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« Libraries for a post-literate society II | Main | Blog Award »

Libraries for a post-literate society I

First off let me just say that I've impressed the hell out myself with the title of this post. But I just can't think of another way to describe some thoughts I've been trying to organize for a while. Something less ostentatious will present itself eventually, I'm sure. - Doug


“... the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” Steven Jobs

Next time you are returning to your seat from an airplane's bathroom, do a quick scan over the shoulders of seated  passengers. What are they doing?

If your observations are similar to mine, well over 50% of air travelers are listening to portable music devices, playing games on handhelds, working on presentation or spreadsheet files on laptops, or watching video on small players. Book readers today are the minority.

Any number of recent studies are concluding that reading is declining.1 Not just any reading, but reading of novels and longer works of nonfiction. A range of pundits are remarking that online reading is changing their personal reading behaviors.2 As the Job's quote above suggest, we are rapidly become a postliterate society.

Wikipedia describes a postliterate society as "a society 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 chose 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 organizational device entries or is highly supplemented by graphics. Their needs for extended works of information are met through visual and/or auditory formats.3

Postliteracy is impacting books themselves. How many citizens - already manga and illustrated novel fans - will learn about this year's presidential candidates from:

While many adults exhibit postliterate behaviors, the "Net Generation" is its poster child. And the poster child of the Net Gens is Jeremy from the popular comic strip Zits. A recent panel was illuminating:

Dad: Jeremy, let me tell you a little story about patience.
Jeremy: Is it long? Can you just give me the bullet points? Or maybe the highlights? A short synopsis would probably be more effective.

And the last panel concludes...

Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman 8/05/08 <>

The term “postliterate library” may at first look seem like an oxymoron. But it is not. Our best libraries are already postliterate, increasingly serving sets of users who communicate, recreate and learn using media other than print. And the attitude we as professional librarians adopt toward the postliterate may well determine whether our libraries continue to exist.

Education and librarianship has a bias toward print. This communication/information format that has served society well and in which most professionals now demonstrate high levels of proficiency is expected to be vociferously defended. Most of my fellow professionals are in the same straights that I find myself - a competent reader, writer and print analyist but neophyte video, audio and graphic producer, consumer and critic. And it is human nature to be dismissive of those competencies which we ourselves lack.

But I would argue that postliteracy may be a return to more natural forms of communication - speaking, storytelling, dialogue, debate, and dramatization. It is just now that these modes can be captured and stored digitally as (or more) easily as writing. And  information, emotion and persuasion may be even more powerfully conveyed in multi-media formats. 

What do you see as critical attributes of a library that serves a postliterate clientele?

In the next post, I'll share some of your ideas and mine about postlieracy and its impact on our resources, our programs, and our curricula.


1. These include:

National Endowment for the Arts  "Reading at Risk" report, 2004 <> 

Michael Rogers "What is the worth of word? Will it matter if people can’t read in the future?"  <>

2. These include:

Naomi Baron  “Killing the written word by snippets” (Los Angles Times, Nov 28, 2005) <>

Mark Baurlein The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30)

Nicholas Carr "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" <>

Maggie Jackson Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

Lee Siegel Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.

Motoko Rich "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? New York Times, July 27, 2008 <>

3. This 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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Reader Comments (14)

Hello! I recently stumbled across your blog. I just wanted to say, I really enjoyed reading this post. Fascinating stuff! :)

August 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCara

What a great post! I've quoted you on my Audiobooker blog: You comments on the postliterate culture is spot-on - and another reason for librarians to include audiobooks in their collection. Thanks, Doug!

August 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMary Burkey

Well said! However, our library media program continues to be a big advocate of reading "print" books. We celebrate with read-alouds, observe a school-wide D.E.A.R. program, offer after school book clubs, lunch bunch book clubs, feature book talks via morning news program - oops, that's technology, give Star Bucks for book talks -- this is is just a sampling of the reading programs provided in our school. We do enhance these programs with book talk podcasts, book club video conferences, blogging book reviews, and digital storytelling. E-books vs print books - still not sure where I stand on this, personally, but I do know our students seem just as happy with a print book as an E-book. As to audio books - from what I've observed with our students, it depends largely on the learning style of the child. Our students are 4th - 6th graders and still malleable, so there's still hope! A part of me that is "old school" and wants to fight this "postliterate" lifestyle as much as I enjoy all these fantastic Web 2.0 applications. Your question... "a critical attribute of (today's) library" ... continue to instill a love for reading books by engaging students in those activities that integrate technology and print materials. Our summer reading program ( proved to be successful with engaging students in reading books and sharing/discussing virtually - in my opinion, a happy balance. Is this way off target? Did I even get what your post was about?

August 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrenda Branson

I wouldn't say "postliterate" so much as multiliterate. Print literacy is simply one among many ways of being literate. Libraries are great in that we can offer access to all kinds of literacies - we act as a literacy gateway. In schools, I see us as a literacy "sandbox" where students can play and experiment and mix them up (without fears of messing up.) Print isn't dead, and I don't think it will be going away any time in the future. But I do think you are right about library bias toward print and that focusing on print to the exclusion of other formats does not serve students well. We should have everything from audiobooks to comic books, e-books to picturebooks, biographies, informational, reference...all formats, all genres, across the board. Plus, we have to provide the tools for students to be producers of all kinds of "texts." This is the kind of environment where inquiry learning can thrive, and students can develop a wide array of literacies.

August 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBeth

Ah, Doug. This is a fine post, a good concatenation of stuff that has come out recently, and a thoughtful query. And I love blogs in part because they can be quick and tentative and off the cuff, as opposed to traditional publishing. Here comes everybody! Blogs are a form of conversation, of back and forth, of pondering and wondering, rather than ofpontificating on what are the answers. As a print native and digital immigrant, I am of two minds here, open-minded and curious enough about how things are changing and what it all means, and at the same time an English Major (to quote Garrison Keillor), one who grew up loving reading literature and finding in sustained silent reading my deepest pleasure in the life of the mind. Part of me wants to say that without thie SSR, we can't or won't take the time to get deeply into a subject or into reflection on life. Another part -- the modern librarian part -- recognizes that this kind of reading is, to use a phrase from C. S. Lewis, a "minority enthusiam," and that lots of people just do not relate to the world through in-depth reading. These people can be brilliant and competent and very successful and whatever else you want. And libraries have traditionally championed the cult of books. And all of that is changing, and to be a modern librarian (or whatever else you choose to call it) requires that you step out of this paradigm. I'm getting clsoe to "retirement age" (an anachronism) and will probably change my focus when I get out of the full-time field, but as long as I'm in it, I'm open to new paradigms and am interested in trying to adapt. If the concept of "the library" is to continue, it's clear that it has to constantly evolve and adapt. When I go occasionally to a public library -- my local downtown one, or the terrific Rem Koolhaas one is Seattle I'm struck by its continued usefulness and worth. The really good public library gives its populace what they need and is always full of people looking for something. Libraries have to evolve and to figure out year by year, allways changing and trying to keep up with what the people need. Affluent citizens these days provide for their own "information" and entetrtainment needs and never use the library. We see this in public libraries and in schools (the two types I'm closely familiar with). But there will always be people who need public resources, and the library remains true to Carnegie's vision of providing for the people.
Okay, I'm beginning to ramble -- the luxury of the online comment! And I'll stop here and try to edit my poor typing.
Thanks for the "shout- out" today -- I'll comment over there. Right now, in the confusion of life, I 'm not sure I can remember my professional URL! Too much to keep track of, and I need to read one of my books!
Thanks for all of your support and inspiration. -- Jane

P.S. How does one become a "registered user" or commenter or whatever, on your blog? I log in to Google in two different ways and would like to register one or the other. Thanks.

August 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJane in NC

Follow-up to earlier comment - check this out ...

August 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrenda Branson

Your post is timely, Doug. Just last evening I sat on the edge of my bed, routinely considering which of 2-3 books I have underway I'd select for my 30 minutes of "reading before sleeping." And there sat my new mini-speakers, attached to my iPod which was loaded with several audiobooks. "I'm tired - reading is too much work - I want someone to tell me a story." That was my thought process, followed by "did I just THINK that??" I am a lifelong SSReader, pretty much incapable of going to sleep without reading first. Maybe I'm immigrating. Maybe I long for those early childhood days when I was fortunate to grow up in a home where I was read to every night.

But I was struck by your comment that "postliteracy may be a return to more natural forms of communication - speaking, storytelling, dialogue, debate, and dramatization. It is just now that these modes can be captured and stored digitally as (or more) easily as writing. And information, emotion and persuasion may be even more powerfully conveyed in multi-media formats." I think this is particularly true, for me at least, when it comes to fiction. I subscribe to the Recorded Books service (sort of like Netflix) and wander around doing my weekend chores while listening to a book -- most recently James Lee Burke's painful but lyrical crime novel about post-Katrina New Orleans, "The Tin Roof Blowdown." The digital book I opted for last night was Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," written in 1992, but a book I never got around to at nearly 1000 pages. The dramatic reading, sans eye fatigue, pulled me right through it. In the end, I guess, I want the stories. And whatever pulls me in and through them, that's fine. Audible is now my latest subscription service. I never thought my romance with paper and ink would end -- and really, I guess it won't. But it will be a mature love, a comfortable old marriage, not an obsession.

August 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Norton

@ Hi Mary,

Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate you leaving the link to your blog. It's really fun to follow these trails to new discoveries!

All the very best,


@ Hi Brenda,

My opinion is that you have established a happy balance indeed. And schools are still under the societal charge to primarily create readers, not producers of information in other formats. It's a bit of a dilemma.

Your program sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing information about it here!

Thanks as well for the link to the study. Some interesting numbers. Did you note that kids view more online video than adults!

All the best,


@ Beth,

Your post makes great sense. Most of use will need to remain multi-literate for a very long time and it may be a better term. I also like your "sandbox" illusion. I've written before about how school should be a place to make "safe" mistakes.

Thanks for the challenging thoughts,


@ Jane, what a wonderful comment! The word "concatenation" and a CS Lewis quote to boot. I love it.

The "minority enthusiasm" is an apt phrase. I've read the pundits who believe reading novels and such will have the popularity of going to the opera. Seems unlikely in the immediate future, but who knows.

And your comments about libraries evolving are spot on. "Evolve or die" was the sign on the door of one of my favorite library professors.

Again, thanks for commenting,


@ Hi John,

I don't think the use of audiobooks is a NetGen phenomena only - or even mainly. I suspect all these iPods are being used for things other than listening to the latest rappers!

It is telling, I believe, that the human love for storytelling has just never gone away throughout history. We just have new ways to do it and preserve it.

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I am sure they will resonate with many readers (and listeners).

All the best,


August 16, 2008 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Doug - really enjoying your blog, which I've just recently discovered. Adding it to my iGoogle page so I can keep up!

I absolutely agree that audiobooks are not a Net Gen phenomenon only "or even mainly." My comments above were really me observing myself -- at age 60 (talk about not seeing August in June!) – as the balance tips from reading to wanting to be read to. I've been listening to audiobooks regularly for 15 years or so -- and I'm not a commuter. Dog walks, yard chores, quiet weekend afternoons. When Books on Tape decided to end their individual subscription service 4-5 years ago and discounted their stock, I acquired the entire Patrick O'Brien Aubrey/Maturin collection and quite a few other things that stretched my budget (a familiar story to bookophiles of all persuasions). Now that it's getting difficult to buy Walkman-like tape players, I buy up extras on eBay and hold them in reserve. I more or less skipped the CD audiobook phase (a clumsy technology for walking) and have really just plunged into MP3, finally finding a use for the iPod nano my wife gave me to Christmases ago -- to her delight.

Like you, I think it really IS about storytelling...and not just fiction, either. I'm reading (not listening to) several histories by Stephen Coote. The cover-blurb providers (there must be a word for that - blurbists?) often mention that his books "read like novels." Much the same is said about David McCullough or Jon Krakauer. I'm reminded of Jon Franklin's excellent book for journalists and other non-fiction writers, "Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction." As long as we keep telling good stories, books in whatever guise will have an audience.

August 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Norton

Hi John,

I've not gotten into listening to either books or music on the iPod. I so value my quiet "thinking time" that I also often turn off the radio when I drive. I hate to admit it, but I am book person (e-books too!)

I agree that the best history reads like fiction. I like Stephen Abrose's stuff for that reason too. I am also a big fan of historical fiction. I think I've read all of Michner's stuff at least twice.

Take care and thanks for the comment.


August 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug,

I'm a long-time reader, first-time commenter :) I really enjoy the discussions you facilitate through your blog. Although I no longer work in a library, I'm still able to take something away from the discussions.

I am an Instructional Technologist, so it is my job to work with technology, but as far as I'm concerned there is nothing like curling up with a good book. It's just not the same as curling up with an iPod...

I don't think the idea of curling up with books is completely lost on the NetGeneration...I'm not officially part of that generation, but I'm not too far off (will be 30 in a couple of weeks) and I have always enjoyed reading (print) books. I still prefer it over watching or listening to something on my iPod, DVD player, computer, etc. I do think that libraries have to keep up with the technology as well, but I hope that we are a long way from giving up the printed word.


August 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Thornton

Hi Amy,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I agree that many of our Net Genners still like to read (and am happy for it).

My argument is the percentage who do seems to be declining and that we need to provide services and resources for whom print is NOT a first choice. And not feel we are doing a disservice to education or society by doing so.

A fellow "reader!"


August 28, 2008 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I was referred to your blog by teacher of a college class I am taking in Digital Literacy. Postliteracy is a new term for me, but not a new phenomena. I am a 60-year-old math teacher, who was such a good student, and even a good learner, that I was unaware of my poor reading skills until college. I welcome the postliteracy era, not because it gives me an excuse for not reading, but because it recognizes that not all learners learn best from reading. I embrace the world of multisensory learning. That said, I also prefer my book to my Kindle, or audio book, for a nice relaxing escape from the clutter around me.

One big advantage to reading it myself - I can't multitask while I am reading (or maybe reading is itself a multitasking operation). On the other hand, I cannot NOT multitask while watching TV, movies, etc. That difference makes reading a relaxing pleasure!

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Hi Stephanie,

I expect that one of the great revelations that we will have as a society is that we need to acknowledge and appreciate the differences in learning styles of ADULT learners as well as children. I will be rather happy to see the bias toward only print literacy decrease as multi-media sources of education grow!

Thanks for the comment,


Oh, I expect I like reading for the same reasons you do.

April 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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