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Libraries for a Postliterate Society

By Doug Johnson - Posted Jul 1, 2009
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The fact is that people don’t read anymore.

—Steve Jobs

Next time you wander an airplane’s aisles, do a quick scan over the shoulders of your fellow passengers. What are they doing?

If your observations are similar to mine, more than 50% of air travelers are listening to portable music devices, playing games on handhelds, working on presentations or spreadsheets using laptop computers, or watching video on diminutive players. Paper book and magazine readers are in the minority.

Any number of recent studies are concluding that reading is declining, primarily the reading of novels and longer works of nonfiction.1 Pundits are remarking that online reading is changing their personal reading behaviors.2 As the Jobs quote above suggests, we are rapidly becoming a postliterate society.

Wikipedia describes a postliterate society as one "wherein multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read written words, is no longer necessary" (, Aug. 10, 2008).

I would modify that definition and define the postliterate as those who can read but who choose to meet their primary information and recreational needs through audio, video, graphics, and gaming. Print for the postliterate is relegated to brief personal messages, short informational needs, and other functional, highly pragmatic uses such as instructions, signage, and time-management device entries—each often highly sup­­ple­mented by graphics. The postliterate’s need for extended works or larger amounts of information is met through visual and/or auditory formats.3

Postliteracy is impacting books in the following ways (among others):

• --Many citizens—already manga and graphic novel fans—learned about last year’s presidential candidates from the Obama and McCain comics that were published during the campaign (see

• --The introduction to Google’s browser, Chrome, was released as a comic (

• --The Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain published its copyright guide Tales from the Public Domain: Bound by Law? as a graphic novel (

While many adults exhibit postliterate behaviors, the Net Generation is postliteracy’s poster child. And the poster child of the Net Gens is Jeremy from the popular comic strip Zits. The panel appearing on Aug. 20, 2008, was illuminating. Jeremy is asked by his mother if he’s "through" his summer reading list. Jeremy replies: "‘Read’ as in look at every page and comprehend its meaning … or ‘read’ as in flip through the first chapter and plan to Google a synopsis the night before school starts?" (Take a look at Like many young adults (and an increasing number of older ones), Jeremy exhibits episodic reading behaviors.

Attitudes and Biases

The term "postliterate library" may appear to be an oxymoron at first glance, but it is not. Our best libraries are already postliterate, increasingly meeting the needs of users who communicate, play, and learn using media other than print. And the attitudes we as professional librarians adopt toward the postliterate may well determine whether our libraries continue to exist.

Education and librarianship have a current bias toward print. This communication and information format has served civilization well for a couple millennia. Most professionals now demonstrate high levels of proficiency in print literacy skills, and they can be expected to defend the necessity of such skills vociferously. Most of my fellow professionals are in the same straights that I find myself—a competent reader, writer, and print analyst but a neophyte video, audio, and graphic producer, consumer, and critic. And it is human nature to be dismissive of those competencies that we ourselves lack.

But I would argue that postliteracy is a return to more natural forms of multisensory communication—speaking, storytelling, dialogue, debate, and dramatization. It is just now that these modes can be captured and stored digitally as easily as writing. Information, emotion, and persuasion may be even more powerfully conveyed in multimedia formats.

Serving the Postliterate Clientele

Libraries, especially those that serve children and young adults, need to acknowledge that society is becoming postliterate. These are some critical attributes of a library that serves a postliterate (PL) clientele:

1. PL libraries budget, select, acquire, catalog, and circulate as many or more materials in nonprint formats as they do traditional print materials. The circulation policy for all materials, print and nonprint, is similar.

2. PL libraries stock, without prejudice, age-appropriate graphic novels and audio books, both fiction and nonfiction, for informational and recreational use.

3. PL libraries support gaming for instruction and recreation.

4. PL libraries purchase high-value online information resources.

5. PL libraries provide resources for patrons to create visual and auditory materials and promote the demonstration of learning and research through original video, audio, and graphics production. They also provide physical spaces for the presentation of these creations.

6. PL libraries allow the use of personal communication devices (MP3 players, handhelds, laptops, etc.) and provide wireless network access for these devices.

7. PL library programs teach the critical evaluation of nonprint information.

8. PL library programs teach the skills necessary to produce effective communication in all formats.

9. PL library programs accept and promote the use of nonprint resources as sources for research and problem-based assignments.

10. PL librarians recognize the legitimacy of nonprint resources and promote their use without bias.

While I recognize this may look frightening, even culturally destructive, to many of us "print-bound" professionals, we cannot ignore the society of which we are a part and are charged with supporting. Culture determines library programs; libraries transmit culture.

School libraries are often the bellwether programs in their schools. If we as librarians support and use learning resources that are meaningful, useful, and appealing to our students, so might the classroom teacher.

In Phaedrus, Plato decries an "alternate" communication technology:

The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves.

The Greek philosopher was, of course, dissing the new technology of his day: writing. Plato might well approve of our return to an oral tradition in a digital form. But his quote also demonstrates that sometimes our greatest fears become our greatest blessings.

Doug Johnson is director of media and technology at the Mankato, Minn., Public Schools and author of the Blue Skunk blog. Contact him at


1. These include the following:

• -- - National Endowment for the Arts, "Reading at Risk," 2004 (

• -- - Michael Rogers, "What is the Worth of Words? Will It Matter if People Can’t Read in the Future?" (

2. These include the following:

• -- - Naomi Baron, "Killing the Written Word By Snippets," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28, 2005 (

• -- - Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), Tarcher, 2008.

• -- - Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (

• -- - Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Prometheus Books, 2008.

• -- - Lee Siegel, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Spiegel & Grau, 2008.

• -- - Motoko Rich, "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" The New York Times, July 27, 2008 (

3. Postliteracy differs from aliteracy in that the demand for information and new learning is present, only met in other means than print. Aliteracy simply means choosing not to read.

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