Alison Hicks reflects on the challenges faced by information literacy when transport prevents crucial social and physical interactions.
During my visit to the Outer Hebrides this summer, I travelled over one of the islands’ most recently constructed bridges to the small settlement of Scalpay. Built during the 2000s, the bridge was celebrated for replacing the short ferry ride that residents had previously had to make to access provisions, healthcare, and education on the larger island of Harris. Yet, it seems that some islanders are still unhappy with this development given that waiting for the ferry at the landing stage had been one of the major ways for them to keep up to date with local goings on. Now, Scalpayites are reduced to merely waving their greetings to each other as their vehicles pass each other on the road.
This story immediately reminded me of the proposal (currently under consultation) to remove staffed ticket offices from train stations. As a regular commuter, I have been watching this proposed closure very closely, my wariness honed through struggles with unintuitive (and misleading) ticket machines. People who might face even greater challenges if the shuttering were to go ahead include the elderly, the offline, people who are neurodiverse or who have physical or learning disabilities, many of whom have written movingly on the impact that these changes would have on their lives. For these people, the removal of the ticket office would, just like with the construction of the bridge in Scalpay, eliminate a vital source of community support and information.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, information literacy hasn’t been the focus of broader national conversations about the value of ticket offices. However, the loss of information, particularly social and embodied information, is at the heart of both situations. Researchers have been writing for years about the importance of social and physical information to information literacy; refugees are seen to pool information to work around language and literacy barriers, firefighters tell stories to build professional knowledge and patients create scrapbooks to explain and represent the realities of their chronic illness to others. It’s important to realise, though, that these interactions are not just about accessing certain forms of knowledge more efficiently. Instead, these information activities are entwined with care and connection- sharing information, for example, helps people to build the emotional support networks that they need by aligning loved ones with their situation. In effect, relationships (with peers, information providers and friends and family) support the information interactions that enable people to participate in the social structures of a setting.
The elimination of opportunities for social interactions – whether via a bridge or a ticket office – consequently pose several questions for information literacy research and practice. On one level, I’m quite struck by what the loss of these social touchpoints might mean for information literacy. What happens when established information interactions are interrupted? How does our participation in the public sphere change and what does this mean for our social identity, whether citizen, traveller or other? More complexly, I’m also interested in how we recover. How do people develop new workarounds for old information problems, or do information needs go unmet? What issues do these new workarounds solve- and who or what might they damage?
Yet, on another level, I also can’t help thinking of the challenges that the cold, wet and rough ferry ride must have posed for some of Scalpay’s inhabitants. Who missed out on local information interactions, whether due to disability, infirmity, or a tendency to seasickness? How has a bridge that is open in all weathers supported access to other forms of information interactions, including with inhabitants and communities located across the Scalpay bridge? I also wonder who has profited from the decline in local gossip; while I’m sure the residents of Scalpay are very lovely people, the sharing of information can also constrain information literacy, particularly when it props up stigma and marginalisation.
A final consideration that occurs to me is how the fate of local community information infrastructures is entangled with the goals and values of Silicon Valley- how might the push to replace human touchpoints with digital proxies be driven by billionaires looking to minimise microinteractions with the “grubby taint” of the public? (Relatedly, are libraries buying into the same logic, given the relatively uncritical ways in which our field has espoused UX literature to date?). The uproar that has (rightly) greeted the closure of ticket offices also provides another vehement reminder that digital literacy can never just be understood in terms of functionality or proficiency with digital tools. Instead, as my recent research into hybrid working demonstrates, digital interactions must be seen as both entwined with the analogue and as shaped by embodied responses that reference markers of identity, including race, class and disability.
Twenty years on, the bridge to Scalpay is here to stay. As I am writing, though, it is still not clear what the fate of ticket offices will be, so I encourage us to consider (and contest) the impact of any future decision from an information perspective- with all its many implications.