Tag Archives: language

A Rose by Any Other Name…

9 Aug

Yesterday, I posed a question on my Facebook page:


I found the responses really fascinating and they got me to thinking a good bit about language, the words we choose, why we choose them, and the like. This is hardly a new fascination. I became a librarian, in part, because of my interest in cultural studies and linguistics; specifically, why research that involved females as subjects always stated such in publication titles, whereas the same involving males did not. Why were males the norm? Why could findings for men be generalized to the entire population, but the same never (or very, very rarely) be said for women? I was curious and it sent me down a path – and an independent study – that led me to discover that there are people within the field of library and information science who study this kind of thing. Who knew? And so I finished up my degree in exercise physiology and headed off to library school. Or something like that.

I asked the question about reading/listening to audiobooks because I was on the Audible website, trying to decide what audiobook to spend my monthly credit on and while reading the reviews, noticed that lots of reviewers referred to the experience of listening to an audiobook as “reading.”  A good number of my friends agreed, pointing out everything from the history of storytelling as a verbal act to the limitations of people with visual impairments. My friend and librarian colleague, Rachel, argued that it’s a “content/container issue,” that if we limit “reading” to absorbing a book through the eyes, then people with limited sight could never say that they “read” a book. It’s a valid point, though it also made me wonder if a person who’s hearing impaired would ever read a book and then say that they listened to it. Do people who are visually impaired recognize a difference between reading Braille and listening? And I also wonder about the neural pathways that form in the brains of individuals who have visual and/or hearing impairments, though that’s a topic that requires a lot more research on my part. It’s too much for discussion here.

People shared that they’re busy and/or have long commutes and if they didn’t listen to audiobooks, they’d never have the time to read anything. But still I wondered, why would you say, “I’d never read anything” when you admit that you listened? My friend, Matt, asked, “So what would be the right verb to cover either?” to which I replied, “How about just saying you listened when you listened and you read when you read?” Or something along those lines. Why do we need another word? Listening is listening and reading is reading. One is no better than the other, they’re simply different.

But do we really believe that? Do we believe that they’re the same? I did sense a slight tone of defensiveness about reading versus listening in some of the comments. I wondered if I didn’t unknowingly imply it when I posed the question in the first place. And I admit that I argued that we do place a lot of value in literacy, that we teach children to read for a reason. (For LOTS of reasons, actually.) So do I believe, deep down, that people who read books are just a little better than people who listen to them?

I wonder if I don’t think of reading as something that’s active, something we do, something we put some effort into, while countering it with a belief that listening is passive, somehow a little bit lazy? I think of the NFL Hall of Famer, Deion Sanders, who I once heard comment that he never quite understood the enthusiasm of fans; the exuberance of simply watching people play a game. “Playing is what’s fun,” he said, with a kind of, “Get up off the couch, lazy bones!” hint to it. I try to imagine everyone at work on Monday morning saying that they played for the Patriots the day before, instead of that they watched them. How nutty is that? Who would say that?

Maybe it’s some of this. Or … maybe I just prefer that people use the right word.

And it’s that last statement that’s stuck with me the most. A few friends commented that to say you’ve read a book when you’ve listened to it is lying. I find that a little harsh, though it’s exactly what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said about the president when people said he lied about the Boy Scouts calling him on the phone. “I wouldn’t say it was a lie. That’s a pretty bold accusation. The conversations took place, they just simply didn’t take place over a phone call. … He had them in person.” It’s harsh. It’s “pretty bold.” And does it really matter, anyway?

One can argue that there’s a pretty huge difference between the President of the United States lying and people lying when they say that they read something when they, in fact, listened to it. I’ll go along with that. But maybe it’s the times that we’re living in that made me ruminate on this topic for a good 24 hours. There’s an awful lot of excusing people for poor word choice nowadays. And some pretty big consequences in doing so.

Thanks for reading this post. When I turn it into a podcast, you can listen. 🙂

Larry, Darryl, and Darryl

17 Jun

[A Monday afternoon editorial.]


Sometime within the past couple of months, the National Institutes of Health decided to start enforcing the requirements of its public access mandate that went into effect in April of 2008. On the one hand, it was nice of NIH to give its funded researchers a year or two or five to come around to following the rules. Yet on the other, the recent applied pressure has sent a flurry of befuddled and irritated biomedical researchers, clinical researchers, research coordinators, administrative assistants, and any number of other folks my way, usually in a deadline-induced panic, trying to figure out what the heck they’re supposed to do to get in compliance with the law.

For awhile, I was slightly irritated myself – at the researchers, that is. When it comes to “the Mandate,” I’ve been announcing and instructing and updating and troubleshooting ad nauseum for these past years. I’ve sent out countless invitations to talk to departments, to labs, to admins, to the staff in research funding (and to their credit, many – though hardly a majority – took me up on it). I have made it my business to know every in and out and upside down aspect of this Policy since before it became law, lo those many years ago now. And so, over the past couple of months, I’ve stifled more than one, “What rock have you been living under?!” retort to more than one, “NIH has instituted another new thing!” whine landing in my email inbox or coming across my phone line.

All of this said, as I have worked to smooth and soothe and clean up messes these past weeks, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that NIH, and more, the National Library of Medicine, could have done us all a HUGE favor if they had taken just a moment to think through the naming conventions that they chose for the various resources and tools associated with this Policy. Why, for the love of Pete, did you name PubMed Central, PubMed Central? Why is there something so crucial as “My Bibliography” buried within “My NCBI”? Why are there “journal publishers that submit articles on behalf of authors,” as well as “journal publishers that submit manuscripts on behalf of authors”?

If you think that I typed the same thing twice there, read again. Closely. Which is EXACTLY what you have to say to researchers over and over and over again.

And that’s kind of my point. In one of the most basic textbooks of library science, Richard Rubin’s, Foundations of Library and Information Science, every aspiring librarian learns a handful of principles related to information management and organization. As Rubin warns, “Unless there are ways to organize it,it (information) quickly becomes chaos.” (p. 171)

Perhaps one can make a strong argument that the conundrum that is the naming conventions of NIH/NLM resources and tools isn’t really a naming convention problem at all. There certainly are distinctions between them. “My Bibliography” is not the same as “My NCBI.” PubMed is a completely different database than PubMed Central. How hard is this to grasp?!  I argue, harder than the average librarian and/or programmer and/or chief resource namer of highest level (aka CRNHL – pronounced “colonel” – on Twitter) ever realizes.

I bring this topic up on my informationist blog because I find it pretty funny (in a black humor, ironic sort of way) that one of the primary reasons I was placed on a research team was because of my expertise in information organization. Librarians are the experts in applying the standards, language, and processes that help people communicate, find, and access information more easily and efficiently. This being the case, I can’t help but wonder why we shot ourselves in the foot here, choosing labels that are so easily confused and swapped one for the other. Like homology, homography, or holograms and homograms… who can’t help but get these mixed up? And when there is a compliance officer, grant funding, and a deadline all in play, well, we in the information arena could do better to make things a little easier on everyone.