September 1, 2010


Can yoU Read This? Or is it "brief and incomplete to the point of discourtesy" if I initialize it instead of spelling out what I am really asking? That is the definition of curt I found in the mammoth 1940 Universal Dictionary of the English Language that I keep in my office. Granted, in a previous post I explained that my background in linguistics makes me much less of a prescriptivist than you'd expect, especially when it comes to dictionaries, but I think the general concept of curtness is an apt metaphor for what happens when we do not control one ubiquitous and possibly confounding aspect of our work: Acronyms.

I had a great teacher in library school who encouraged his students to approach Wikipedia as a "fact of life" and not an inherently bad thing, just one that librarians should use with more thoughtfulness and caution than the average user might. I feel the same way about acronyms: they are there for a reason and they can make our life easier. Nevertheless, acronyms pose obvious problems to new staff at an organization, visitors to your meetings and conferences, and even you if you don't know what they mean.

The first rule of acronyms: Ask. If you hear one in a meeting, write it in the margin of your notes and ask what it means at the first appropriate opportunity, which may be right away if it's crucial to your understanding of a task. It may be the case that you figure it out from context and double-check it after a meeting, or follow up with the person who used it.

The second rule of acronyms: Keep a list. The librarian is a key person to document miscellaneous knowledge in an organization, and making an acronyms list is a great way to start. This list will have 101 uses. Make it available via your intranet (or via a public web page if appropriate) and have a way for people to suggest or add changes. Offer it to conference organizers to include in the program if guests from outside your knowledge speciality are attending. Include it, or a relevant portion of it, in your organization's standard publications.

Think about how you feel when you get a very short email from someone without a lot of context or elaboration (especially in customer service situations) as opposed to a thorough explanation. The longer explanation usually adds to your understanding, makes you feel valued, and shows that the person on the other end gave some thought to your point of view. The same is true for acronyms. Avoid seeming curt or exclusive by giving everyone who interacts with your organization an opportunity to be "in the know" and figure out what people are saying.

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