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A plethora of literacies

Originally published in the Ketchikan Daily News, October 2019; written by Pat Tully


In ancient and medieval times literacy—the ability to read and write—was limited to the elite and managerial classes, an essential set of skills by which they managed their complex empires. Reading material and writing supplies were expensive, and it took time to learn to read and write—time not available to the vast majority of people. Literacy was a rare and specialized skill.


Over the past millennium literacy has become common. The printing press was developed in East Asia in the eleventh century, and soon after paper became a cheap and popular alternative to parchment. Books and pamphlets—once painstakingly hand-copied by clerics onto expensive vellum—could be quickly copied on paper using the printing press. As reading and writing materials became more common, literacy became first a sought-after skill, and now, in most places, an expected childhood accomplishment.


Over the past few decades, computers and the Internet have revolutionized how we communicate and create. The ability to read and write, though still essential, is no longer the only form of literacy.


For example, I am just now, at the age of sixty, learning to edit video. It was not something I was taught in grade school, high school, or college. It used to be the province of experts with access to specialized equipment, mostly working in film and television. Movie cameras were available for the home market (my mother had one as a teenager in the 1950s). But editing—the layering of sound, titles, captions and other features to tell a story in video—was something for the professional or serious hobbyist.


The equipment and software for video creation and editing are now accessible to anyone with a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Media literacy—communicating and telling stories through sound and visual media—is becoming an important skill in many workplaces.


We are moving from a consumer-based economy, one in which we purchase goods and services provided by experts, to a creation-based economy, one in which we are empowered by technology to create and market a variety of goods and services. As technology evolves, the skills we need to be successful go well beyond reading, writing and mathematics. In addition to media literacy, there is information literacy (the ability to access and evaluate information), digital literacy (the ability to use a variety of electronic and technological tools), and statistical literacy (the ability to analyze and interpret statistical information). Students today need a solid foundation in all these skills as well as in the traditional skills of reading and writing.


For more information on the ways technology is changing our world, check out call number 004 at the Ketchikan Public Library, or search the Alaska Digital Library, available from the Library’s website, for electronic and audio books about computer technology. Happy reading!


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