Jargon vs vocabulary

Librarians are often advised not use technical library words (e.g. catalogue) when talking to students1.  However, I think it is important to introduce new vocabulary (with definition or explanation) to someone who is learning to navigate the information environment, just as we would do when teaching them about their subject in a study context.  Giving the student some understanding of how they can interact most effectively with the computer interface or card index will empower them to become an expert user of the library’s search and retrieval tools.

Perhaps the difference between jargon and vocabulary is the ease with which one can discover the definition of a word.  To facilitate this, introduce new terms in context, with explanation.  If the word appears on a webpage rather than during a teaching session, link to a definition.  Here’s a comprehensive list of library jargon from Oxford Brookes uni library (and there are many others) – though I would argue that by defining the terms, they are no longer jargon but vocabulary.

I recently read Randall Munroe’s book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.  This book covers “all kinds of neat stuff” (mostly scientific topics) and the titles, labels, and descriptions on each diagram are all written using only the thousand most common English words.  Some reviewers who gave the book a poor rating seem to have confused “simple words” with “simple concepts”, and I would not consider this an entry-level book.  I found it much easier to understand the diagrams with whose topic I was already familiar.  The “simple words” concept also shows how important specialist language is – without it, “water” can mean virtually any liquid, and does not differentiate between H2O, blood, and cytoplasm.

Extract from "Thing Explainer" by Randall Munroe

Extract from “Thing Explainer” by Randall Munroe

Once a teacher, always a teacher… and I found myself pondering how such diagrams could be useful in a lesson to reinforce learning of specialist terms and the importance of being able to distinguish between them.

I wished that Randall could have included a key – a way to find out which terms/keywords I would need to know in order to find out more about a topic.  And that brings me back to students and academic libraries – if students know the names of and some of the basic differences between our search tools (e.g. catalogue, discovery, repository), they will be better able to choose the most appropriate one for the task they need to do.

1 Meredith Schwartz ‘Users Don’t Know What Libraries Are Talking About, Studies Find’ (Library Journal, 15 March 2012) <http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/03/academic-libraries/users-dont-know-what-libraries-are-talking-about-studies-find/>


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