October 17, 2017

STMUA, or Strategies To Manage Unknown Acronyms | Peer to Peer Review

Library acronym word cloudIn the information age, we are exposed to a vast number of terms, abbreviations, and acronyms too numerous to understand and learn. Some are relevant to our personal and professional lives, while others are not. The challenge is to figure out which ones are which. This paper describes one individual’s experience in a new position in developing strategies to manage the overwhelming number of acronyms he was exposed to in his first year.

Our lives are constantly bombarded with new terms and acronyms. The fields of library science and information technology, in particular, have been overwhelmed with the burgeoning of this kind of information. Through my academic and work experiences spanning 30-plus years in the fields of library science, education, and instructional and information technology, I have been literally exposed to thousands of unique terms, programming languages, abbreviations, and acronyms. Many of them are now obsolete and long forgotten in part—or at least that’s my excuse—in making space in my limited memory for new relevant ones emerging daily at a dizzying pace. Attempting to keep updated is no easy task and one that requires constant attention. To complicate the matter further, at the workplace there are more puzzles to solve: every institution and culture has its own set of acronyms and expressions to learn.

Librarians and others who work in all types of libraries are exposed to a wide variety of acronyms throughout their workday and work experiences. For many, the acronyms they must readily know are confined to their specific subfield and domain, department, or work detail. By contrast, library administrators and managers (i.e., deans/directors, associate/assistant deans/directors, unit heads, etc.) face a more daunting challenge as they need a general understanding of a variety of acronyms cutting across many fields and subfields in librarianship.

Thankfully, there are countless ways to keep up-to-date on the latest acronyms and neologisms in our field and our contexts. Some of my colleagues keep journals or spreadsheets, or leverage learning communities and peer groups to expand and grow their lists; others use technologies and apps to track new terms; and a few even create Google Docs of new terminology, to which they frequently append. It’s not unusual to attend a large library conference and discover a useful glossary and/or list of acronyms in the program to assist attendees with deciphering the range of terminology. Numerous websites, programs, and apps exist to provide easy access to this burgeoning and ever-evolving list of terms and acronyms. Some sources are better than others in periodically updating and culling their lists.

This article chronicles my experiences in a new leadership position at an academic research library in tackling the continual problem of trying to understand and learn the myriad acronyms and terms I came across on a daily basis, many of which were unique to the library, institution, and context. Over the course of my first year in the position, I came across many more acronyms, some worth deciphering and others not, but discovering which were important to know in-depth, which required only a cursory understanding, and which I could ignore altogether became an ongoing challenge. For simplicity, I will focus in this article only on acronyms, but undoubtedly these strategies can be applied to anything new one has to learn, such as concepts, abbreviations, terms, and phrases.

Starting a New Position, Facing an Overwhelming Number of Unknown Acronyms

In 2013, I began a position as the associate dean of a research-intensive university library in a different country. As the only associate dean and COO of a university library with more than 200 employees, I had oversight of all operational activities. Accordingly, in my position I touched virtually every aspect of the library and intrainstitutional sectors through universitywide committees, which exposed me to a rich and varied set of terms and acronyms. In the first 30 working days on the job, I came across and recorded more than 150 acronyms with which I was unfamiliar. Some were familiar but, I quickly learned, had a nuanced meaning in this context, or in a few cases stood for something completely different from what I presumed.

(If you are curious about this initial list, you can see it here. Note that this also includes a few common acronyms, such as ALA and ARL, which my administrative assistant thought would be useful to include as part of a complete list. Some common terms also had a different meaning in this context, so they were included. Although many of the spreadsheet fields, such as full name, description, category, and found by were being written as they were added, I have only populated the acronyms field so you can try your hand at figuring out what each acronym represents!)

Librarianship, like most fields, possesses its own unique language. Within librarianship, there are many specialties and subspecialties, and they too contain a unique set of “code,” including a variety of mysterious acronyms—that is, mysterious to those outside of that particular subspecialty. We’ve all had experiences where, for whatever reason, we find ourselves in a meeting with others in a particular subspecialty that is not our own, and “it’s all Greek to me” captures how we feel.

A case in point…go to the homepage of ALA (the American Library Association) website at www.ala.org and look at three of the major menu options—Divisions, Offices, and Round Tables. In turn, each of these options has a drop-down list of additional choices. Collectively, across these three options, these lists contain no fewer than 43 acronyms. How many of us know what FAFLRT, GODORT, MAGIRT, or SRRT represent? If we are not members of these particular roundtable groups, chances are we won’t have a clue! But the good news is that we don’t usually need to know what these mean unless they are relevant to our work and our interests. (Fortunately, ALA does provide a website that spells out these acronyms and others as well as providing links to other glossaries of library-related terms.)

The same can be said of our positions in academic libraries. Academic librarianship is inherently multidisciplinary and consequently the potential list of acronyms across any academic library is overwhelming and expansive. Every subspecialty within an academic library has its own set of acronyms and “codes.” Because the field has become increasingly specialized, it is unreasonable and, quite frankly, unnecessary for those outside that immediate subfield to learn or know the wide range of terminology and acronyms unique to each area.

Below presents a list of four strategies and techniques that I believe others in similar situations—finding themselves in a new library or similar type of position and exposed to an unfamiliar set of acronyms and terms—might find useful. Most of these were compiled through direct experience—that is, through lessons learned, some of which I consider best practices, and others learned from discussions with peers and colleagues.

Strategies to Overcome the Challenge of Learning Unknown Acronyms

1.     Be selective in what acronyms you choose to learn.

I made the decision during my first week in my new position not to stop every meeting and ask what every acronym meant, as it would slow down meetings. At one of my first meetings, I jotted down 12 acronyms in a one-hour session. I panicked at first but quickly noted that only two were referred to more than once, and so for those two I felt it was appropriate to ask what they meant. In one case, I was most surprised to learn that the individuals understood generally what the acronym meant but could not decipher it letter for letter. This was not a rare occurrence, as there were other times I would ask about a particular acronym at a meeting only to observe a group of my colleagues struggle to spell out the words representing each letter. I did begin to realize that depending on the context, it was not uncommon for other colleagues not to know all of the acronyms at a particular meeting but to be too embarrassed to ask, or perhaps they were simply jotting it down to figure out later. On a comical note, at one meeting involving colleagues from various domains in the library, I asked what one acronym meant and it actually had two meanings in different domains, but only one within that specific context.

For the most part, I attempted to assess every situation independently depending on the audience, topic, importance, and expected level of my engagement. As my list of unknown acronyms rapidly grew, I found I really didn’t have the time or inclination to chase down the meaning of every acronym. However, I did try to follow a general rule of thumb that if I was exposed to an acronym at least five times, it usually meant that it was likely to appear again, so I would make it a point to find the meaning myself or through my help network. More often than not, this frequency-count approach paid dividends. Fortunately, some of the acronyms I heard only once, so I was happy not to invest the necessary time and energy in finding out what it meant in my context. Of course, there were times in particular situations where an acronym was just introduced at a meeting, but as the meeting ensued it appeared that it was absolutely essential to know what the acronym meant. During those times, I simply asked for an explanation.

2.    Just-in-Time Approach

While preparing for meetings, I would usually be given the meeting agenda ahead of time. This would provide me with an opportunity to review the agenda and discover what acronyms would be discussed at the meeting. Similar to #1, this would not mean I would necessarily need to learn all of them, but I would assess the audience, topic, importance, and the expected level of my engagement and proceed accordingly. Each agenda item would typically have a person who would be tasked with leading the discussion on that topic. I would often take the opportunity to contact the lead and ask about the agenda item and the acronym in context. This action also helped further develop relationships with these leads and communicate to my colleagues in and out of the library that I was not hesitant to tap their knowledge and expertise to inform my own responsibilities and duties. It was also less intimidating discussing these acronyms in a one-on-one setting as opposed to a group meeting. I found employing the just-in-time approach very practical in such a time-intensive and demanding position.

3.     Modified Tom Sawyer Approach

In Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, there is a scene in which Tom is tasked with whitewashing a long fence. He cleverly devises a scheme to convince his friends that this menial and arduous chore is actually fun and even worth paying for, which they do. To be clear, I am not even remotely suggesting tricking colleagues into doing something they would not do so willingly. But I am suggesting a modified Tom Sawyer approach that involves convincing your library colleagues of the value of participating in the process of finding the meanings of the acronyms as well as benefiting from the collective results. This process can be easily facilitated by posting the incomplete list in a common employee area, such as a meeting area or lunchroom, or electronically on an online shared space such as Google Docs or Dropbox. Variations of this approach can involve a competitive or game-like atmosphere where teams of employees, organized by department or other meaningful units, are given separate lists and race against time. Another variation is for various teams and departments to come up with their own acronym lists, challenge others to solve them, and then provide the “answer key.” There has been much research on the value of game-based and team-based learning. Peter Senge’s work on learning organizations in particular suggests organizations that use a team-based approach to solve problems and tasks that facilitate learning for its members are creating a connected, nimble entity that is capable of quickly adapting and transforming itself to meet the changing needs of society and stakeholders.

4.     Don’t Go It Alone—Develop a Help Network

In my position, I was fortunate to work with a number of very competent administrative assistants who were more than willing to help me with my acronym list. In addition, there were other librarians and library employees who had worked at the library and some in other parts of the institution as well for a number of decades. I worked with two administrative assistants who were very knowledgeable of some of the acronyms and were proactive in trying to find out what the unknown acronyms were. This involved informal conversations, phone calls, web searches, and “watercooler” conversations to solve the acronym puzzles. I must confess that these two colleagues took the lion’s share of the work in populating my unknown acronym list. They quickly created an Excel spreadsheet, discussed with me the various fields to include, and then put it first in a shared network drive and then posted it on Google Docs. Over time, I would access the list to add new acronyms and descriptions and would usually be pleasantly surprised that my administrative assistants had continued to solve many of the acronyms and populate the list. For some of the more challenging acronyms, I sought out one-on-one assistance from those who had worked in the library and elsewhere for many years. One of them directed me to an online resource at the institution that listed the acronyms and descriptions for a variety of committees and clubs on campus, and another even shared her own list of acronyms that she had created many years ago.

On a daily basis we are inundated with new terms from a range of sources in our personal and professional lives. Determining which are relevant and worth understanding is a frequent issue and one with which those of us in the library science and/or informational technology professions must constantly contend. The list of strategies I presented here is intended to assist those faced with similar challenges but at best is a mere starting point.

Marwin Britto has served in a number of administrative positions in higher education and as a tenured faculty member at two universities in two different disciplines. His leadership experiences in higher education include positions as Chief Information Officer, University Librarian, Associate Dean of the University Library, Director of the Educational Technology Center, Executive Director of Online Learning, Director of Instructional Technology, and Head of Library Systems and Information Technology. He holds four graduate degrees including a Master’s in Education (specializing in Educational Technology), a Master’s in Business Administration, an ALA-accredited Master’s in Library and Information Science, and a PhD in Instructional Technology.

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