Examining the Word “Literacy”

I recently became curious about how the word “literacy” has been paired with other words to create terms all librarians use within their practice. Curiosity surfaced when I read the term “innovation literacy.” Thinking I had hit upon a new concept, I was eager to share. I quickly added innovation literacy to my list of literacies offered within the courses I instruct for pre-services school library teachers. I also used the term innovation literacy within my high school community during conversations surrounding student engagement. Yet as I presented innovation literacy, something gnawed at me. Did I really understand how the word literacy was consistently being used when defining a specific term? The research bug bit! I needed to gain an understanding of the word literacy.

The word literacy has a long history with librarians. Just mention the word, literacy and an immediate association with successfully being able to read, write, and communicate materializes in the mind. Yet, separate the word literacy from reading, writing, and communicating and a very powerful secondary meaning emerges. Literacy, paired with another word, finely focuses on the successful competence a human has in a specific area. The secondary definition harkens back to the writing of learning objectives where students “have the ability to…”  as an indication of competency.

Librarians have long created literacy pairings. In 1974, Paul Zurkowski first defined information literacy, as the ability “to find what is known or knowable on any subject” (p. 6). Since first being defined, the term information literacy has evolved to meet the changes in information format, access, and type. Similarly, Michael Gleb and Sarah Miller Caldicott’s (2007) derived innovation literacy through a business lens within the context of determining an individual’s innovation skills leading to the setting of future goals (p. 225). Since then innovation literacy has expanded beyond business objectives to mean working within the abstract to creatively problem solve, evaluate, and critically think in order to develop a solution. The current understanding is especially important to school librarians when creating makerspaces and collaborating with educators, especially those related to STEM.

The consistency within both information and innovation literacy, as well as reading and writing literacy, remains the same: the understanding for an individual to develop competent skills within a specific area. School librarians are constantly reinforcing understandings and building abilities for various “literacies” within the given times and circumstance, through lesson plans, guidance, and supports. Librarians are tapped into the literacy pairings of:

  • Computer Literacy: the ability to effectively use a computer,
  • Cultural Literacy: the ability to understand one’s own culture,
  • Data Literacy: the ability to derive meaningful information from data sources,
  • Digital Literacy: cognitive/metacognitive skills developed to adapt, manipulate, and complete tasks across several digital environments,
  • Information Literacy: the ability to use information and communications technologies to effectively locate, evaluate, determine relevancy, synthesize, and use information ethically,
  • Innovation Literacy: the ability to creatively problem solve within the abstract,
  • Media Literacy: the ability to use and make judgments about media,
  • Multicultural Literacy: an appreciation of cultures, other than one’s own,
  • Political Literacy: the ability to understand the political landscape,
  • Technology Literacy: the ability to use technology effectively to develop a product,
  • Visual Literacy: the ability to read, understand, and draw conclusions using images.

Yet even more important than developing successful skills within each pairing is the librarian’s inherent support for an individual’s freedom to make choices. Choice is an important part of being a human. As lesson plans, collaborations, and supports are developed for the literacies by librarians, targeting points for choices can only reinforce the importance of developing an individual’s competency.

The word literacy now becomes even more powerful in my practice. My approach to building knowledge and skills within the literacies matters. I must constantly keep in mind the changing world as specific literacy skills may need adjustment. I must strive to guide my students to understand their choices and possible outcomes in their efforts to develop literacy skills. My greatest hope is that along with other librarians we build communities of students with competent skills who are able to make and articulate their choices while understanding the possible outcomes.


Gelb, M .and Caldicotte, S.M. 2007. Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of American’s Greatest Innovator. New York: Dutton.

Zurkowski, P.G. 1974. The information service environment relationships and priorities (Report Number nclis-nplis-5). National Commission on Libraries an Information Science. Washington DD.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Author: Georgina Trebbe

Georgina Trebbe, Ed.D. is the school librarian at Minnechaug Regional High School in Massachusetts. She is also an adjunct instructor for Simmons University’s SLT program. Georgina’s interests include information literacy, collaboration, and school librarians as researchers.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Makerspaces/Learning Commons, Professional Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I find this fascinating especially as librarians continue to create and curate resources to help our school community become in effective and efficient in multiple literacies

  2. Thanks for enumerating all of these literacies. I love teaching media literacy to 4th and 5th graders.

  3. Thank you for sharing your research and thinking, Georgina. I applaud your commitment to choice, which is a cornerstone in the practice of (school) librarianship.

    I would also like to add that the foundational literacies of reading, writing, speaking, and listening are essential literacies for students (and all people) if they expect to be successful in any of the other literacies listed above. I believe in the rush to identify and support multiple literacies school librarians can lose sight of that essential truth.


    P.S. I’m wondering if you found definitions that expand “cultural literacy” to include competence in cultures other than one’s own.

  4. Thanks for the great article! I find the profusion of paired literacies challenging and exciting! You may find interesting reading the IMLS 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, which charges museums and libraries with supporting seven named types of literacy, while also leaving the door open for infinite more:
    “Enhance library and museum resources that foster early, digital, information, health, financial, media, civic, and other types of literacies.” (p. 5)

  5. Thank you for your kind words.

    Great point concerning definition expansion of cultural literacy. Perhaps considerations for the differences between multicultural literacy and cultural literacy should be examined in future research. Within my practice, I first ask students to develop an awareness of their own individual cultures. I consider individual culture those points each person self-identifies. Then I ask students to examine the intersections of individuals as a foundation for multicultural awareness. I can safely say my submission was heavily influenced by these thoughts.

    Thank you for the IMLS document. The connections between schools and museums are always evolving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.