Users Don’t Know What Libraries Are Talking About, Studies Find

This article was updated to more accurately reflect UC Berkeley's relationship to the document. On February 29, Library Terms That Users Understand by John Kupersmith, a reference librarian at UC Berkeley, was added to the University of California's eScholarship repository. The document reviews 51 usability studies, most of them conducted by university libraries, to determine “test methods and best practices for reducing cognitive barriers caused by terminology.” Key findings include that the average user success rate for finding journal articles or article databases is only 52 percent. Commonly misunderstood terms include acronyms and brand names, subject categories, and the words “database,” “library catalog,” “e-journals,” “index,” “interlibrary loan”, “periodical,” “serial,” “reference,” and “resource.” Common correctly understood terms include “find books”, “find articles” and other combinations using natural language target words that correspond to the end product the user is seeking. Kupersmith recommends that libraries avoid frequently misunderstood terms; use natural language equivalents on top-level pages, and adding explanations of potentially confusing terms in mouseover, tooltip, glossary or graphic form. He also recommends that if a top level menu choice is ambiguous, libraries use an intermediate page; and provide an alternative path for predictable wrong choices, as well as being consistent across publications. Kupersmith further recommends that libraries test what terms users understand, and take advantage of data from libraries with similar user populations; the document offers an array of testing methodologies.
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Walter Underwood

Every discipline has its jargon, and that is good, because jargon is efficient. I work on search engines, but I've learned quite a bit of library technology because I don't like to reinvent things. As a result, I can talk MARC and FRBR or stopwords and hapax legomena, but I don't expect people outside the discipline(s) to understand it. An "index" is something quite different in a library and in a search engine. I work with a lot of smart people, and almost none of them understand the guts of search engines. It isn't their responsibility to understand my efficient jargon. I'll introduce a very few terms where it really helps, but only then. You can provide entries to specialized jargon, but if you can make it work without that, why not? Hint: The terms people type into search engines are a great source of their own vocabulary. Perhaps "recipes" instead of "cookery".

Posted : Mar 29, 2012 10:46

John Jackson

Read Nina's respose. +1 all the way. Also, is it just me or is this really a discussion about descriptive and prescriptive meaning (a la lexicography). And as many linguists will affirm: descriptive wins in the end. So librarians: pick a different word when talking with patrons. Or get out of the way.

Posted : Mar 28, 2012 08:55


Finding a common ground in order to communicate with library users is not dumbing things down. Librarians suffer from the curse of knowledge and we need to be better at communication. It's not the users fault they don't understand us.

Posted : Mar 28, 2012 08:21

Kathy Dempsey

I'm thrilled to see Kupersmith's work getting more notice. I've been recommending his website in just about every presentation I've given in the past few years. As a marketing expert, I feel it's vital for librarians to realize how much our internal jargon works against us in our everyday communication. On your websites, brochures, social media pages, signs -- everywhere -- we should check for these commonly misunderstood words and change them to natural language! Is it "dumbing down"? With acronyms and brand names, certainly not. Words like "catalog" and "resource" have many meanings. I prefer to say we're "clarifying" our terms or making them "user friendly."

Posted : Mar 28, 2012 07:52

Sarah K.

Agreed. Even "database" is a term librarians use to mean something much more specific, than, say, the folks in IT do, and it's unreasonable to expect non-librarians to know your specific usage of the term. For many people, a database is something they might create in Access or Oracle or MySQL. In a library, what's important to the end users is what's IN the databases, and it would help to frame the language of the web site (and instruction) accordingly.

Posted : Mar 28, 2012 07:52

Nina McHale

Imagine that you went in to see a medical specialist about a personal health issue, and that person spoke to you in professional jargon the way he or she would present a paper about the issue at a medical conference. How would that make you feel? Does a doctor communicating to you in plain, non-medical English (or whatever language you may speak) mean that he or she is "dumbing it down" for you, or would you appreciate it if the doctor communicated with you about your health in ways that helped you to understand and resolve your problem? Sure, it would be nice if users knew what "catalog" and "database" meant. Some do. Precise terms do make it easier to communicate, and in the medical example above, sure, you would come to learn a lot about the terminology and concepts surrounding your particular health issue. However, if we (continue to) design library services and web sites based on the assumption that our users are all fluent in our professional language, we're just setting up roadblocks and further alienating them from all of the great things that we can provide. They won't see the value in libraries and library services, and where does that leave us? So, go ahead and tell me that I don't have a sense of humor. I DON'T have a sense of humor about this because it's this kind of arrogance and outright refusal to see things from our customers' perspectives that is killing libraries and our profession. Kupersmith's research has been around for years-I've quoted it multiple times in my own academic research-and it truly disturbs me to see jokes still being made about how stupid library users are. In any other profession or industry, this shocking disrespect for the people we are supposed to serve would be inexcusable. Why are we surprised to see support, financial and otherwise, drying up? Maybe instead of building a giant advocacy machine to keep breathing life into what we do, we should just treat our customers with the respect that they deserve?

Posted : Mar 28, 2012 07:39



Posted : Mar 28, 2012 07:39

Craig Anderson

PREACH!! [cough] (Seriously, I once worked in a library where part of the instructions for students told them to "Use the OPACs to search for books". Really? OPACs??)

Posted : Mar 28, 2012 07:39


Agreed! Thank you, Nina.

Posted : Mar 28, 2012 07:39


There is a reason for the existence of precise terms. You say you want to find books? We have books. [point to rows of shelving units marching off into the distance] There they are!

Posted : Mar 27, 2012 01:44


No matter how hard librarian tried to explain to the users library terminology, users don't care about it as long as they find the information that they are seeking for.. !!

Posted : Mar 24, 2012 08:39

Alan Wylie

I agree with you Lanie, there's far too much jargon used in libraries and by librarians, we need to consult with users about what they find helpful and useful otherwise we will never be truly be inclusive! I used to work in a library authority in the UK, and they named the new cental library 'The Technology Learning Centre' and wondered why no one was coming in, the public through no fault of their own didn't realise it was a library!

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 08:08

Lanie Breathwaite

Please don't call patron's dumb by stating "dumbing down." Users don't know what libraries are talking about because librarians don't know what they are talking about. If a library is rapidly throwing out new terms and repackaging patron systems then it is no wonder patrons are registering confusion. I've seen librarians laugh about patron confusion. But, it's really no laughing matter because a patron will seek other venues for information if he or she cannot obtain it from the library. This behavior affects how libraries are viewed and ultimately whether or not libraries deserve additional funding if patrons refuse to use them. Librarians need to think about how to upgrade their attitude and learn how to be more effective with respect to patrons. Either that or get out of the field of librarianship.

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 07:34


Oh, relax. Librarians need a sense of humor too, to keep us sane. Clearly you don't have one.

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 07:34

Leo Robert Klein

Believe it or not, some of us apparently are under the impression that by developing these expressions, we're 'cutting edge' -- whether anyone outside of the library world understands us or not. I mean, what's a 'discovery tool'? Is there something spiritual about 'meta'? You come across this all the time. Just take a look at library literature or what gets bandied about at conferences. The incentives need to change.

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 07:34

Baba O'Riley

If dumbing things down is the order of the day, here are some proposed translations for the linguistically challenged students: Book: "Them paper thingies what my perfesser wants me to use" Periodical: "Those things like you see at the checkout counter" Find Articles: "Google" Database: "Google" Resource: "Google" Search: "Google" Index: "Google" E-journal: "Google" Serial: "Capn Crunch" Library: "Starbucks" Interlibrary Loan: "Another Starbucks"

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 06:19

Sheryl Kron Rhodes

LOL...I plan on sharing these translations w/my fellow academic librarians. We can always use a chuckle. ; )

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 06:19

Beth Johns

I got a laugh out of this too. It reminds me of a written comment at the end of a recent instruction session--"I hate research, just show us how to use Google better." (I'm at a university, BTW.) And honestly, sometimes, if appropriate, I do show students how to use Google more efficiently. I don't think Baba and others are laughing at the user--we're just trying to ease some of the frustration we encounter in the workplace. We spend a lot of time teaching, using alternative language, etc. and STILL, a certain percentage of students (in our library, probably a small number) will rely on Google and refuse to access material through the library website. That said, yes, there is an awful lot of jargon used in libraries--it is something we consider every day.

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 06:19


I am all for making things clearer, but for heaven's sake, shouldn't people actually learn a few basic terms like "index"? That's hardly library jargon. An index is also what's in the back of your textbook ... And 'database'? That's a computer term too, not just library 'jargon'.

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 02:12


They should. But who should teach them? I really like Kupersmith's proposal to provide definitions of terms, especially through something like mouseover.

Posted : Mar 23, 2012 02:12

Alan Wylie

see my own blog for similar issue in UK libraries

Posted : Mar 18, 2012 02:00



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