What Did You Just Say? Research Vocabulary (Writers Doing Research)

If you can count on death and taxes, you can also probably count on the fact that doing research can be needlessly complicated sometimes.  Now, I’ve come across the viewpoint that “no one needs libraries because everything’s online” a few too many times in the past few years.  (Hint: it’s not.) This isn’t what I’m talking about in terms of complications, although that attitude has its own troubling set of complications.

What I’m talking about is a convergence of circumstances.  Back in days of yore, when you had to go to a library or archives in person to do your research and there was no online option, the systems worked pretty slick.  You consulted print indexes, like a card catalog or a finding aid, to find out what was in the collection. Call numbers or box numbers helped you locate the actual materials.

If you couldn’t find what you were looking for (or even if you could), you’d talk in person to the librarian or archivist, who could help you navigate further and even help you find materials not located in the building itself, perhaps even shipping them to you via interlibrary loan.

Then the internet came along and blew everything up.  In lots of good ways, let’s be clear, but many of those print navigational systems had a tough time transitioning online.  It’s why subscription databases and online library catalogs are very clunky compared to Google – cataloging and metadata don’t always translate well to users used to phrase and keyword searching.

But here’s the even bigger issue:

  • print indexes
  • finding aids
  • interlibrary loan
  • metadata
  • cataloging

In other words, what did I just say?  Libraries and archives run on specialized vocabulary.  The specialized vocabulary in my discipline creates its own roadblocks and complications.  (You should hang out with me and my colleagues every year or so when we discuss whether or not the phrase “Reference Desk” means anything to students and if not, what should we change it to?  We’ve yet to settle this one…)

 OPAC, records (not the music ones – well, sometimes those, too), microfiche, microform, microfilm (yes, they are different), metadata, institutional repository, finding aid, closed stacks, open stacks…. I could go on and on. (And don’t even get me started on the acronyms.  Librarians love acronyms.)

Fortunately, there are some excellent online resources.  There’s the Glossary of Library and Information Science page at Wikipedia. (And I’m saying that with a straight face – I love Wikipedia.)  There’s also a nifty resource put together by the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) of the American Library Association (ALA) – what did I tell you about the acronyms?

Anyway, ACRL put together a multilingual glossary of library terms.  This page contains a link to library terms in six different languages – perfect for non-native English speakers – as well as a link to definitions in English.

Finally, the Society of American Archivists have a list of archival and records terminology.

Barrier: All that library and archives vocabulary is driving me crazy – and not in a good way!

Solution: Use some of the online resources for definitions.  And this might be hard for some of you – it is for me – ask for help from archivists and librarians.  They don’t bite. (At least not usually.)

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