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The Problem with Vocabulary

There are a couple of things I really like about being primarily a subject librarian, and about having subject librarians easily accessible in a college library. For one thing, it sure helps when those crazy-hard questions come to the desk and you can say something helpful-sounding like “I can get you started with some of the basics, and then you should go see so-and-so for more in-depth help.” Of course, then there are those crazy-hard questions that come to the desk and are in my area, so I can’t pass them off… but we’ll forget about those for the moment.

But one of the things that’s most valuable about this division of labor in an undergraduate environment is that each librarian can concentrate on developing discipline-relevant vocabulary. I’m not talking about vocabulary in the “how to talk to students” sense at the moment, though that’s certainly very important. After all, even “primary source” means something different to each discipline. No, I’m just talking about terms and vocabularies associated with topics of research. When a student of literature comes and talks to me about rhizomatic narratives or the relationship between metaphor and ideology, I have a whole thesaurus in my head that opens to the correct spot and starts coming up with alternate search terms. I know where these things fit into umpteen different literary theorists’ perspectives, I can recognize key works referenced in the titles of scholarly papers. Not only can I employ these terms and names directly by adding them to my search, but I can recognize articles in a result list that might be relevant simply by calling on this mental map of the topic. Then I can open those results and use vocabulary I find there to create new searches.

Since search is fundamentally a character-matching game, with people supplying characters in a row (i.e. words) and computers matching those characters to the characters in its index, lack of vocabulary renders search essentially useless. I don’t know or recognize the terms that are central to, for example, the IMF. So I’m basically stuck with ineffective searches and only limited options for refining my searches. And I can’t help steer students to refine their terms because I have no mental map of this topic beyond “something to do with money, and something that’s international.”

If we don’t have access to mental maps, how do we build our students’ mental maps? And how do we generate search examples that will help them learn?

And how do I develop mental maps of all the research topics my students need help with?

Published inLibraries and LibrariansSearch and Discovery


  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    tangential comment, my dear Iris:

    Who in the he** are these literature students who are asking about rhizomatics? Tell me, please, so that I may float in an ether of satisfaction! Deleuze at the undergrad level…. just imagine that.


  2. Iris Iris

    Oh, um…yeah. I may have projected a little on that example. :P

    But I will say, there are some pretty awesome lit students that I’ve worked with over the years here, so float in that ether, by all means. And then return to the earth and start training up more of them for me.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous

    This is why we have a reference collection: encyclopedias and dictionaries are very useful tools for expanding search vocabulary. If the student has a textbook (or lecture notes!), these can be useful referral points, too. The downside is that this process is much longer than being able to come up with terms off the top of one’s head.

  4. Iris Iris

    As much as I love reference books, and as often as my students and I make use of them, even these treasure-troves fail unless students have some of this vocabulary already, or can correctly identify their topic’s general position on a context map.

    Remember the first time you tried to use a dictionary to figure out the spelling of “pharmacology”? It’s impossible unless you read the entire dictionary. In the same way, there’s nothing about a reference work that can help me identify vocabulary to describe my sense that Liam O’Flaherty’s thrust in “The Lamb” operates better when understood on the map of Modernism or Marxism rather than as a Pastoral unless I read an entire encyclopedia of literary theory and matched the different entries with my short story.

    I think I’d probably have to read most of several subject encyclopedias to learn enough vocabulary to start searching effectively for information about paper-worthy discussions of the IMF.

    Don’t get me wrong. This hunt for vocabulary is one of the two most frequent reasons that my students and I consult reference works. In fact, I’ve been meaning to write about this as it’s own separate post. But at a certain point, even reference works depend on character-matching.

  5. laura laura

    I was so thrilled to discover when I became a librarian that the vast troves of cursory knowledge of myriad subjects that I’ve acquired over the years were actually useful for something. Of course, I’m a jack of all trades public librarian, and thus my vocabulary pools are broader and much shallower, but I know what you mean.

    Oh, and the IMF? That’s just part of an international banking conglomerate that engages in predatory lending to developing countries–although you may want to get a second opinion on that, as in addition to being shallow, I’m biased. :-)

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