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KISS: Can Acronyms and Terminology Be Barriers to Library Use?

March 3, 2021

Librarians love their acronyms. During my first semester of Library School, I took a “Library 101” type course, part of which was learning a glossary of library terminology including acronyms: MARC, ILL, OPAC, OER, ALA, ACRL, LC, that sort of thing. I had been a heavy library user during my undergrad – the heck with closing down the bar, I closed down the library on many a night. But this was my first introduction to the language of libraries. I hadn’t heard of many of these terms, so was at a bit of a loss when I was given the list of terms and acronyms to memorize. I feel like we even had a “vocabulary” quiz on the terms at some point during the semester.

That experience can give a little perspective of how students and other patrons must feel when we start speaking in the library-ese. What do they experience when we stand in front of a classroom, or behind the reference desk, and tell them that if they can’t find the book in the OPAC then they will need to request an ILL using OCLC’s WorldCat? If we needed flashcards and a quiz grade to help us learn the terms, shouldn’t we be more aware of how unusual these terms can be for our patrons? Libraries like UC San Diego or Rutgers University Libraries have created glossaries on their websites to help patrons de-code our library language. Though I wonder how many take the initiative to study and learn the terms. Do many just leave our interactions feeling frustrated and unwelcome?

I was reminded of my Library School vocab quiz when I moved to a new state and joined a new library. I won’t admit how many times I had to Google an acronym to figure out the organization sponsoring a particular workshop, or to identify which service was being updated. It was a humbling experience for someone who has been in the profession for many years. I was a bit embarrassed and hesitant to clarify the meaning of the terms or acronyms, so I either spent time searching for the meaning myself, or sat there in ignorance hoping that I’d eventually catch on enough to figure it out… eventually…

If this is how I reacted unknown acronyms and terms, how many of our new colleagues, student workers, interns, or others new to the profession encounter the same experience. Associations and organizations, like the Librarians Association of the University of California (LAUC) have made glossaries geared to library professionals, similar to the ones created for our patrons. But is there another way, rather then putting the responsibility on the patron or newcomer to figure out what we mean?

Remember to KISS

Maybe we should look for ways to Keep It Simple… and not ASSUME – we all know what “assume” stands for, right? We all can fall into the trap of being stuck in our own heads. We make sense to ourselves, so we forget about the step of making sure others understand us. It’s easier sometimes to use the acronyms or terminology; it takes extra time and keystrokes to translate what we mean into non-librarian speak. We would need to re-train the way we, as librarians, think, but the return on investment (ROI) on taking these steps can be valuable to the relationships we build.

A way to re-train yourself related to acronyms may be adopting an acronym policy like the one the Pennsylvania Library Association uses in some of its meetings. Write out an acronym completely before using the abbreviation later in the conversation or the email. This strategy ensures that anyone new to the conversation, or just needing a reminder, is on the same footing as everyone else. You may even want to self-impose an Acronym Fine Jar (hat tip to my former home in the Virginia Library Association and its executive director Lisa Varga).

Even if you are speaking to a faculty member, seasoned researcher, or another library professional take a beat to check in with them to make sure that they understand the terminology that you are using. Allow space for them to ask for clarification without drawing attention to themselves. You may even want to consider whether you should use the library term at all. If the term or acronym isn’t used on the library’s website or in its promotional materials, then it might be better to use the public label of a tool or resource. Instead of referring to the OPAC or Discovery Tool, do you have unique title or label for the search box on the library’s home page?

What we “name” things on the public side of our tools and services is a whole other blog post, so I am going to end things here. If you are interested in that part of the conversation, there’s a blog post by Emily Hampton Haynes from ACRLog and a 2012 document “Library Terms that Users Understand” by John Kupersmith to get the ball rolling. They are just some examples of the work that is out there on the topic.

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