Library Jargon

 

German shepherd sitting in the grass, head tilted like he is confused or curious.
“Freya,” by Ashley Coombs

This is my first post for ACRLog in my new position as a community college librarian! Starting a new job, I see everything in a new light. Circulation processes, internal record-keeping, who to email for what: all this is fresh for me at this institution. My brain has to work much harder than when I’m settled and on autopilot. It’s a natural part of any transition, and though it’s sometimes uncomfortable, this perspective is also helping me re-evaluate my use of jargon is a big way.

Specialized library vocabulary can be an intimidating source of library anxiety. Erin L. McAfee says that “feelings of inadequacy, confusion, shyness, and frustration” are emotional barriers that create distance between us and our patrons. Jargon we don’t understand definitely leads to confusion and frustration, and I want to do everything I can to reduce that library anxiety and help all students feel like they can be welcome here.

I’m looking for ways to make my speech more accessible to new library users in the classroom and in teaching tools like LibGuides, but there is also research to show that students prefer a de-jargonized website as well. “Students prefer simple natural language,” and even if we include a glossary of terms on our website there’s no guarantee they’ll read it or get anything from it. Better to examine our language and meet students where they are, in my opinion. So what are some of the words I’d like to revisit?

“Reference” is a word I have increasing trouble with. When I call myself a reference librarian, I immediately explain, “That means I help you with research.” Should I start calling myself a “research librarian” as many institutions do? Luckily, my new institution has already dropped the word “reference” and just calls all their librarians “librarians.” And when “reference” means the start-your-research tools like encyclopedias and overviews, I’ve considered moving toward calling these simply “background info.”

There is also internal language that serves librarians but really shouldn’t be used when communicating with students. In my opinion, “PAC”/”OPAC” is internal language, and so is “serials.” Mark Aaron Polger’s study shows that while librarians prefer the term “database” on the library website, students are looking for a button that says “articles.” I think “database” is a word we’re all so comfortable using that we can’t think of a logical replacement. But based on these findings, I know I need to simply define a database as a place you search for articles.

Some people squirm at the idea of giving a definition that is not exhaustive. “A database doesn’t always contain articles!” or “Not everything that’s searchable is a database!” But isn’t it enough to get a first-time library user started? Couldn’t we get more specific once they’re comfortable or in a discipline-specific class?

Acronyms are another type of jargon that tempt librarians and college staff in general. Acronyms are often made in the service of speeding up communication, but they also create a group of people who are in the know and a group that has no idea what the alphabet soup means. Taking the time to spell out the acronym the first time it’s used is worth doing.

Tammi Owens’ presentation on library jargon concludes that “the library’s online presence should be engaging and empowering, not confusing, overwhelming, or anxiety-inducing.” Those words inspire me as a teacher too. There are plenty of teachers who project authority and expertise, and there are learners who benefit from that approach. But I like the idea of my classroom presence being engaging and empowering, not confusing or overwhelming. I want my students to understand me. I want them to feel like searching skills are within their capacity, and I’d rather be accessible than impressive. Acknowledging that jargon exists is the place to start, and endeavoring to define, simplify, or eliminate it is the way forward.

What words do you find yourself constantly defining? Are there words you wish librarians would stop using?

Commuting is Not Distance Learning

The other day I met the student who won the prize drawing in my library’s new student orientation scavenger hunt this semester. She was delighted as I handed her the gift card to the college bookstore, and I was delighted that she had the chance not only to win the prize but also to get to know the library’s resources and services. As it turns out her odds were quite good, because unfortunately participation in the scavenger hunt was somewhat less than overwhelming. There are lots of possible reasons for that which we’ll try to get at them when we make changes for next semester.

But thinking about those reasons started me thinking about commuter students. I’m at a large urban public commuter college within a large urban public (mostly) commuter university. When many people think of college they likely conjure an image of a traditional campus with residence halls, as we tend to see in movies and on TV, but I’d guess that a sizable number of college students commute to school. After all, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, in Fall 2009 fully 44% of all U.S. undergraduates attended community colleges, most of whom are commuters.

When we talk about library resources and services I think there can be a tendency to conflate commuter students with distance learning students. Both groups spend large amounts of time off-campus, but I think there might be real differences between them. Distance learning students have chosen their off-campus program of study, which presumably means that they have the space, time, and technology available to them somewhere off-campus, perhaps at home, to complete their coursework. They go into college knowing that they’ll need to carve out an acceptable study space for themselves, and that they’ll need to access college and library services online. We may worry whether distance students are finding all of the great content — online tutorials, ask a librarian, ebooks — on our library websites, but at least we can be reasonably confident that they have the technology to do so.

I don’t think we can necessarily assume the same for commuter students. I’m deep into analyzing and writing up the data a colleague and I have collected about the scholarly habits of students at several colleges at our university, and it’s clear that for many of them the above assumptions don’t hold true. They may not have a quiet, solitary space for study in their homes, which they often share with family members or roommates. They may not have reliable access to the internet or even a computer in their homes, and while some have and use smartphones for many information and communication needs, not all do.

What do commuter students need from their college library, and how are we doing at meeting these needs? Two thoughts spring to my mind:

Quiet study space: Earlier this year a great post over at Confessions of a Community College Dean caught my eye. The library on his campus designated one room as a “tech-free quiet study space,” and the students flocked to it, even going so far as to self-enforce the rule for silence. At my library students sometimes come to the Reference Desk to ask a librarian to shush a noisy group of students, so I find it especially interesting that students self-monitored the silent study room.

Accessible collections: Even though not all college students have mobile devices or reliable access to the internet in their homes, it’s clear that smartphone ownership is increasing. I imagine that it would be very useful for students with unreliable internet access (or a long commute on public transportation) to be able to download relevant content at the library for use later, when they may be offline. When we acquire ebook packages with restrictive DRM and downloading policies and multiple, confusing steps required to access content on a mobile device, it presents a barrier to students using this content in the ways that may be most supportive of their learning.

What other resources and services can academic libraries offer for commuter students? I’d be interested to hear what’s happening at other colleges with large commuter populations — please leave a comment!

Report From The Field: California’s Community College Crisis

Editor’s Note: I asked Kenley Neufeld, Library Director at Santa Barbara City College to share his insider’s view on the situation currently being experienced at California’s community colleges. We are all aware of the difficult budget situation in California and how it is impacting on higher education. Few folks know the community college scene quite as well as Kenley. Here’s his take on what’s happening:

When California community college librarians return to campus later this month, they may be surprised to find we’ve returned to the dark ages of research. The regular and ongoing funding, since 1997, that has paid for research databases has been cut 100%.

For some campuses, this will mean no paid electronic resources. No Gale. No Ebsco. No ProQuest. Nothing. If they haven’t cut their Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, which many have, they might be able to use the green books. Most, however, are likely to turn to Google and Wikipedia for research needs. The more fortunate campuses, those with supportive leadership, will continue to have some database funding from the local general funds but at a significantly reduced level.

The California community college system includes 110 campuses and 2.6 million students, the largest system in the world. The system relies on state funding and, for anyone paying attention to California economics, you know that academia is suffering like other programs in the state. In addition to unrecoverable cuts last year, for most of the past year the campuses have been receiving deferred funding from the state. Deferred funding forces a campus to use reserves to make payroll and other fixed costs. This is expected to continue.

With the most recently passed state budget (July 28, 2009), cuts will slash community college spending by over $680 million from the amount approved in February, and is expected to reduce enrollment by 250,000 students. Many campuses, and particularly libraries, rely on categorical funds earmarked for specific programs. In most cases, these categorical funds are cut 32%-62%.

One such categorical fund is Telecommunications and Technology Infrastructure Program (TTIP). This categorical was cut 19% for the coming year. This program’s second largest item was the $4 million for library databases. Given the restrictions based on contracts in the other TTIP items, the library database funding will be cut to zero. It is very unlikely this fund will ever be restored.

The budget system is very complicated and it will take us a while to sort through all the implications. There is still a great deal of confusion and circumstances continue to change, even with an approved state budget. Given the magnitude of the overall cuts to community college campuses, there will undoubtedly be more cuts to library budgets in personnel and materials. Hours will be reduced. Collections will be diminished.

According to Community College League of California, “these are the deepest cuts in history of California community colleges. With booming enrollment from four converging forces–record high school graduates, redirected four-year students, returning veterans, and the newly unemployed–the budget will significantly constrain access and limit essential student services.”

All hope is not lost. The Chancellor’s Office is supportive and the Council of Chief Librarians, representing California community college libraries, is being proactive by exploring options for a centralized purchase of basic databases.

Many thanks to Kenley for sharing his insights into what is sure to be an extremely difficult year (and beyond) for our academic library colleagues in California. Kenley ends his post with an optimistic note so let’s hope things do improve before they get much worse.