Guest Post: Communicating Value Through a Shared Vocabulary

This guest post was written by Amie Pilla, Library CEO of Berthoud Community Library District.

It’s no secret that a disconnect exists between what public libraries do and how they are perceived. We teach people to read, help people find jobs, provide space for civic engagement, connect people with innovative ideas, find accurate answers to difficult questions quickly … and, yes, serve as cool places of shelter on hot days. Yet the stereotype endures in popular culture and everyday conversation that libraries are outdated places with outdated books and little old ladies who shush everyone who tries to speak.

I started graduate school 8 years ago, and ever since I’ve been hearing buzz about how we need to “reinvent the library.” This has been heralded as the solution to our problems of meaning and funding. Let’s take storytime on the road, let’s add e-books, let’s teach coding, let’s provide Makerspaces …. Let’s do things that will make people view us as relevant again.

I’ve been uncomfortable with this idea for years—not because I think libraries should be static or irrelevant, but because I came into this profession wanting to join the cause, not to change everything. I’m all for Makerspaces, e-books, STEM programs, and all manner of interesting, relevant things that public libraries are offering today. But hosting storytime in a different building is still teaching people how to read. Providing a Makerspace is still connecting people with innovative ideas. Using electronic databases is still finding accurate answers to difficult questions quickly. Is the use of different formats or methods actual reinvention, or reinvention in name only?

What if we reinvented our names instead?

A professor told me that the difference between a job and a profession was the presence of jargon, and our profession certainly has its share. We talk about circulation and reference, patrons and storytime, programming and databases. But if a central tenant of our profession is to communicate ideas quickly and accurately, it makes sense to use words that everyone understands.

At our library we are reconsidering our typical vocabulary choices. A “program” is a TV show, or a set of code that runs a computer, or a piece of paper listing the order of songs at a concert. So we no longer “do programming” at our library. We teach storytime classes, we host small business seminars, and we run a Summer Reading Initiative. It’s far more compelling to say, “People in our community borrowed over 32,000 items this past June,” than to say, “The library circulated over 32,000 items this past June.” Reference became research, register became enroll, database became online research tool. We decided that the jargon of our profession was making it difficult to effectively communicate with those in our community, so we ditched the jargon.

This change carried over into our job titles also. If we are no longer using the word circulation, why should we still have Circulation Clerks? The title didn’t even fit—sure, these staff members check items in and out, but they also shelve, answer computer questions, help people make copies, and do basic research. Now they are our Customer Service Specialists. We had two Library Clerks who had different job descriptions and a title which told people absolutely nothing about what they did, so now one is our Instructor and Research Specialist, while the other is our Data Specialist. Our Children’s Librarian can now introduce herself as the Youth Instructor and Research Librarian, and our Office Manager, since she runs a department, is now our Office Director.

The first couple of months in my position, I introduced myself around town as the new Library Director. At each event I attended at least one person asked me, “Which department do you run?” or “And what is it that you do?” It seems ridiculous, except that in any other context directors are middle-level managers. I haven’t heard any of these responses since the Board changed my title and I’ve been introducing myself as the Library CEO.

It’s important to note that all these changes are strictly vocabulary changes. Our procedures, processes, and job descriptions have not altered. Our aim isn’t to reinvent the library, but to talk to our community about the importance of what we are already doing in ways that our community members can understand the first time, every time, without further explanation. Other libraries are leveraging these same vocabulary changes to fight for increased funding, form more meaningful partnerships, or heighten their standing in the community. (For more on that, read Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand by Valerie Gross.)

We’re still experimenting, but we’re happy knowing that the precision that governs the rest of our work now also governs how we talk about our work, and communicating our value to our community seems much easier than it did before.

Amie Pilla
July 28, 2016

Amy Hitchner
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