What a treat to have the 2nd European Media and Information Literacy Conference at the National Library of Latvia! And how lucky I am to have seen a most unique cultural object — the Cabinet of Folksongs.
They say that Latvians are a nation of poets. Latvians call them “dainas” – ancient folksongs that are part of daily work, life and celebration. The Latvju dainas are a national treasure, and to learn more about them has been a highlight of my visit to Latvia.
But they might have faded away if not for the work of a scholar who, by collecting the folksongs, helped contribute to the “national awakening” of the Latvian people, helping them to recognize their own unique cultural heritage and identity. His name was Krišjānis Barons, and between 1895 and 1915 he asked singers and informants to write down and send him examples of local folksongs. He received 217,996 examples, which he organized and assembled in a unique cabinet, cataloging the folksongs by the themes and the time of year in which they were performed. The folksongs are written on small hand-written paper slips sized and the cabinet itself has become a cultural symbol.
Today, we can reflect on how the Internet serves as our 21st century “cabinet of culture” as it both reflects and shapes our understanding of our personal and social identity. This weekend, we’ve been reeling from the vote by the British people to leave the European Union, asking ourselves new questions about national and global identity in an interconnected world. Managing the balance between one’s local, national and global identities is not easy: it requires sensitivity to the symbolic meanings embedded in culture and reflection on self and society. It’s aided through dialogue with people from diverse backgrounds.
We’ll never get far if we continue to argue and debate about the “right” definition of media literacy, information literacy, transliteracy, or digital literacy. The concept will always be a perpetual motion machine, no matter how much scholars and bureaucrats may wish to try and pin it down. We don’t even have to agree on the purpose, value and best approaches to teaching or implementing media literacy in our respective nations or communities. We just have to do the work, and come together to learn and share our experiences. In fact, a thousand thousand different “songs of MIL” are needed to address the unique situations and contexts of this work.
But cross-national approaches to digital, media and information literacy do offer enormous potential for advancing MIL and cultural understanding around the world. We should be talking about realistic and do-able strategies for collaborating on projects that bring people from different cultural backgrounds together for dialogue about media, technology and culture – that’s the only real way forward to advance media and information literacy in a global world.