Rachael Naismith

Rachael Naismith, Springfield College, Massachusetts

E-mail: Rachael_Naismith@spfldcol.edu

"Library Jargon: Student Comprehension of Technical Language Used by Librarians," co-authored with Joan Stein. College & Research Libraries 50 (September 1989), pp. 543-552.

Research Statement

This study measured students' comprehension of a selection of jargon terms used in libraries. The researchers, as public services librarians, were concerned about the amount of jargon they perceived as having a potentially negative effect on reference interviews and handouts. The researchers wished to learn whether students understood jargon being used by librarians in a college setting. Jargon terms were selected from transcriptions of reference interviews and printed handouts. The researchers administered a multiple-choice test of 20 terms to 100 freshmen. The SPSS-X statistical tool was used to analyze the raw data. Of the total number of questions on the test, 48.7 percent were answered incorrectly. Protocol or talk-aloud analysis was used to determine subjects' reasoning processes. During protocol analysis, subjects verbalized their thoughts as they took the test and these comments were subsequently coded for categories of reasoning strategy. Results of the protocol analysis showed that subjects used a variety of methods to deduce an answer, including: guessing, knowing the word in a different context, morphological analysis or using etymology, or knowing the broad category. When subjects used these methods to determine the meaning of an unknown term, they were often wrong.

Action Based on Results

Our resulting article offered suggestions for dealing with the communication problem that we, the researchers, identified. These included soliciting feedback, using visual aids to enhance comprehension, defining terms the first time they are used, and using library instruction to teach library technical language. The article seems to have reached many library professionals. Personally, this research quickly changed much of the vocabulary I use in my reference interviews and handouts. At Carnegie Mellon, I presented our findings to reference colleagues and I hope it resulted in better reference interviews. As Head of Reference, after leaving CMU, I have discussed library jargon and other communication issues with new and experienced librarians and student assistants every year since doing the study. I try to keep the idea of jargon in mind as I model the reference interview for the staff I supervise.


  • Clearly define your problem statement. Have a clearly defined problem statement and then stick to it; otherwise it is easy to go astray.
  • Consult with experts. It is an excellent idea to consult with experts in areas in which you are weak -- in our case, linguistics and statistics.
  • Don't overwhelm with statistics. You do not need to use a lot of complicated statistics if they are not relevant; they do leave a lot of readers behind.
  • Find someone to critically review your work. It is very easy to leave huge holes in your research that can cause big problems later on; have several knowledgeable people edit your work and be brutal.
  • Include practical implications. It is fundamental to include practical implications and suggestions for library practitioners to apply.


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