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What’s in a Name

May 22, 2006

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Juliet Capulet)

Nevertheless, names matter to us. While looking over a draft of a new information pamphlet for our library, I saw how deeply rooted arcane library terminology is.

Take the apparently obvious phrase “interlibrary loan.” If you read it carefully, and know the context, you can determine what it is. But as words go, “interlibrary loan” is in a class with “antidisestablishmentarianism.” You have to dissect it, and know the context, if you don’t already know what it means.

A gentleman named John Kupersmith keeps a website called “Library terms that users understand.” After examining 45 usability studies, he made a list of the terms most often misunderstood:

Database, library catalog, E-journals, index, interlibrary loan, periodical or serial, reference, resource, as well as acronyms and brand names (e.g., ACLIN or LexisNexis) and subject categories (do you really know what “Humanities” means?).

I feel stuck with some of these. The word I see most used to avoid using “database” is “resource.” Not much help.

If you hang out in libraries at all, you’ve heard the word “reference.” What does it mean? “Reference book” describes a purpose, a location, an item type (can it be checked out or not?), a publishing category.

There are “reference librarians” who answer “reference questions” (as opposed to librarians who simply refer you to someone else). Reference service is traditionally offered face-to-face, but a long time ago, libraries began to accept reference questions via telephone.

Then came faxes, email, and “virtual” reference service where you get a live librarian to chat with via the Internet (such as Colorado’s AskColorado service). This means “Internet chat,” which is a mode of communication rather than a description of a conversation. The service is usually too busy to chat about the weather.

The library offers “indexes” and “databases.” I wish we had better terminology … or rather, better words. Some databases offer “full text,” which becomes an obvious term only after you know that it means exactly what it says — the full text of the article or book can be had immediately via the Internet.

There’s a twist, of course. You might get full “text” but nothing else — no pictures, charts, graphs, etc. Or you might get an image of the pages exactly as they were originally published in paper. But what if they were never published in paper? O brave new world!

Then there’s “catalog.” Everyone’s postal mailbox is full of them, and everyone up to a certain age seems to have known what the “card catalog” was. Why was it not called the “book catalog,” since it cataloged books?

Libraries were mostly books, but not everything in a library collection is a book. It was so then. It’s more so now. We might have a copy of “The Da Vinci Code” in print, large print, audiotape, CD, and downloadable audio format.

Five or more versions of one work instead of one version of five works. Hmm.

Don’t forget abridged and unabridged versions of the audio. In user-friendly language today we might label them “short” and “long” versions. However, information would be lost. An “abridgement” necessarily refers to an original. If you have the “short” or the “long” version, what do you have?

No time to discuss. I have to cut some wood. Specifically, I shall take a chain saw and cut some trees. More specifically, I shall cut some dead and fallen trees. Soon, they will be cordwood. And then, soon enough, firewood.

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