Digital Literacy: Its Application to Folklore Studies

Are digital literacy and traditional information literacy two facets of the same discipline? Afterall, they are both means of facilitating fair and equal access to knowledge and the creation of knowledge.

Digital literacy spawns from information literacy, neither is equal in scope. Information literacy existed before the digital age. Information literacy encompasses the analytical discovery of information, as well as participating in its educational uses. Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to access, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information and requires a combination of  cognitive and technical skills. While there are instances in which students and teachers alike will require training in specific technologies, digital literacy itself increasingly does not need to be taught as a separate skill. In fact, to do so removes technology from its context, and thereby limits conceptions of what that technology can do. Instead, certainly in the academic environment, digital literacy component can and should be be worked into other kinds of assignments, both in practice and for grading purposes. A history project, for example, might include having students put together a Pinterest board for images, video and audio from a specific time period. In this way, digital literacy becomes a source for critical thinking and creativity, often drawing on social skills as students navigate group digital projects.

Let me develop the theme in a little more detail before I focus on application of study, research and publication folklore. Digitally literate people have a number of particular traits:

  • Digitally literate people possess both cognitive and technical skills.
  • Digitally literate people selectively and appropriately use diverse technologies to access, research, retrieve information and subsequently interpret the information retrieved.
  • Digitally literate people understand the relationships of technology, lifelong learning, privacy and electronic custodianship of information.
  • Digitally literate people through their confidence in using the tools have an ability to judge the reliability and value source of digitally accessed information.
  • Digitally literate people increasingly have the ability and tools to participate in discussion and debate on subject matter more frequently and less formally than those who are only “information literate.”

Against this background let me apply the concepts of “information literacy” and “digital literacy” to the research, study and publication of folklore by way of posing and answering some questions about research and publication of folklore.


Does digital literacy enhance research capabilities?

Unlike some areas of academia, where junior staff conduct research for their Reader and Professional Seniors to bathe with the credit of the final delivery, most folklorists conduct their own research sometimes in conjunction with others. Research takes a number of forms:

  • Field work in the form of questionnaires, interviews, observational, recording, photographic, audio visual, often supplemented by diaries, noted books, individual source documents and artefax. With exception of primary source research, much of this can be done “indirectly“ via digitally accessible material. It is more efficient, reduces time and cost and is particularly important where the research funding is subject to time and financial constraints. It does lack the human intimacy of direct contact with the subject matter especially other people. Such interaction frequently draws out human emotions. In subjects like folklore human emotion elicits deeper quality of field research, especially if it is captured in video or audio form.
  • Original source material

What is the difference in research through books and source material reproduced in digitised form and the likes and original paper/ hard copy material:

  • veracity of the source
  • interpolation/editing
  • omission of notes/ margin/ appendix/margin notes etc.
  • Provide creativity with the tools at hand and conclusions drawn


What are the benefits and challenges of digital publication of folklore online and through digital platforms?

  • Establishment and publication of electronic journals without hard copy pedigree

Do journals, established in hard copy form and subsequently available in either or both digitised and hard copy form, have any more reputational authority (actual or perceived) than a journal started in digitised form?

  • Embraces and extends knowledge and thought to a wider cultural and interest groups

The benefits of ease and cost of widespread communication are evidential but in the  slip stream of communication benefits is the ability to share research and its conclusions across nations, cultures and specifically for folklore across academic disciplines creating interdisciplinary interest such as archaeology, anthropology, history and social studies.

  • Less material is subject to peer review which has advantages and disadvantages:


  • Process of peer review is broadly accepted by most researchers
  • Provides valuable feedback for researchers to revise and improve published research
  • Establishes the validity of research based on the knowledge of experts, which allegedly has prevented the acceptance and publication of falsified/ poor quality research.
  • Enables journal editors to select more widely


  • Lengthy delay in dissemination of research findings
  • Time consuming and effectiveness in detecting errors
  • Difficulty of providing anonymity to reviewers in very specialised fields where there are few specialists
  • Inclination to protect establishment ideas and opinions

Does it prevent publication of poor research?

  • Greater and wider expression of interest in folklore nationally and perhaps more importantly, internationally, in folklore especially its cultural roots.
  • Digital decay

Commercial enterprises invariably store information and records, which may be required for a range on external demands, primarily legal and regulatory. The rationale is that huge quantities of data and records can be stored, retained on a more cost effective, efficient basis and accessed on a timely basis. There is a similar trend to take the same approach for academic historical, heritage and, indeed, personal records. The act of capturing data for storage and retention goes under the designation of “archiving.”



What are the acts of digital storage and archiving and do they differ?

Digital storage

Digital storage focuses on addressing “the quantity challenge”: making the process cost efficient; storing as large quantity of data as possible in as small a space as possible; making all data easily accessible. In summary data is piled high in relatively simplistic form for access in as simple and cost-effective form as is technically feasible.

  • The methods currently deployed for secure storage of comprehensible data are highly labour intensive.
  • Digital storage lacks an automated basis to determine the data’s value both currently, and in the future. So the approach lacks any sense of human evaluation and judgement.
  • There is no long-term business model for digital archiving. Like all facets of technology, there are built-in redundancy and obsolescence factors to storage. Digital storage technology has maintenance costs, which increase as the technology ages. New technology makes contemporary storage techniques obsolete and ultimately there is a compulsion to migrate to the next generation of storage technology.

The creation of archives involves a number of conscious acts. Initial choice to archive in the first instance supported by some rationale, selection of material and organisation of the form and presentation of the material.

It follows that archiving demand trained and experienced individuals to manage and control the archiving process, which extends beyond the retention and maintenance to pruning, reduction and in some instances ultimate destruction of archives.

  • The skills and resources, which have historically been channelled into archiving, have endowed archives with integrity, usability and even immortality.
  • Archiving has historically been conducted using one permanent medium to maintain material for as long as required, normally paper or some other form of visual material.
  • The digital age is producing data at such a rate and volume but which traditional archiving techniques involving the human intervention and judgement are unable to address at the pace or rate data is being produced. Moreover there would be huge costs to deploy the conventional human techniques.

Until an automated mechanism for determining what data means, and its long term value, huge quantities of data will continue to be collected with less than cursory assessment of its value, present or future. Traditional archiving techniques are falling into disuse, but are not being replaced, only substituted by storage.


What are challenges of digital stewardship of folklore compared with documentary stewardship?

A plethora of research topics for aspiring PhD Students lies within the issues which time permits me to only briefly identify:

  • Digital and data debris
  • Effective communication
  • Internet safety
  • Resource requirements, skills and costs
  • Contingency support
  • Increased regulation

Concluding Comments

I set out by stating that information and digital literacy are but two aspects of literacy, and that digital literacy builds on information literacy. Digital literacy does not replace information literacy but builds on it. You cannot shoot a film on an i-Phone but merely capture a moment spontaneously or otherwise (though the telecom companies would have you believe otherwise!). Likewise, a digitally accessed or disseminated blog on folklore will not replace a considered reflective essay or written paper on the subject. What digital literacy does, is to  provide the quick pursuit of information and views without having to search through pages of turgid prose and footnotes/reference points.

Digital proficiency does not make a subject matter expert or enhance reputation and authority on subject matter, but it does enable more coherent, versatile presentation and rationalisation of research material, which reaches a wider audience and readership in both numbers and variety of venue.

Digital proficiency should not work to turn its adopters into some form of technology zombie, where researchers are glued to their screen constantly and consistently as merely information recipients but into creating not merely receiving information.

Technology is in no way at odds with traditional research methods. The best technology draws on those same principles and empowers researcher to take traditional methods to the next level. While there is always room for re-evaluation of pedagogical approaches, technology should support what researchers have always done best, rather than getting in the way.

Technology itself cannot transform research. In fact, any given piece of technology has low value especially in an academic environment where supervisors don’t understand it or why they’re being made to use it. Technology can help engage researchers and connect them with a range of perspectives and resources. But does it take research supervisors to implement that technology. The researchers know best what will and won’t work. It’s also important to note that digital literacy does not replace human connections. It should be used to strengthen those connections.