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What I Learned about Libraries from Football

Not understanding football frequently makes casual conversation difficult, especially on Sundays during the football season. Hanging out in the LSW Meebo room yesterday and watching people talk about the various games they were watching, I thought I should do something to rectify this obvious gap in my cultural literacy. I had no idea there were so many games on TV on a Sunday. Mostly at random, I settled on a match between Indianapolis and Minnesota (though why it’s a city against a state I don’t quite understand) and settled in to watch my first football game…

…And I think I learned an awful lot about what it might be like to navigate an academic library for the first time.

It’s been a while since I was faced with a thing of great complexity and too little context to see patterns in the details. Most of the time, I couldn’t even figure out if what I’d just seen was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing in football. But, undaunted, I used my librarianish skills to find the NFL page on Wikipedia and follow the links from there to a glossary and set of rules. Yay, right?

Not right. Here’s the definition of that mysterious thing called a “down”: The period of action that starts when the ball is put in play and ends when it is dead. If you don’t quite know if you understand “put in play” and “dead,” this isn’t all that helpful. And besides, downs get counted up… why? and how far? and what’s the significance of that anyway? But there was no way I’d answer those questions by poking around on the NFL site.

Thankfully, the people in the LSW room very patiently explained these basics to me, and they didn’t laugh at me quite as hard as they had when I first thought that the football team here was the Twins… or maybe that was the basketball team… (I kid you not. And I am ashamed.) But you know what? It took me 20 minutes to figure out enough to even know if I was asking them answerable questions.

I wonder now if my library’s physical and online presence is as impenetrable to the uninitiated as this game and reference source were to me.

(By the way, by luck I watched a game that got pretty exciting near the end.)

Published inRandom Thoughts


  1. CogSci Librarian CogSci Librarian

    Iris, what a great analogy! I like thinking about situations which remind us how our patrons must feel. We explain what “DD/ILL” by helpfully unabbreviating it as “Document Delivery / Interlibrary Loan” — which, like “down,” still probably confuses the untrained. Even “catalog” can be problematic; I recently heard Stephen Abram say that to most people a “catalog” is where they go to buy clothes.

    I’m a football understander, but I am always on the lookout for good analogies to help library understanders have empathy for non-library understanders.

    Go NY Football Giants!

  2. Mary Mary

    Great analogy, I think I might have to use this in class. I married a former Baylor player, who would love for me to watch the games with him, but I always fall asleep in the third “inning.” That may be one more part of the analogy with students in the research library!

  3. LeAnn LeAnn

    You’re right, all the terms we use are probably so out there to students. I really try to explain everything, but even then it’s probably still a bit confusing.

    And, I’m such a huge football fan so reading about you not understanding what a “down” was and what being “in play” meant, and you’re probably going to hate this, but reading this was adorable. I was always a sports girl and I never understood why other women didn’t get sports, which is stupid, ’cause we all have our hobbies. But, it’s good to read this to think about how we talk about things that are second nature to us.

  4. Iris Iris

    In other conversations, people have mentioned that the analogy can go even farther: both are much more fun to learn in the context of a community rather that alone.

    The more I think about that glossary, the more I realize that what I was missing was any context that would make the terms useful. I might know the definition of a down, but not why that’s important. And I hereby vow to give as much of this kind of context as I can when I’m working with students in the library.

  5. Esha Datta Esha Datta

    Ha! This is like a conversation I would have with my sport fanatical husband about any sport related thing. He especially hates being asked…who’s winning? I mean isn’t it obvious…look at the scores!..but those aren’t always shown at the moment you’re watching.

    Which could be an analogy about finding anything in a library or a website for that matter. What’s obvious to some isn’t to others…or maybe this is just an obvious comment? :)

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