My first “real” job was working in a library and after a while even the most arcane language of a profession becomes familiar. It’s difficult to get back to “beginner’s mind” and realize just how odd some of that language can be to outside ears. As far as jargon goes, the world of library lingo is nowhere near being a worst offender…trust me, I now work in education and technology, and the linguistic wreckage there is like K.I.T.T. vs K.A.R.R.—what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?—but with less David Hasselhoff. Maybe I’m biased, but I not only don’t find library lingo annoying, I find it kind of charming.
But let’s start with librarians themselves. Librarian, like the word library, is derived from the Latin librarium, a chest made for storing books, which comes from liber or libri, meaning book, paper or parchment. Originally known as masters of the books (or tablets), librarians served as both organizers and scribes, literally copying the codices they were in charge of. Today, while most of us might use the word librarian to refer to anyone working at a library who spends time researching, answering questions, shushing rambunctious children or posing provocatively in glasses, librarians are actually royalty of sorts, presiding at the top of an often zealously guarded hierarchy. Only possessors of at least a Master’s degree in Library Science (an MLS) or Library and Information Science (an MLIS) are correctly addressed as such.
Within the library, where users and customers are almost universally referred to with the much grander sounding patrons, many familiar objects and processes have their own names.
Books, like royals ascending to the throne, aren’t added but accessioned. Then they are sensitized (activating their security strips) and placed in the stacks. From then on, after being used, they are re-shelved or, in libraries with multiple floors, leveled. As the volume of books grows, shifting sometimes becomes necessary to make room for incoming material, resulting in a lot of sweaty labor by library staff and students overseen, but not usually assisted, by the aforementioned librarians. Finally, when their reign is over, the worn out volumes aren’t removed but (thankfully less bloodily than with Kings and Queens) weeded and de-accessioned, becoming discards, hoping for new life with penny-pinching book buyers like myself.
All of those delicious books are part of the library’s collection, but some of them belong to special collections. At the common end of the spectrum, special collections include groups like the common reference collection, books for consultation that usually aren’t part of the circulating collection available for checkout, and large book collections comprised of books that don’t fit in the normal-sized stacks (the big books area is always a great place for serendipitous browsing). At the more esoteric end are highly specialized collections like hospitality management, the Anarchist Archive or African American cookbooks. The University of Oregon libraries alone boast of more than 3000 special collections!
Libraries, of course, contain more than just books. In addition to the modern amenities of databases, computer labs, couches, comfy chairs and sometimes coffee shops, libraries usually happily house collections of manuscripts, films, photographs, historical archives and the somewhat anemically titled serials and periodicals. Often, but not always, used interchangeably—I’ll leave the counting of those particular linguistic angels to librarians—serials and periodicals are what you and your local bookstore call newspapers, magazines, newsletters and journals.
Even those oft-longed-for, little locked cubbies within the library that are divvied out to fortunate graduate students (and the occasional sneaky staff member) aren’t offices, but carrels, the modern version of the small study in a cloister and sometimes the historical version of the nap pod.
And I’m not even going to get started on acronyms and initialisms, other than to share that the following sentence would mean something to someone working in a library: I’ll look up the MARC record and attach a DOI for the PDA materials so they will appear in the OPAC (and OCLC, of course) as documented by the ALA…just as soon as I’m done here in EBSCO.
In the end, libraries aren’t just repositories of books, houses for databases, or Third Spaces for studying, malingering and the occasional bit of romance. As the locus of information in myriad forms, they are also a hotbed of investigation into the esoteric realms of classification and organization. Libraries and librarians face on a grand scale the same challenges we all do in dealing with a world that has quickly become at least, if not more, virtual than real…and just what we do now that we—and the media we live with, in and through, the books and every other artifact we like, love or loathe—can be, more and less, in many places at once.