Semantics as Praxis: The Challenge of Naming the People Who Use Academic Libraries

By Meggan Press
Undergraduate Education Librarian
Indiana University Bloomington

Introduction

Libraries are not neutral; they never have been. The history of libraries reflects capitalism, racism, and misogyny. The legacy of our racist, biased, and exclusionary practices is built into the fabric of our work. The implications of history continue to play out in our daily practices, often so rote as to remain unnoticed, unexamined, and unquestioned. Consider as an example the words librarians use to refer to the people who use libraries—patron, customer, user, student, and member, among others. The act of choosing which word is used creates systems and behaviors that prioritize some people over others and reveals alignment with ideologies that may have felt progressive at one time but no longer serve us.

In many instances, word choice is a seemingly benign decision, or not even seen as a decision at all, but an apparently harmless and desirable absorption into an existing institutional culture. The decision, or lack thereof, was likely never intended as a power play, but words do have power: the power to affect the practice of librarians and create conditions of belonging for the people who use libraries. As we normalize the practice of including pronouns on our Zoom profiles and email signatures, examine the naming choices of our institutions, and declare libraries “safe spaces,” we can no longer afford to consider our lack of critical examination of our word choices in libraries as benign, harmless, or meaningless. We can no longer passively allow historical systemic privilege to play out in the present day. We must examine our systems, structures, and semantics to reflect the institutions we are striving to become.

This paper will examine the scholarly history, ideological alignment, and implications of words such as patron, customer, and user with an emphasis on practice and ideology in academic libraries. A few notable gaps in the literature are revealed as opportunities for further examination and as a challenge to praxis. Lastly, this paper proposes a number of thought experiments brought into question by examination of the existing literature and data. These thought experiments can be used by individuals or institutions to clarify values and, where values are at odds with praxis, identify openings for aligning purpose and action.

This is not the first foray into the various choices a librarian or an institution makes when deciding how to refer to the people who use libraries. In the literature, the emergence of this issue is cyclical. This is, in fact, a good thing. Libraries should periodically review their practices and position in the larger cultural norms with a willingness to shift in order to more closely align with professional standards and cultural ideals. This cyclical emergence should not be seen as a failure to cement practices but rather a desirable opportunity to confirm alignment or alter a path forward to better meet our goals. The literature shows two spikes in interest surrounding the debate, the first in the early 2000s and the second about ten years later. A third wave is on track to crest in the next few years, especially considering the current cultural climate surrounding the choices and legacies present around naming on college campuses and cultural institutions.

A Note About Semantics

Neoliberalism is deeply embedded in library culture and its attendant systemic choices. It is no surprise, therefore, that efficiency, accountability, and return on investment continue to dominate our conversations about the value of libraries. Tensions which were present in the early days of the formalized education of librarians between practicality and philosophy are present even today in the education of future librarians (Gregory and Higgins, 2018). How do we balance teaching future librarians about how to use integrated library systems with the philosophy and underlying ideology of the controlled vocabularies that allow for search and retrieval? Between educational philosophy and the praxis of teaching? Between words we use to refer to the people who use libraries and the logistics of the outreach events that get those people in the door? It is this tension between ideology and practice that creates disputes when the question of what we call the people who use libraries come up.

The central tensions between those who believe that the terminology we use is powerful and those who believe that talking about words distracts from the point can be seen clearly in the titles of articles associated with the conversation, such as “As Long as We Don’t Call them Warthogs” (Price, 2004), “Terminology is Important” (Trosow, 2004), and “Words Matter: The Power of Language to Create Community” (Press, 2018). Many dismiss the conversation around the words libraries use to refer to the people who use libraries as semantics. Indeed the debate is one of semantics, which is to say, the meaning of words and the effect of context on meaning.

The disdain with which the word “semantics” is used brings us to our first case study on word choice, definition, and usage. It is rare to see the word “semantics” appear in publications outside the field of linguistics without qualifiers: “just semantics” or “mere semantics.” Calling debates around word choice “semantics” is an accurate naming of the powers under examination; however, invoking “semantics” often has a much darker intent. When used in debates around word choice, citing “semantics” is usually an attempt to silence voices and preserve the status quo. It is commonly used to dismiss an argument as beside the point, obfuscating the intent, or otherwise off track. And yet, semantics is the point. Meaning is the point. The semantics matter because the words we choose affect how the people who use libraries feel about them, and they affect how the people who work in libraries treat the people who use libraries. Words have the power to cause us to reflect, invite, and align. Words have the power to change how we interpret meaning and how we put ideology into practice.

The words we use: Top contenders

Though literature exists to create a scholarly record of the debate, it is important to contextualize the type of literature that currently exists. In the early 2000’s, the debate was primarily taking place in public libraries, where the preferred terminology at that time was variously “customer,” “patron,” or, occasionally, “member” (Price, 2004; Circle, 2018; Pundsack, 2015; Auld, 2004; Trott, 2004). Articles that address word use in academic libraries focus on “patron,” “customer,” and “user” (Budd, 1997; Bell, 2019; Holley, 2020; Maret and Eagle, 2013; McGuigan, 2005; Trosow, 2004; Buschman, 2004; Press, 2018). Indeed, many articles in the literature that are unrelated to the question of naming the people who use libraries provide unselfconscious fodder for the debate by using the words “customer” and “user” interchangeably throughout articles (see as an example: Kaur and Singh, 2011).

The publications in conversation with the issue and with each other are primarily personal essays. In a few cases, they show theoretical underpinning to their positions (Budd, 1997; Holley, 2020; McGuigan, 2005; Trosow, 2004). In all cases, however, there is a total absence of data; authors instead rely on anecdotal and personal evidence. In the absence of data, and with the emphasis on anecdote, this paper reveals a significant gap in the scholarly record and an opportunity for further inquiry into the nature and practice of word choice referring to the people who use libraries.

As a subset of the types of libraries who have engaged in the debate, academic libraries tend to prefer patron, customer, or user. These choices reveal interesting disciplinary and industry alignments that inform our approach to librarianship as a profession.

Patron

The word “patron” is a particularly interesting case study, revealing the disciplinary and industry alignments of certain word choices. For example, “patron,” a word choice shared among many different types of libraries including academic libraries, signals an ideological alignment with the arts. Superficially, this word choice appears to place value on the person who is using the library while centering the benefit to the library itself (Press, 2018); however, the assumed symbiotic relationship amongst patrons and artists shows wear upon examination.

It is assumed that patrons give money to support the arts and that they receive art from the muse of the artist in return. It is assumed that patrons support arts because they believe in the social good of art, and that by contributing to the creation of art, there is more art as a benefit to the common good. While this may be true as far as it goes, or not exactly incorrect, it doesn’t acknowledge the undercurrent of the patron/artist relationship.

Historically, patrons did not support art for a common good, but as a personally and systemically beneficial purchase, a way of creating the reality and the historical record that they wanted to believe, or perhaps the one they were looking to sell, and certainly the one that persists in the historical record. Artists supported by a patronage needed to keep their patrons happy in order to keep their patronage, which was the very thing that allowed them to live in the relative comfort that was necessary to produce work outside of a patronage or other living-wage work. The influence that patron taste and preference had and continues to have on arts organizations cannot be overstated, nor can the underlying element of self-fulfilling prophecy be divorced from the choices made by arts organizations supported by patronage. From altering portraits in order to reflect the reality that a patron wanted to see to demanding fictionalized accounting of events, it is incorrect to assume that patronage equals the ability to follow artistic ideology. While an artist may find separate space to create according to their muse as a result of the financial security presented by a patronage, it is a falsehood to assume that patronage enables the highest artistic professional standards as a matter of course.

In modern day usage, the term “patron” is assumed to be a fairly benign word choice, one signaling respect for the people who make use of libraries and also a desire to create a mutually beneficial relationship. Some argue that the term feels outdated (Auld, 2004), and, more to the point of this article, the word “patron” has connotations of a certain privilege that may not serve academic libraries as organizations nor be reflective of the desire of libraries to create diverse and inclusive spaces, services, and collections.

Customer

“Customer,” on the other hand, is a word choice that reveals alignment with business. This is unsurprising for academic libraries in particular, as higher education has adopted an increasingly neoliberal approach. The logic behind the word choice seems to be that academic libraries use the word “customer” because of the emphasis they have placed on customer service as a practice and value adopted from business. Because libraries practice customer service, libraries must, therefore, refer to the people who use them as customers. Holley (2020), however, challenges this by suggesting that the notions of customer and customer service are linked but not identical. Furthermore, they continue, the people who use academic libraries are not customers. Being a customer, they say, is defined by the presence of choice. For example, customers choose among options of stores from which to purchase office supplies, and, indeed, which pen of any number of choices to purchase from that store. Because there is no choice in academic libraries—students do not choose whether or not to pay the fees that support libraries, faculty do not have the financial means to absorb subscription costs and therefore cannot choose to bypass the collections of academic libraries—they are not customers.

One of the arguments against using “customers” in reference to the people who use libraries is the implied alignment of libraries with institutional neoliberalism. The goal of business is profit, the argument goes. The goal of institutions that align with business practices is profit. Libraries are not inherently profitable enterprises unto themselves, and must show their value to the profit by shoring up factors that contribute to profit, such as customer service and satisfaction. This unto itself is a problematic logical leap for a profession with their own values and ideologies. Budd (1997) astutely notes, “The question is whether a customer service approach meets user needs without creating a set of conceptual and practical problems for libraries.”

Customer service, points out Budd, is not an end but a means. Customer service is not valued as an end in itself, but as a method by which to unlock funding. Libraries participate in capitalist obfuscation when we advocate for serving customers and yet the end goal is not happy customers but material gain. In libraries, this material gain is favor and resources from our supporting institutions. A happy coincidence of this goal may be the satisfaction of the people who use libraries, but it is not the end unto itself.

Higher education as a business

In order to fully consider the use of the word “customer” in academic libraries, we must generally address the inherent problems with higher education as a business. Full analysis of this issue is beyond the scope of this paper, but as it relates to academic libraries and librarian-espoused practices, it is worth a brief dip into the shallows of the conversation. Stephen Bell, a cyclical contributor to the literature of what to call people who use libraries, is a proponent of the use of “customer” in academic libraries. “Higher education buys scholarship and sells learning,” they say, “And most institutions work hard to gain customers that we refer to as students, who give us their money in exchange for credentials…. If academic libraries work for institutions that sell goods…. Why do they so strongly resist the term or think they are above serving customers?” (Bell, 2019).

This statement reveals a number of factual inaccuracies that are endemic to the debate. It is not accurate to state that higher education sells learning or credentials. Higher education sells opportunities and access—opportunities for learning and access to systems of privilege. True learning is a labor sharing model that requires input from the learner in order to produce value (Halbesleben et al., 2003). Learning cannot be sold as a commodity.

The ideology in education settings, as confirmed by Halbesleben et al., typically positions an instructor in both instructive and evaluative roles. If the customer is always right, the value of evaluation is undermined. At its core, treating students as customers teaches that credentials are something that can be received for payment. Within this framework discussed at length by Bell (2019), the value of participating in higher education is in the credential, not the learning. If higher education sells credentials, there is no need for any evaluative process whatsoever. A simple exchange of credentials for money should be sufficient, but this has not been the historic practice of higher education.

Additionally, the focus on students as customers, one that is repeated over and over in the literature, is also not wholly accurate for academic libraries. For one thing, students are not the only population of library users, unlike the degree-granting institutions of which we are a part. Academic libraries also serve faculty, staff, and in some cases non-affiliates. The practice of focusing on students as the sole customer segment in academic libraries is at best an oversimplification and at worse a confounding of the core issue.

Academic libraries as businesses

The notion of academic libraries as business unto themselves, or as subsidiaries in the business of higher education, is also problematic. Academic libraries, as purported practitioners of customer service, must reckon with their motivations. As Budd (1997) points out, academic libraries practice customer service because it is worth something material—an enhancement of standing within the institution and thus access to resources. The customer then becomes a path to material gain. It is problematic to treat the people who use academic libraries as customers because, in the typical way of businesses, “They target their activities at very specific customers and their precise needs. The fact that they do not serve some members of society does not bother them in the least. Should the academic library adopt a similar stance? It cannot if it is to claim to serve the academic community.” (Budd, 1997)

This focus on structuring services and activities according to those customers who contribute most to the value and material gain of the library means that the customer base is, in essence, defined by the library. When ascribing to a business model, the library is forced to choose those customers who bring the most value according to the library’s need for funding and resources distributed according to business practices. And if, as McGuigan (2005) states, libraries must be willing to give up less valued activities in order to make best use of limited resources, we must ask, less valued by whom? If certain customers are considered the most valuable because of their ability to extract funding from our institutions, those customers inevitably will find they are able to access the most resources and that services are designed with them in mind. In this way, we cannot avoid setting up systems that privilege certain customers over others. The question that follows is: Who are we privileging?

Furthermore, businesses aren’t structured to give people what they want but to sell, up-sell, and convince you to buy something you don’t need, according to Price (2004). Consider this example from Price of how a typically business-minded approach might play out in a reference interaction:

Customer: “I’m looking for a book on the Civil War—”

Librarian: “Well, I’m afraid all our books on the Civil War are out right now, but we have some excellent books on the War of 1812.”

Customer: “Um … no, it needs to be the Civil War. My teacher was really specific …. “

Librarian: “Well, how about I offer you two books on the War of 1812 and this nice Internet page about body surfing?”

Customer: “What does body surfing have to do with the Civil War?”

Librarian: “Well, it’s very popular right now with customers of your age. We consulted a focus group.”

This is an accurate example of applying business-minded framework to a typical reference interaction, though fairly ridiculous, as Price admits. The example is made ridiculous not because it is counter-indicative of business practices but because it is so obviously out of alignment with library practices, which are informed by the professional values of librarians, not business people.

In order to run a library as a retail business, a library requires a readily definable product and customers who know what they want. Anyone who has conducted a reference interview knows the difficulty in these assumptions. A complicating factor is determining which customer to prioritize. According to McGuigan (2005):

If the student is a customer, then the librarian should trust that the student knows what she wants, and that to try to steer the student towards better resources would be running the risk of alienating the student and losing the student’s ‘business.’ However the student is also a customer of the university, and, as such, one assumes that the student is looking for an article because her professor wants her to learn something from this article. So, perhaps this means that the librarian should align herself with the goals of the university and the professor, and teach the student what she needs to know, ignoring the student/customer’s wants. The patron as customer framework does not provide any answers to dilemmas of this sort. (p. 22)

Which of these customers will influence practices and contribute to a system that privileges their needs? Which of these customers’ opinions do we value more highly according to professional practice? Who is the customer: the student, the institution, or the library?

If we consider students as the de facto customer base of academic libraries, as much of the literature suggests we ought to do, we must consider what it is that the student/customer would really value from the libraries. A high customer demand of libraries is the purchase of textbooks, and yet most libraries do not choose to do this in a systematic way. By choosing not to collect textbooks intentionally, libraries reveal professional values, practices, and decisions, yet without the parallel consideration of choosing words that apply accurately and equally to the people who use libraries.

And even still, despite the effort we may place in this direction, the practice of customer service as a means to proving value and accessing resources in the absence of an independently generated revenue stream is no promise of the continued existence of a library. Libraries with high levels of customer service may not be well funded for reasons outside their control, and libraries with poor customer service may continue to exist. This is further indication that the focus on customer service is not accurate with regard to the underlying existential needs of academic libraries, nor does the use of the word “customer” necessarily follow from the practice of customer service.

User

The word “user” is a bit of a curiosity within the other options frequently discussed. Though it is in common usage, it appears to have escaped scrutiny in the literature. There is some evidence that “user” is terminology that precedes “customer” in the literature (Johnson, 1995; Wang, 2006). It is unclear what prompted the change in praxis, and the history of use of the term is equally unclear. It is not uncommon to find articles that deploy “user” interchangeably with either or both “patron” and “customer” (see as an example: Kaur and Singh, 2011), but these variables and contexts have not been addressed in the current scholarship.

In comparison to both “patron” and “customer,” “user” is a word that aligns with the discipline of information science and technology, which is not only a dominant industry in the marketplace but also the one that underpins much of library science as a discipline. If we want to increase our prominence in the eyes of decision makers, funders, and the public, aligning ourselves with information science and technology is a natural choice.

Though it may seem odd to bring an unexamined word into this conversation, the ubiquitous application of “user” within the academic library context bears inclusion. Paring back the verbiage of “people who use libraries” naturally reveals the word “user” as a comfortable proxy. Furthermore, many large academic libraries have invested in the term, having created roles tasked with the user experience of libraries’ online presences and referencing the user experience of library spaces and services. Though the word has vaguely vampiric overtones—what is a user but someone who takes without giving?—it may be the most ideologically aligned of the present choices in discussion (Press, 2018). As it is also the least examined of the choices in the literature, without strong arguments for or against, this reveals yet another avenue for research.

Academic librarian values and ideologies

Academic libraries straddle worlds, constantly pretending to be enough like the most prominent industries and disciplines to be accepted by our supporting institutions of higher education but unique enough to be valued. Rather than turning to our own professional standards and values for guidance, which exist both explicitly and implicitly, we look to disciplinary and industry values for validation in order to access trickle-down resources. All the words we have available in practice belong to other disciplines and industries: arts, business, education, technology. Education calls them students. Education that functions like a business calls them customers. When the people in our spaces are faculty, staff, or non-affiliates we call them patrons. At the same time, our professional field is increasingly aligned with information science, which means that internally to our organizations we consider user a strong alternative. What do our own professional values and ideologies have to contribute to this conversation?

Firstly, libraries’ desire to exist as a social good carries no weight in the debate. Buschman (2004) notes that a customer driven library abandons our role in organized social memory and rational discourse in a democracy. McGuigan (2005) considers the customer metaphor to be an obstacle to a sense of social responsibility, and Trosow (2004) cautions that “Succumbing to the ideology of the marketplace by appropriating its practices and terminology only weakens the claim that information should be provided as a social good” and concludes that we “open the door to further commercialization, commodification, and ultimately, privatization.” Without being beholden to the pull of society and public discourse, the fear is that privatization would incentivize private libraries to make decisions about access and collections that are against the public good. We see this play out in arts organizations throughout the country both currently and historically.

Trott (2004) claims that using “customer” is equal to an abdication of professional responsibilities. Practitioners should set the standards for the profession, they assert. Raphael (2004) echoes the sentiment via a different logic: “Customer implies work, which implies that you are paid for doing it. Other terms like ‘community member’ are more holistic and warm/fuzzy but they also distance from professionalism, which is to say work.” Present in Raphael’s contention is the emphasis placed on librarianship as work. When we focus on the social good as an end goal of the work, we pressure professionals to de-emphasize the knowledge, skills, resources, and training that goes into successful work, thereby deprofessionalizing workers and reinforcing systemic inequities that play out not just between libraries and library workers but also libraries and other industries.

Frustratingly, the patron vs. customer vs. user debate misses the core of the issue, which is a question of disciplinary and industry allegiance that subjugates our own professional values and ideologies in order to appear more appealing to our funding institutions. We have worked hard as a profession to define a niche, but that niche is created by aligning with and opposing other disciplines and industries at will. We cannot define our value by being like everyone else. By picking and choosing which pieces of business, education, the arts, and technology we apply to our academic libraries, we are effectively creating our own discipline, our own industry. If that is the case, our challenge is clear. Can we imagine a disciplinary or industry model that is unique to academic libraries, one that does not create constant conflict with other models? What values and choices would be revealed if we were to acknowledge libraries as their own discipline or industry? What words would we choose? Having created such a model, can we envision accurate, unique, and meaningful jargon that also aligns with our users?

Thought Experiments

Centralizing the debate on patron/customer/user crowds out our ability to consider alternatives, and silences our ability to focus on intentional choices—choices that could, even should, change over time. In analyzing the debates that surround the words we use to refer to the people who use libraries, a number of limitations in thinking are revealed. In order to reflect the fullness and implications of individual and institutional word choice, the following are offered as thought experiments—places that challenge the status quo and offer choices that can bring practice and institutions into alignment with ideals. What is revealed about your own practice or institution by engaging with these gaps?

Who are we even talking about?

In the realm of academic libraries, the scholarship most commonly assumes that the people we are talking about are students and, whether deliberately or implicitly, excludes the other populations that use the academic library: faculty, staff, and non-affiliates. Without including these populations in our debates, we are engaging in debate for the sake of debate. No conclusion drawn from such exclusionary practices can carry weight. Which words do you use and why? Who is included and who is excluded? Be honest, and whenever possible explicit, about which audience(s) you are preferencing and why.

Transparency in code switching

There is a benign sort of false decision present in the choice of using “customer” because academic libraries espouse “customer service.” As Holley (2020) unequivocally states, customer and customer service are linked terms but not identical. To that end, using “customer service” is also wording that we should question rather than blindly adopt. In a similar vein, how might choosing “service model” or “service approach” change our thinking and practice in relation to the people who work in our libraries and those who use our libraries? Many librarians are already careful about their use of jargon in instruction sessions as well as in our communications outside the profession. “Information literacy” is often reframed as “critical thinking” in order to reduce the barriers to understanding and confirm alignment with faculty. Similarly, many librarians use “research guide” rather than “LibGuide,” a term that is both proprietary and has no meaning to people outside libraries.

This fluidity of such code switching is a strength of communicating broadly to a wide range of people. We use language that speaks to an audience because it is relevant to their frame of reference and is understood by them. At the same time, this code switching can be mistaken for ideological alignment with certain practices that are not the intent of libraries and yet, whether because of ease of communication or because of an accurate reflection of ideology, they have an effect on practice. When are you or your institution code switching and for what purpose? Who benefits? Who is excluded? How might you make this code switching transparent in your communications? What are the implications of making code switching transparent?

Performative choices vs. Systemic action

Similarly, it is right to question how much power word choice really has on praxis. As we work to address and dismantle systemic bias and privilege in our libraries, there is tension between seemingly performative choices, such as changing our language, and changing our actions while using old words that reinforce the systemic structures we are attempting to address. We wrestle with our approach. Can we use words representative of where we want to go, or is that performative allyship? Can we use old words but new practices without reinforcing oppression? Where along the continuum of progress can we celebrate our advances while still acknowledging that the work does not, will not, cannot end?

The answer, insofar as there is an answer at all, lies somewhere in the middle between extremes. Changing language can be superficial. Changing practice can be meaningful. Changing practice while bringing along language that can reinforce practice is ideal. The two together are stronger than either alone. Where are you on the continuum? Where is your institution? How can both be shifted towards the middle?

Who’s visible and who’s not

This paper cannot be concluded without asking a critical question that librarians routinely ask of learners: Whose voices are missing from this debate? In the literature on this topic, not only is there no data to support any of the various positions in the cyclical debate, to the extent that any library has asked their users what they would like to be called, it has not been published in the literature. The voices of our users are totally absent. This is a glaring omission, and one that could be disastrous to our service models and the access to the resources that libraries are constantly seeking in order to provide those services. To what extent have you, or could you, include the voices of the people who use libraries in dismantling systemic bias?

In Practice

In my own practice, my choices have shifted over time, reflecting my changing thinking and understanding of the underlying issues and implications.  At one point, I rather publicly advocated for “community member” (Press, 2018), but currently I lean more heavily on “user” when referring to a general population of people who use libraries. In spite of the possible connotation of “user” as a person who takes without giving, I find that it is the clearest reduction of the overly-complicated phrase “person who uses the library.” The alignment with information science and technology, an alignment that mirrors the current trend in the affiliations of library schools, is a further indicator to me of its appropriateness for the direction of our profession at this moment in time. “User” has the additional benefit of being a term that does not assume race, age, ability, socioeconomic status, or educational attainment, which is important to me as a person in the world. When I am unsure of a person’s affiliation or needs, I choose “user.”

Similarly, as a professional who works in teaching and learning spaces, I have been turning my language towards “learner” instead of “student.” “Learner” is a term that is divorced from assumptions that plague the word “student” as a degree-seeking individual. It is inclusive of the many reasons a person may be seeking information, and centers the goal of information literacy in my interactions in order to enable life-long learners. Indeed, the professional documents, policies, and practices that support information literacy in academic libraries refer to “life-long learners” and not “life-long students.” I must assume that this is a deliberate choice of the profession, one that elevates many different ways of knowing and centers the learner not as an empty vessel to be filled but as a person with lived experience that can contribute meaningfully to and amplify their efforts in learning, whoever they may be, in whatever stage of life they may represent, and for whatever end goal is theirs to pursue.

The approach supported by this change in wording is profound. Rather than condescending to students and privileging certain pursuits or scholarship, it equalizes the contributions of learners. It makes no distinction between “traditional freshmen” and “non-traditional freshmen,” between faculty whose research is the embodiment of learning and graduate students whose learning is evaluated for credentials. It places the cross-pollinating learning that happens between instructors and students into a light of acknowledgment that is reinforced every time the word “learner” is used. Consider how our interactions might change if we asked our users, “What would you like to learn today?” rather than “How can I help you?” Life-long learning is a goal of our professional standards, and by simply changing one word, we can change our own practices, bring daily reminders into our consciousness, and begin to dismantle long-held hierarchies of higher education, and align more closely with the values and ideals that our profession espouses, rather than buying into the priorities of other industries and disciplines.

Conclusion

Examination of our professional word choice can have a profound and lasting impact on praxis and, by extension, the people who use our libraries. Critically examining the words we use allows us to engage deeply with values-based decision making and put the professional values that librarianship espouses into practice. These examinations are cyclical in the literature and should also be cyclical in practice. Our libraries and institutions are never settled, always changing, and so, too, should librarians reflect a willingness to alter their approach when a better one is revealed. These debates reveal significant gaps in the literature and an opportunity to engage with our users on word choice, an opportunity that has the potential to strengthen a community. With intentionally chosen words that affect our practice, we have the opportunity to enact both deep and superficial changes in our efforts towards a more diverse, just, equitable, and inclusive library.

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