library semantics

06 Nov


The world of libraries seems to have a real on-going problem with semantics. Why is this? Perhaps it is a profession that naturally attracts a group of people to whom the detail is very important…

The Special Libraries Association are going through an apparently tortuous process in order to rename themselves – the current choice is ASKPro (swiftly and inevitably colloqualised as ASSPro) and this has caused quite the amount of fuss. I can understand the rationale (the old name no longer reflected what they do, and people didn’t understand what it meant) but all modern name changes ever seem to do is show that, these days, it’s almost impossible to think of a decent name.

Another semantic debate rears its head at regular intervals – what to call library users. Patrons, customers, or just users? Clients, even? We’ve heard it all before so I won’t go into detail here – basically a lot of people are phobic of the term ‘customer’ and all that implies, as I was once; these people often prefer patron. But now I work for a forward-thinking academic library, I’ve come round to thinking that customer is essential terminology - it marks a shift in the way we used to treat our users (austerely) to the way we do now (with enthusiasm, and a level of customer-service which implies we’ll bend over backwards to help rather than just tell them to shush all the time). I believe a customer expects a higher quality of service than a patron does, and we should be aiming to provide the former. Helene Blowers makes a good point also that traditionally patrons support institutions, whereas institutions support customers… All this stuff is important because, as I’ve now said lots of times before, libraries have undergone a seismic shift in what they do and the way they do it, but public perception is struggling to catch up.

Then there is the well-worn issue of what we should call ourselves. The rationale is similar to the SLA’s – ‘librarian’ seems inadequate as a moniker, because what we do is so diverse these days. We could of course just accept that librarian now covers a greater number of bases, but so entrenched are the stereotypes about librarians (don’t get me started on this) that there is a feeling we need a clean break – librarian will always mean ‘old maid in an austere and joyless place of silence’ however much we move in new directions, so we need a term for ourselves which shakes off the old associations and reflects our broader roles. I’d always been happy with Information Professional to cover the myriad things we do these days, until a recent conversation with a Norwegian friend who knew nothing of my job. I told him I was an Information Professional and, not being familiar with the term, he looked it up. He found this (the italics are my own):

An information professional or an information specialist is a person who works with information science, libraries, museums, or archives, although the field is changing rapidly to include other disciplines. [So far so good] Typically, an Information Professional is deemed as such only after receiving the degree of Master of Science in Information (or Library) Science from a university accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), or comparable regional body. [Seriously?!]

For some reason, this requirement of a degree had passed me by. I’ve always been slightly confused about what paraprofessional meant, and all that stuff – now I’m starting to understand. I think it’s a real shame that a good catch-all term for what we do gives off a slight aroma of elitism and has something of the ‘us and them’ about it. Not least because loads of otherwise excellent library staff (who are professional in every other sense of the word) are suddenly ruled out from being part of the group – perhaps they are every bit as able (and often more so) than those who have their Masters, but are unable to afford to do the qualification? I’ve been calling myself an Information Professional for ages – I didn’t realise that it was only actually last Thursday, when I got confirmation of my MSc, that I became one…

For my money, Information Professional should just be a term referring to all those who work in the Information Profession. I want to know what others think about this too. Do you agree, disagree, or do you think we should all stop worrying about semantics entirely, for own mental health..?


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  • John November 7, 2009 at 2:11 PM

    The trouble with ‘customers’ is that most of us customers still associate the word with a simple financial transaction. It’s a huge semantic contraction of what libraries, trains, doctors and teachers actually do. It gives the impression that you only value them because of what they’re paying, and this demeans the relationship. A library isn’t a supermarket. It also seems to be a concept that’s generally imposed from the top down. In my day job none of my colleagues refers to students as customers: that’s management speak and therefore the work of the devil.

  • thewikiman November 9, 2009 at 9:51 AM

    Ah, thewikidad! I do know what you mean, but as with a lot of things I think it’s a question of the lesser of a number of evils, or finding the compromise with the least negatives / most positives based on the current climate and situation. While ‘customer’ could be considered demeaning and reductive of the relationship between library and user, I personally think that a lot of people accept that the term is more complicated than purely transaction-based when applied in this kind of context, ie information, or Higher Education, or public services or whatever. I’m willing to give users enough credit to assume we’re talking about customer service in a broader and more holistic way.

    The thing is, libraries sometimes still treat users in the way that all the stereotypes suggest they do: dismissively, or patronisingly, or condescendingly or generally as some kind of nuisance. A bit like a school treats its kids. As we move away from that (towards a model more like the way a high-end company treats its stake-holders), we need to invigorate the whole process of redefining our relationship with users by choosing a term for them which reflects the fact that we are there to help them as much as we can. ‘Customer’ is by no means perfect, but any term will have some problematic associations and I think this is the most helpful of the bunch at this stage.

  • Paul Tovell November 12, 2009 at 10:44 AM

    I’ve heard “borrowers” and “readers” a lot; perhaps a hang over from the age when that was exclusively what people did in a library. “User” has arisen – perhaps to fill the terminology gap created when computers arrived? I can’t say I particularly like any of these terms. I’m surprised “visitors” hasn’t taken off in quite the same way, especially since we all seem to be measuring visits now. I think I still prefer “customer” out of all of them, though I admit it’s not perfect.

  • thewikiman November 13, 2009 at 9:47 AM

    I think user is okay actually (apart from the slightly druggy overtones!), but it seems more likely to be used colloquially than as a library’s official term for its… users.

    Every term has its downsides obviously, or there wouldn’t be a debate to be had. As you say, customer isn’t perfect but its probably the best of the bunch for our particular profession’s needs at this time.

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