Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Would a Database By Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

Lately, I've been thinking and talking about library jargon a lot. You see, I'm part of the group that is getting ready to redesign the library's website. We had a meeting last week where we spent a lot of time talking about structure, but towards the end we touched on what kinds of language we want to use to label the structures. This isn't as easy as you might think. We want to make our website more accessible, more usable, more intuitive, but I keep asking myself one thing: who are we doing this for?

This thought was plaguing me well before I published Michael Steeleworthy's guest post, but his piece definitely intensified things for me. If I'm supposed to keep the students at my college in mind, we'll label things one way. If I'm designing for the faculty, it will happen another way. However, between Michael's piece and a couple of meetings I attended last week, my thinking on this subject is starting to clear up.

If members of the faculty at my college are indeed my main audience, I can keep a lot of the existing structure in place. These people have been part of academia for a long time and so have been inculcated to our ways of thinking and talking. These people call a database, "database," call a quarto, "quarto," and so on. If I follow this line of thought to its conclusion, it means I don't have to do much to the website other than prettying it up. What could be easier, right? Except we know that the status quo isn't working. Students don't come to library resources to start projects the way they used to do. Heck, sometimes they don't ever use our resources. 

Changing the current state of affairs means we have to start designing with the students in mind, and that's much harder. I'm not even 100% sure how students at my college talk about the resources we have at the library. I've heard them say things like "books" and "articles," but I'm not sure how many are distinguishing between electronic and print versions in those categories. I know some of them are making those distinctions, since their professors are, but I know some of our students don't differentiate. Also, how do differences like popular press vs. scholarly and primary/secondary/tertiary enter into how our students talk about information sources? Finally, how am I going to ask students to teach me their vocabulary without prejudicing their answers?

A colleague of mine said, in one of the meetings, something along the lines of: "It will be easier to get our faculty to come down a level in their language than to get the students to take a step up." I think he's right. Regardless, we've got a lot of work to do, but if we can build on what the students are already doing and show the faculty why this makes sense, it will be worth it.

What about you? How do you talk about library resources with your community members?


  1. It's hard to break away from jargon. We use "find articles and more" on our website to direct students to the databases, but we call them databases, our faculty write assignments requiring students to use library databases. My students tend to ask for "articles" or "journal" articles

    I do an exercise with my students where they have to physically describe books, magazines, journals and newspapers. They also describe the audience for each medium, and pick a class or major or assignment that would need to look at information in that format. After we've examined the physical media, we look at how databases deliver information.

    It would be interesting to see how the students describe their own information sources.

  2. Our website just recently went through a redesign to get rid of library jargon. It's strange, it becomes so much a part of your vocabulary one isn't sure why a patron doesn't know what you're talking about.

    I teach kids about our databases and eMedia at the schools, so I think my coping mechanism is to teach them young. Probably not best.

  3. We faced a similar problem when we were re-designing our website, and it's a very fine line to walk. We found that if we kept a section of the website specifically aimed at faculty, it made them a little happier. We also knew (and this might only be true at the institution where I worked) that the faculty weren't going to be happy with ANY change, no matter how desperately needed. That was just the culture where I worked. And we knew we needed to do it. Thanksfully, the campus culture was also very student-centered, so it was fairly easy to make the argument that the changes benefited students.

    I do think, despite it's challenges, the website redesign we worked on was the most fun project I managed!