'Maze' by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

This week, my classmates and I ran our own #si643 backchannel on Twitter. A few days into our conversation, I felt like I’d participated in a virtual conference with all my sharp, engaged colleagues. Y’all are a fun bunch.

Last semester was my first experience using any kind of backchannel for class-related but out-of-the-classroom discussion — in that case, a Diigo group where classmates shared links and news related to our discussions of information literacy instruction.

The Twitter backchannel this week was a bit more informal and definitely more interactive, as we traded tweets on open access journals, eBook DRM, computational literacy, and more. While I’ve been a Twitter user for a while now, I primarily use it to follow professionals in my field and to curate my own news feed of neat stuff. Our class conversation required more back-and-forth, and challenged me to hone my responses in such a short format — always a useful tool for clarifying one’s thinking.

Now that I’ve got more than 140 characters, though, I’ll say a bit more about one topic that came up in our discussion: library jargon.

When I was an undergrad, I briefly entertained the idea of earning an advanced degree in folklore. I’m still fascinated by narratives and the role they play in social bonding and in forming cultural perceptions of remarkable stickiness. In my studies at the time, I also learned about the importance that “in-speak” plays for communities of practice in cementing group bonds and individual identity. I imagine all professions have some form of jargon — some of it for obvious reasons of unique specificity (the medical profession comes to mind), and some of it as holdovers of tradition or habit (just ask any copy editor what an n-space is).

The question of library jargon is an interesting one to me, especially because it connects to my fascination with the tension between usability (from a patron’s point of view) and expertise (from a librarian’s point of view). I think librarians must reckon with this tension more than some professions, because so much of our job involves identifying and connecting with a patron’s existing knowledge in order to teach or guide in a new direction.

So whose language do we use in these learning encounters?

I’ve been thinking about this question since stumbling across a compilation of “Library terms users understand,” a great cache of usability data that identifies such common terms as “database,” “library catalog,” and “interlibrary loan” as confusing to users. Beyond that, these terms can act as a barrier to successful use of online resources or library websites, the usability studies show.

Complicating my thinking on this subject is the fact that “learning the language” is often a marker of accomplishment for any student of a new discourse, whether that’s argumentative writing or biology or computer programming.

I think the difference for library science is that most of our patrons will never become immersed in the ins and outs of library culture as they would in even one course on a comparable subject. But they’ll still need to learn how to use library resources.

Perhaps the question, then, is this: In what context do specialized terms act as important conveyers of discipline-specific information for library users — such as the difference between a catalog and a database — and at what point does jargon come down to mere tradition or habit?