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Naming conventions

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Debates may arise over what terminology to use when labeling library facilities, tools, and services. For example, there is no agreed-upon connotation for what libraries call such disparate names as "bibliographic databases," "article search engines," and "subject indexes." Such inconsistencies of course can only further confuse users of multiple libraries.

Early online library terms ("OPAC," for example) were akin to legalese for the general public: an intentional use of an esoteric, obtuse vocabulary meant to preserve the role of the profession as a gatekeeper to information. Several professional fields do this, (e.g., "pneumothorax" for "collapsed lung," "controlled flight into terrain" for "plane crash," "low introductory rate" for "usury," and so on) but it's unclear if such jargon, while admittedly more precise and less prone to meaning changes, is beneficial for even members of such professions.

Just as the open stacks movement opened the way towards modern librarianship becoming less about acting as a warden for material collections but rather facilitating their use through library instruction, many libraries have turned towards a more user-friendly focus when choosing names; naming conventions should avoid both the professional lingo when common words are adequate ("monographs vs. "books," for example) and nondescript tags (e.g., "Research Resources") too vague to be meaningful.

Given that not designing around user needs should be considered harmful, however, there arises the new fear that some term choices and basic functional names are perhaps dumbing down the language too much, and sacrificing meaning for simplicity. For example, titling the online catalog simply "Find Books" is problematic for users looking for the videos cataloged therein, as is listing databases under "Find Articles" for those seeking dissertations within such tools.

Another naming practice is the choice of cutesy names and logos -- sometimes based on the region's mascot or something similar -- which may be of possible value for branding and marketing, but of no inherent meaning to new users. Many public services librarians therefore cringe at this approach, due to the greater demands on user education than would be necessary with more descriptive names.

Some libraries willfully incorporate vendor names into the services they provide. While this may help advertise products to users under a name that cannot be fully removed from the library's instance and which may be shared by other libraries, there are several dangers to this practice. Library vendors can be bought out or merge with other companies, or change names for other reasons. Libraries also routinely switch vendors for the same services. Any time a library uses a vendor name to name or address a library service, they are potentially facing a situation like Houston Astros had with Enron Field.

External Links[edit]

  • Library Terms That Users Understand by John Kupersmith. A clearinghouse of data from usability studies on library terminology.