (p. 152). Libraries are now a hub for digital technologies. Most have anywhere from 8-80 computers (Bayliss, 2012) and Internet access is usually ubiquitous (Boone, 2002). Some argue there is an issue with finding space for both technology and books (Boone, 2002; Marks, 2005). However, Ercegovac’s finding that low numbers of patrons are using computers in the library begs the question: is it due to the lack of computers or is there another reason? Seadle (2002) purports the portability of objects, such as laptops, tablets and mobile devices, means libraries should forgo pre-laptop seating. Patrons want to be comfortable, have light and look out a window. As well, ergonomics matter because people are sitting and typing for longer periods of time. Hard-wired technology, such as screens and projectors, should be found in teaching and meeting spaces, but common areas need flexibility.
Regardless of set up, libraries are taking a role in providing space and service related to multiliteracies. Most librarians offer instructional session specifically on information communication techonology (ICT) literacy, and research shows it is necessary. Gross and Latham (2007) discovered students often believe they have better ICT skills than they do, and the greatest perceptual disparity lies in those with the lowest levels of ICT. Research subjects reasoned because they confidently use ICT in their lives they could do it for academic research. However 45% of students entering higher education tested as non-proficient in ICT literacy. The most common response for how they have become ICT literate is ‘self taught,’ illustrating the inconsistency of ICT skills being taught in K-12. Libraries help fill this gap by providing instruction on how to find and evaluate resources.
As mentioned above, part of ICT literacy is knowing how to find appropriate information when needed, and a library’s capacity to index has been greatly increase by networked technologies. In 1945 Vannevar Bush dreamed up the Memex; a machine capable of creating trails between items. Bush criticized the lack of knowledge transmission due to having too much to sift through. It is difficult to find what is needed when indexing systems use artificial classes and subclasses, and items can be in only one spot. In other words, it is more beneficial to have “selection by association rather than indexing” (Bush, 1945, par. 53). Who knew his idea would come to fruition in the form of the Internet and tagging. In terms of the library and ICT, librarians help patrons with database searches daily. Patrons can enter a title, author, subject or even just a keyword and potentially find what they are looking for. With some basic training, one can become proficient in finding appropriate materials in a relatively quick manner. However, what is most interesting is not only does it exists but is used by most individuals. Alexander (2009) comments on the prevalence of tagging, or folksonomies, to label microcontent by many Internet users. This is vastly different from ancient and middle ages when the public majority was illiterate and uninvolved. Today’s focus on literacy as well as easily accessible technologies in private and public space has empowered users to not only digest, but collaborate, create and index information online. Thanks to the work of users, indexing is not just done by the worlds’ libraries anymore.
Libraries have evolved over the years, and most recently in response to digital technologies. They are not just a place for private study, but also a place to collaborate, receive instruction and even socialize. The physical spaces reflect the needs of the community, whether it is the general public or the school population. As well, the services reflect the growing demand for citizens to be multiliterate and confident and efficient with information communication technology literacy. As technology continues to evolve the nature of the library surely will evolve too.
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