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November 3, 2003

Mike sat at my table, received his cappucino, and announced he had something about the library he wanted to talk about.

Oh, dear. Things had seemed to be going so well. But this is how it happens; it sneaks up on you.

He said, “You have to come up with a better word for non-fiction.”


“It’s like a double negative. Fiction is not true. Non-fiction is not not true.”

I had to concede his point. It’s not the most elegant phrase, non-fiction. And it is a regular source of confusion. Especially with students.

A student might typically ask for books about ghosts. I ask if she wants fiction or non-fiction.

Eh? You can smell the wood burning. And I’m not making fun of her. It is, in fact, a tricky thing if you haven’t already sorted it out. The phrase rolls off the tongue as “fiction or non-fiction.” The listener wants to hear “true or not-true.”

You can see the problem. It’s easy to be wrong in a yes-or-no world. At the first sign of hesitancy, I explain, “Do you mean novels? Ghost stories? Or true things — history, science.”

“Yeah. True ghost stories.”

I bite my tongue and find some ostensibly true ghost stories.

The fiction/non-fiction dichotomy is more than just a lexical challenge for libraries. We must dare to make judgments.

I might always put alien abduction, creation science, and crystal energy in fiction. Someone else might choose evolution, non-Christian faiths, and Liberal Opinion Week magazine.

Fortunately, the Dewey Decimal Classification accommodates these difficulties. And instead of referring to “non-fiction,” we could do as some librarians do — refer to the “classified” section.
Although in the current political climate, this might be misunderstood.

The Dewey system has numbers for fiction — such as 813.54 — but we do as most libraries do and shelve fiction out of the number system.

But back to the problem of jargon. If I told you that we keep a brief monograph in the vertical file on evaluating bibliographic citations, you might say, “Eh?”

We might have said that we have a small book in the file cabinet about how to read book citations. But jargon often has useful extensions of meaning. “Bibliographic citation” is used to refer to written material other than books, and nowadays also to non-paper sources of information.

Library jargon also has a temporal dimension: journals, periodicals, serials. Journals are periodical (usually), and periodicals are a kind of serial, which is a publication issed in successive parts.

We still refer to the card catalog, accidentally, when we really mean just catalog. Library patrons do this, too, but we all know what we mean.

But what about the word “patron”? Ugh, I say. The other options aren’t great: customer, client, user. At one time, we might have chosen “reader,” which does not quite cover every library user now, and every reader is not a library user.

Patron is fine, I guess. You might be familiar with the local branch of Developmental Opportunities, which is likewise stuck for a good word. They currently refer to their clients as “consumers.” Double ugh.

We’re open to suggestions. What would you like to be called as a library patron? Are you a user or consumer? Are you a client or customer?
Are you a visitor or a guest of the library? Well, no, because you own it. Perhaps we’ll refer to you as a non-librarian.

So, what shall we call non-fiction?


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