:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Bridge the Jargon Divide


   We all hate jargon that we don't understand. It leaves us feeling
   confused, frustrated, and belittled. We simultaneously wonder why we
   don't know what the terms mean and why the speaker doesn't explain them
   or use more understandable language.

   Communication between those "in the know" and those not in the know has
   always been an issue and will no doubt continue to be. But there are
   steps both sides can take to mitigate the problem.
   Techies, take note

   As a self-described techie, I feel I can, and should, address what we
   must do to make it easier for others to understand our issues. After
   all, I struggle with this every month in this column. How can I help my
   colleagues push the borders of their knowledge without leaving them
   behind? I struggle to describe what are sometimes very technical topics
   in terms that those new to them can understand.

   A good part of the issue gets down to jargon. Jargon is a word for
   technical terms for which the meanings are known only to a select few.
   Jargon is sometimes used to establish one's credentials as a techie, to
   impress one's colleagues, and, frankly, to confuse intentionally when
   clearer language may not result in the desired outcome (such as more
   staff or money to accomplish one's objectives). For some advice on how
   to change your ways, see "Seven Tips for Talking with Nontechnical
   People" and "13 Tips on How To Tech-Talk to Non-Techies."
   Attitude adjustment

   Still, jargon is sometimes inescapable. Accuracy often dictates that an
   exact term be used. Or there may be no reasonable substitute. In these
   cases, a basic definition of the term should be offered, preferably
   through a link to a simple explanation (in the case of a web page), a
   quick description in the body of an article, or a reference to an
   additional resource in a bibliography. Anything worth saying is worth
   being understood.

   Another issue is attitude. Too many techies feel superior to
   nontechies, whether they will admit it or not. Some even riducule and
   poke fun at nontechies and their ignorance of technical topics.
   We're merely tech superior

   It's important for techies to realize that we are not superior because
   we know about technical topics--our knowledge simply lies in a
   specific, albeit important, area. Many of our colleagues are more
   knowledgeable in other, equally important areas.

   As people to whom technical understanding comes easier, we should bring
   our colleagues along with us in this ever-changing world of
   technological advancement. Explain technical topics in simple, direct,
   easily understood terms. Define jargon when speaking with people to
   whom it is new. Demonstrate in specific ways how technology can help
   all of us to advance the mission and goals of our libraries. We should,
   in other words, dump the attitude and do what we can to include our
   nontechie colleagues and not alienate them.
   Nontechies, listen up

   Nontechies (surely someone has a better term?) have their own
   responsibilities. When faced with technical jargon, demand an
   understandable explanation. Don't allow techies to get by with
   obfuscation and intimidation. Ask questions until you're satisfied.

   Learn about technical topics and don't rely on others to bail you out
   of scenarios that you should be able to handle. Specifically, learn the
   standard functions of the software you need to do your job. This
   includes basic operating system procedures (such as moving files
   around, finding files, etc.) but not necessarily advanced system
   procedures (such as running diagnostic utilities).

   Knowledge is power. Know enough about technology and what it can and
   cannot do. This way you'll detect when you're being snowed. If you know
   for a fact that a given task is achievable, no one will be able to tell
   you that it is overly difficult, time-consuming, or expensive.

   Perhaps you can't achieve such knowledge owing to lack of time,
   inclination, or desire. So if your request for a particular technical
   service is refused, ask for specifics: What resources would it take to
   achieve the goal, and why?

   Then take the answer to a techie outside your institution. Ask if this
   is a reasonable assessment of the situation. Gather specifics that can
   be taken back (anonymously) to your own staff for further explanation.
   After a few times of calling their bluff, your technical staff will
   know they can no longer put one over on you by exploiting your
   Come together

   Just like the Beatles song says, I beseech both techies and nontechies
   to "come together, right now." We must focus on our common goals.
   Certainly we cannot achieve these outcomes without the willingness and
   participation of what we sometimes think of as "the other side." After
   all, it's simply another face of us.

   Seven Tips for Talking with Nontechnical People
   [123] Thirteen Tips on How To
   Tech-Talk to Non-Techies