To Jargon or Not to Jargon (Library Edition)

To Jargon or Not to Jargon (Library Edition)

by Natalie Browning, Senior Assistant, INALJ DC


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACirculation, Overdue, Hold Request, ILL (Inter-Library Loan), Peer-Review. As librarians and library workers, we not only know what these words mean, but we use them in conversation often. Whether you’ve studied for a MLS degree or have spent any amount of time working in a library environment, you know how to “talk the talk.”

However, some of these words may be hard for patrons, even the most frequent library visitors, to understand. This can be problematic for those of us who want to educate our patrons on what we do., It’s worth repeating that there are all types of patrons- including those who are willing to learn and those who just want to get their requested information and go on with their day.

For example, as a grammar enthusiast with a Bachelor’s degree in English, the use of words is important to me (anyone else celebrate National Grammar Day on March 4th every year?), so I have a hard time not correcting people when they come to the library and ask me if they can “rent” a movie. My issue with the word “rent” is that it insinuates that money is involved. Possible overdue fees and tax-paying aside- there is no money involved in the library transaction. However, most of the time, when patrons ask to “rent,” what they’re really asking is if they can take the movie away from the library. So instead of trying to explain to them the art of “checking out” versus “renting,” I frame my answer kind of like this: “Yes, you can borrow 4 movies at a time for a one week period; I just need to see your library card/ student ID.” Thus, allowing myself a small correction with the use of the word “borrow” while still answering the initial question.

I became interested in the use of library jargon while in library school. I already worked in a library, so I understood most of “the talk,” but I still remember the first time a staff member asked me if I’d seen a certain book because it was for “ILL,” and I had no idea what those three letters meant. So with that in mind, I wrote about the pros and cons of using library jargon for my first literature review assignment. I’ll spare you my scholarly musings, and just lay out that there is no consensus on whether or not we should use jargon.

Of course ,there are those that seek to educate their patrons by posting glossaries of terms on their websites; there are even some that propose transforming the existing jargon into other words (perhaps words focused around education- I’m looking at you here Howard County Library System in Maryland). There have even been studies of whether or not students understand library jargon terms. One study found that while students understand commonly used terms like “plagiarism,” they most often do not understand words like “Boolean logic” and “truncation.” In those cases, misunderstandings between staff and students can be prevalent.

While I can’t offer any concrete conclusions or solutions on the matter of jargon, I can say this: Ultimately, it is our job as library staff to find out what patrons really want or, for those of in the know: “conduct the reference interview.” If patrons say they want to “rent” items, and they still walk out with what they requested, we have helped them. We haven’t confused them with library language, and everyone in library land is happy.  

What are your thoughts on using library jargon? Is it okay to use it with “regular” patrons? Should we try to educate all patrons? How do you explain these sometimes difficult concepts to your library users?


Further Reading

Glossaries of Library Terms

ACRL’s Multilingual Glossary of Terms

Wikipedia’s Glossary of library and information science

And for those of you interested in some light scholarly reading:

Ayre, C., Smith, I.A., & Cleeve, M. (2006). Electronic library glossaries: jargonbusting essentials or wasted resource?” The Electronic Library, 24(2), 126 -134. doi: 10.1108/02640470610660323

Gross, V. J. (2009). Transforming our image through words that work. Public Libraries, 48(5), 24-32.

Natalie Browning is a Library Assistant at a local community college in rural Virginia. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA, and she received her MLS in August 2014 from the University of North Texas as part of the Virginias cohort program. She has worked in both a public and an academic library, and loves answering reference questions (even the challenging ones.) Outside of the library, she loves reading mystery novels and YA literature, quoting How I Met Your Mother and Gilmore Girls episodes, running (ha! maybe walking) colorful 5ks, and hanging out with her family.