Bridging our Terminology

At the ALA Midwinter Meetings and Exhibits this January in Philadelphia, I attended a session sponsored by the Library Instruction Round Table (LIRT). The discussion, which included both public and K-20 librarians focused on the terminology we use to describe our services and resources. The conversation started with the premise that students transitioning to college have a steep learning curve, and librarians in school, public, and academic libraries can ease this transition by harmonizing the jargon we use and to which we expect students to adapt. Below are some highlights from the discussion.

Online Catalog: What do you call your online catalog? Do you refer to it as the electronic access to books and more? Do you have a name or acronym for it – Destiny/BobCat/LEO/OPAC? Or is it referred to by the name of the app/program? We agreed that we overwhelming referred to our catalogs as just that – the catalog of materials found in the library. Also important to remember is that students have research needs that may aptly suit the title of the resource. For example, if the student needs to find books for the assignment, the catalog can be referred to as the way to “find books” in the library for the project.

Searching Strategies: Do you use Boolean operators in search instruction, and if so do you refer to them as Boolean or AND/OR/NOT limiters? We found that while we all employ and demonstrate Boolean logic to show our students how to get optimum search results, we do not name them as such. As instructors, nearly all of us use the advanced search interface within the databases and get students to think critically about their search terms and what strategies will yield the most relevant resources.  This segued into how we refer to online databases? Do you refer to it as EBSCO or GreenFile, which is the name of the specific product? One librarian offered the analogy of a cable company and the channels that it offers to viewers as a way for her students to understand the relationship of the parent publishing company to the specific database provided. Additionally, another librarian recounted how when her first year student scoured the university libraries web page for a link to EBSCO he did not find it. With her assistance he found all of the university’s EBSCO products which was significantly more than what his elementary, middle, and high school had offered. We should include in our instruction the fact that several database companies provide multiple offerings in specific categories. Understanding that concept should help move students forward when they start research assignments as an undergraduate.

Professional Branding: What do you call yourself? Librarian/Information Professional/Media Specialist/Teacher Librarian/Agent of Excellence? This question prompted a lively discussion of the various names by which we are known. “Librarian” is the term that students know and use. Furthermore, we should capitalize on the word that library users so strongly identify a meaningful and positive impression. In the December 11, 2013 report by the Pew Research Center titled How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities survey respondents stated they “strongly value library services such as access to books and media; having a quiet, safe place to spend time, read, or study; and having librarians to help people find information.”

What about the terminology for subject specific guides for research projects? Do you use Pathfinder/Libguide/Subject or Course guide? We found that most of us referred to the guides as subject or course guides. “Libguides” was a product specific term and pathfinder is no longer widely used.

References and Plagiarism: How do you refer to references? Realizing that these have specific terms as they are associated with each discipline’s preferred style format, do you call them works cited/resources used/citations/bibliography? This was a topic where no one term surfaced as most widely used. One librarian shared that she simply referred to resources used as “documentation” that supported the student’s research project. This dovetailed into a discussion about the use of Turnitin and other plagiarism tools. Overwhelmingly, many of the librarians operating at colleges and universities said use of plagiarism tools were in violation of the honor code. Students were expected to research and write ethically. At GFS, we are currently using Turnitin for students within the history department to proactively check their assignments prior to completion to help improve their writing. This experience will benefit these students as undergraduates.

As librarians, I believe we have an aerial view of what our students experience at our schools. We can be a place where continuity is built in not only the language of Libraries but in cementing students’ understanding of research and the expectations of that process. This session and idea exchange supports our work and steadfast commitment to keeping commonality in our terms between divisions and beyond the K-12 experience. But it also proved to be a reminder that our work can be fraught with technical jargon that doesn’t breed understanding. I am charged now to make sure that the terms we use in the library and classroom are relatable, for the long haul.

Information on Bridging the Terminology: A Collaborative Effort to Help High School Students Transition to College, a transcript of the Chatzy discussion, and the documents from the session are available at:



3 thoughts on “Bridging our Terminology

  1. Good thought-provoking post. I’m going to go to school tomorrow considering my vocabulary with students. I hadn’t thought about the confusion for students when I’m basically describing new vocabulary to them. To me, online database and subscription database are synonymous. (Probably calling it a sort of subscription catalog would work too.) But my newer students might not realize that they are the same thing or that Ebsco is the “parent” of “History Resource Center.” I always offer bonus points, just like on Whose Line is it anyway where the points don’t matter, to the student who knows that AND/OR/NOT are called Boolean Operators. There’s always one. 🙂

  2. You’re post on library vocabulary combined with the ALA session really started me thinking about this issue so I want to thank you for the inspiration! I know that the technical terms are second nature to me at this point and looked at from the outside I was able to see how much confusion they could cause. And I appreciate your words about Boolean operators and bonus points. It’s a victory when my students use the operators -naming them accurately (even just one student) would make my school year!

    • There was a wonderfully impromptu “aha” moment this morning when a student (surrounded by two friends) realized that we could take out all the results on post-apartheid South Africa for her research paper on Apartheid-era South Africa by adding NOT post. Don’t get me started on what date limiters could do for her. 🙂

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