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Tackling Meta-Illiteracy

by on November 29, 2019

Public libraries provide Wi-Fi so that individuals in need can utilize technology such as a laptop or a smartphone. But do they know how to use it? Do they know what services are available to them? Do they know how to navigate a website? In my last post, I discussed reasons why librarians should not handle patrons’ personal devices. As a continuation, I want to look at how much help a librarian can provide for a patron with multiple illiteracies and how this affects said patrons.

Metaliteracy has been a hot topic in the library world. In their paper “Proposing a Metaliteracy Model to Redefine Information Literacy,” Jacobson and Mackey define metaliteracy as a “comprehensive model for information literacy to advance critical thinking and reflection…” In fact, this paper examines how metaliteracy is dependent upon many similar literacies interacting together in order to succeed with 21st century learning. Accepting this thinking leads me to believe that if being literate in multiple, inter-connected ways is necessary to succeed in the 21st century; then multiple-interconnected illiteracies will also stack making success more difficult for individuals.

Being computer illiterate creates challenges that public librarians are very familiar with. Basic illiteracy creates challenges that public librarians are very familiar with. Dealing with patrons who suffer from both is exponentially challenging. Most directions are written out and low literacy and reading comprehension can render a person unable to follow basic steps. Being computer illiterate means the patron is unaware of the different tools available online and the way that they interconnect. Printing out a form becomes more challenging when the person does not know the many, many different ways to copy and paste, download files, or the various formats documents can come in.

Much discussion revolving around the digital divide focuses on matching low-income patrons with technology so that they can meet the demands that our technology centered society has. The digital divide impedes job hunting, medical and financial literacy, and staying in contact with loved ones. Nevertheless, there are a plethora of nonprofits and government programs that provide low to no cost technology to the impoverished. Public libraries are also a measure against an increasing digital divide. According to PEW research, “In this survey, 29% of library-using Americans 16 and older said they had gone to libraries to use computers, the internet, or a public Wi-Fi network. (That amounts to 23% of all Americans ages 16 and above.)” A list of groups who provide technology will be found at the end of this post.

Connecting patrons to devices is not the issue that public libraries must face. It is a patron’s inability to understand the multiple, inter-connected issues that life online creates that puts them at risk. These meta-illiteracies create circumstances where patrons’ multiple illiteracies increase. Not being able to do online banking or schedule medical appointments and see test results online creates situations where patrons who used to gain these literacies in person, are unable to follow their finances or health trends and lose their medical and health literacies. Not having these literacies ultimately make a patron vulnerable to phishing, scamming, and identity theft. As the Nielson Norman Group points out, “Because they lack the initiative and skill to take matters into their own hands, some users remain at the mercy of other people’s decisions.”

The challenge that public libraries face is how to overcome the meta-illiteracies afflicting our patrons, especially if they are technology resistant. Every library I have worked at has offered computer classes and every one stopped hosting them because patrons did not attend them. At my current library, we utilize volunteers as tech guides who sit with patrons one on one and assist them with personal devices and using library resources. This is very convenient for basic tasks, but becomes more challenging with more personalized information. A patron once asked our tech guide to set up their online banking. The tech was not comfortable with that, and I cannot blame them. Knowing so much detail about a stranger’s personal life makes for uncomfortable situations. I also know of libraries that offer patrons the opportunity to book a librarian. This is similar to the tech guides at my current library and would suffer similar problems with personal information.

I believe that the solution lies in providing STEM education for adults. According to Anne Jolly of Educator Week, “STEM develops a set of thinking, reasoning, teamwork, investigative, and creative skills that students can use in all areas of their lives.” In her article Six Characteristics of a Great STEM Lesson, she states that the sixth characteristic is “STEM lessons allow for multiple right answers and reframe failure as a necessary part of learning.” The other characteristics also support meta-literacy; however, this aspect truly addresses meta-illiteracies. Once patrons understand that there are multiple ways to succeed and that initial failure is not a problem, learning technology and focusing on overcoming meta-illitercy becomes easier.

Technology Programs:

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