We do it, you do it, everyone does it: reach for a buzzword or phrase when simple English would be far more effective. It’s understandable. Buzzwords can make one feel smart, or like you’re communicating a concept that listeners will quickly grasp. But while there was a moment in time—15 years ago?—when “thinking outside the box” was fresh and meaningful, for years now the “box”—along with a host of other tired expressions and exhausted metaphors—has been robbing presentations of clarity, and glazing over the eyes of audiences at conferences.
In the library world, buzzword and clichés have been seeping in from business (deliverables), marketing and sales (disruptive), as well as education (engagement) and academia (new librarianship). And when librarians mix these terms with our own alphabet soup of abbreviations (e.g. “ILS” for integrated library system), the result is a professional-speak that often bewilders more than enlightens. So as you pack your bags for ALA New Orleans and put the final touches on your PowerPoint slide deck, let’s see if we can leave behind some of the tired language we’ve been lugging around for so long. Below is a handy list of words and expressions you may want to think twice about using.
21st-century: We’re 17 years into the 21st century. Let’s stop using it as an adjective, as in “21st-century learning skills”—what other learning skills would we teach?
Adulting: Cute for social media, maybe. But anyone under 40 is subject to enough infantilization from boomers, and “adulthood” is a contested concept anyway. Does paying bills make you an adult? What about emotional maturity or social intelligence?
Ahead of his/her/its/their time: Not possible. It can be denigrating to the contemporary efforts and creativity of people, especially when used to explain a lack of mainstream success or recognition. Was John Coltrane “ahead of his time,” or were people just not willing to open their minds and ears to his music? This cliché is often applied to much-admired people in a complimentary fashion, but consider the ways it might minimize their creativity, or obscure the context they exist in.
Alt-right: Don’t let this catch-all neuter the reality of people’s politics. Where appropriate, use white supremacist, nationalist or a description that accurately characterizes the true aims of a given person or group.
Big Data: A hand-wavy term that adds unnecessary mystery to a rather simple phenomenon. Often people use “big data” as shorthand for the way companies (Facebook, Google) collect and maintain linked and unlinked data on their users. “Big data” is not a sentient entity—yet. Don’t emphasize a disembodied “big data” over the people who control it.
Collaboration: Caution—this is not a stand-in for describing what two or more entities actually did!
Community: Often used in a generalized way that can obscure divisions among groups of people. In the city where we work, saying “the Hispanic community” is (aside from disrespectful) often meaningless. It would be more proper to say “the Ecuadorian community” or “the Colombian community.”
Community engagement: A vague phrase that could mean everything from putting a flyer up on the YMCA’s bulletin board to long-planned, organized programs. Let’s hear more about what people are actually doing and not rely on a catch-all phrase.This term should be replaced with an answer to the question: “What did you do?”
Community resources: Oil? Minerals? Water? Or organizations? Individuals? Money? Even slightly more specificity is helpful. For example, “our community’s religious resources,” or “medical resources.” People like to conjure up a sense of “community resources” without specifying the community or the resource. How available is the resource to people?
Curate: At what point did people decide that “select” wasn’t good enough? Hands down the most pretentious misappropriation of the last decade, this borrowing equates a list of the 12 best beach reads with the Metropolitan Museum’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Now that Brooks Brothers is sending us a list of shirts “curated just for you,” it’s officially time to give this a rest.
Deep dive: An alert that the conversation may run longer than five minutes and address a topic in depth. “Hey, you guys want to come do a deep dive at our influencers unconference?” Replace with “detailed” or “in-depth” or “expert discussion” or any words that convey rigor in a less figurative, precious way.
Deliverables: Project and business managers love to talk about deliverables, the output—typically tangible—from an endeavor. But the impact that library programs, services, and collections have on users is typically intangible, impossible to measure, and timeless.
Digital natives: This is essentially intergenerational colonialism.
Discovery: This can refer to library patrons browsing a display of new books, or a list of first-time novelists on your website, but it’s been coopted by vendors to describe pretty much any automated search experience. Use with caution. In a profession focused on helping people find stuff, it’s become so ubiquitous as to be meaningless.
Disruptive: Developed in the mid-1990s, it typically refers to when an innovation upsets one market and creates a new one the process. But libraries face disruptions all the time: in formats, content providers, hardware, software, consumer electronics, languages. Let’s just agree that disruption is the norm and get on with it.
Diversity: Obviously important, but should not be used to refer merely to representation without details about establishing equity or systemic change. Can also just mean “a lot of different things,” so don’t hesitate to replace it with “racial diversity,” “gender diversity,” “age diversity,” etc.
Economic impact: Don’t play the capitalists’ game. Insist on non-market outcomes that matter. Social goods. Aiding in commoditization runs counter to equity in access and local control, two important principles of public libraries. (see also: “deliverables”).
Embedded: Stop the hyperbole! When reporters spend weeks travelling with military personnel engaged in armed conflicted, they are embedded. When librarians attend the English department’s monthly meeting, or help the City’s planning department build a 3-D model of a new transit hub, they’re just being librarians.
Engagement: This word has trickled into too many areas of our lives. Engage as a verb often ends up in passive constructions used to make basic ideas sound more substantial: “we engaged in conversation,” rather than the preferable “we talked.”
Fake news: The vicissitudes of this phrase’s appropriation are book-worthy. Its current role as a catchall for any coverage perceived to have strong biases is problematic, outdone only by our current president’s use of it.
The future: Put a number on it. Do you mean the year 3000? Say so; if you mean libraries in 20 years, say that. It’s helpful context to know what is meant by “the future.”
Gamify: A failure in wordsmithing. Aside from the unattractive lumpiness of its spelling, the word suggests a triviality. While reclaiming the intellectual worthiness of games is admirable, subjecting the world to vague, ill-conceived coinage is not.
Hive mind: Bee society is characterized by strict hierarchy and a lack of independent thought. If this describes your workplace, get another job.
Huddle: Enough with the football analogies already!
Implementation: The gist of this is that someone did something. Let’s kick aside the smoke screen and just say what happened.
Information Age: This term seems to only refer to volume of information available, when what matters is how that information is captured, presented, used, or censored. We live in a time of unprecedented surveillance and information gathering; we also live in a time of unprecedented access to knowledge.
Integrated Library System (ILS): They hardly integrate, and really aren’t systems. But in a good example of Stockholm Syndrome, librarians have adopted vendors’ name for the clunky, old software used to track acquisitions, circulation, and the catalogue that we foist on a public that can’t understand why the various iterations of The Girl on the Train are spread over five screens and the search boxes lack even basic auto-completion. Let’s go with STS: software that sucks.
Kool-Aid, (drunk or otherwise): This very dark allusion should be used sparingly. Especially useful in cases when someone’s beliefs or loyalty have nefarious implications.
Libraryland: Completely meaningless to those outside the field, it suggests a uniformity that doesn’t exist. Think carefully before introducing this phrase to others—that’s how it survives and multiplies.
Makerspaces: If you are going to use the term, be honest: the knitters in the meeting room are makers; the three-year-olds doing a craft project after listening to Pat the Bunny are makers; in fact, most of your library users are makers in one way or another.
Millennials: Before you use the word, consider who or what you are trying to describe. People who had cell phones as teenagers? That’s basically people born after 1985. People who had Facebook in high school? That’s only people born after 1991.
Neutrality: This debate is settled—libraries are not neutral. Let’s return this word to common, noncontroversial usage. Use it to describe cardigan colors.
New librarianship: You can only believe that emphasizing communities and knowledge over buildings and materials is new if you ignore much of U.S. public library history, especially the pre-internet age and the experiences of librarians of color working in nonwhite communities. There’s good librarianship and bad librarianship, not new or old.
Nonprofessionals: How about we stick to describing people by what they do in libraries, and not what they are or aren’t?
Optics: “What will be the optics for City Hall if we eliminate fines?” A classic buzzword that lends no additional meaning and can almost always be replaced with “perception.”
Outreach: Similar to “promotion” and “engagement”—it’s just too vague. Say more about the actual strategies used. Consider whether “outreach” is intended to pull people in, and how that might be at odds with efforts to separate library services’ association with a library building.
Pivot: A pivot is a turn, usually away from something that failed. How about leaving pivots to the figure skaters and stick with a word like “abandon?”
Play (as a noun): Identify which of these sentences sounds right to you: A) “Oh look, the children are playing!” or B) “Oh look, the children are engaged in play!” Case closed.
Radical: Emma Goldman was radical. Martin Luther King Jr. was radical. Being loud in the library is not radical. Change is not inherently radical. Also, truly radical ideas or actions almost always mean changes in power relations. Don’t wear out “radical” on things that might just be new, fun, different, or innovative.
Robust: More vendor-ese. If something is purporting to be robust, rest assured, it probably isn’t.
Rock: Rock the Vote was incorporated in 1990, which has led to nearly 30 years of people using rock as an imperative to create excitement. If the best you can come up with is “Let’s Rock Summer Reading,” try harder.
Silos: A way too popular metaphor for poor communication and territorialism between library departments or units—usually followed by doing absolutely nothing. Skip the building metaphor and address the behavior.
Smart-(blank): If something is smart, then the alternative option(s) must be stupid. That’s not a good model for public libraries, where our patrons utilize a huge range of technology, be it by choice or necessity.
Strategic: So militaristic. Make sure you’re not emphasizing ends over means.
Transformative: When British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, that was a transformative moment. Providing automatic renewals of overdue materials isn’t. Keep transformative for changes that are important and long-lasting.
Transparency: Is nothing without accountability. Consider transparent corruption among political leaders. Is it enough that it is detected or obvious? Or does it matter that there are means of imposing consequences and preventing more of it?
Thought leader: Unlike the ducklings in McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, thoughts can’t be led. And while people can be led by thoughts, we’d be smart to run fast from anyone purporting to be a “thought leader.” Authority and influence come from the collective in librarianship; that’s one of the wonders of our field.
Wheelhouse: Do you even know what “in your wheelhouse” even means? We looked it up, and still got conflicting explanations. Let’s just stick with expertise.