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An article by Rianne van Melik
1 June 2023, 08:55
The Importance of Language (Biblotheekblad 2023-6)

Language matters, we in the library industry know that better than anyone. The library is the mecca of letters, words, and phrases, and language promotion is one of its most important goals. Especially in the library, therefore, it is important to pay attention to correct naming. 

Every Wednesday morning, several toddlers, preschoolers, and their caregivers gather in my library for a storytelling session (voorleeskwartiertje). This activity is not just for the little ones; their caregivers can also listen in or take a moment to read the newspaper, exchange tips or drink coffee. The activity itself has changed its name several times. First, it was called "mother-child café," later "parent-child café," and now "play-and-share café. After all, it is by no means always mothers who come to the storytelling with their children, but also fathers, grandparents, or the babysitter.

When the preschoolers and their companions leave the library around noon, their place is taken by a group of 6 to 14 senior citizens. They come for an activity called "Guest at the Table," a lunch meeting where everyone is welcome to talk and discuss. Sometimes there is literally a guest at the table: then an invitee tells about a special hobby or journey, followed by a joint discussion on that topic. The strength lies in the small scale; it is not meant to be a lecture but a conversation. Participants are mostly single elderly people, sometimes visitors of the nearby daycare center. For them, the weekly visit to the library provides a moment of distraction and conviviality, breaking up the day. Therefore, the main purpose of this activity is not so much to exchange knowledge, but to reduce loneliness. Yet we don't call it a loneliness lunch, because probably no one would attend.

These are two interesting examples: in one case, we try very hard to define an activity as precisely as possible and adjust the name if it turns out to be wrong, while in the other, we deliberately use camouflage language to hide the real purpose of the meeting. Sometimes you do the former but might have better chosen the latter. For instance, during the 'play-and-share café', attendance was suddenly much lower when a parenting expert had been explicitly advertised. Coincidence, or did no one want to admit to needing parenting help? In another branch, the 'Lift your life' programme attracted only a handful of participants during the pilot. Was this due to the less successful timing of the course in the middle of summer, or could it perhaps have to do with the naming? Surely Lift Your Life mainly emphasises that there is something to improve, as if you need to be picked up from the bottom.

And so there are more names that raise questions upon reflection. Is the Book Start event 'Smart Babies' such a well-chosen title? I am sure it does not mean to suggest that dumb babies are not welcome (to the extent that you can determine at all how smart a baby is), or that babies become instantly smarter through reading aloud. After all, as the activity description says: "It doesn't matter if your baby is sleeping or crawling around." Don't get me wrong: I agree that you can't start encouraging reading early enough, but prefer a more neutral term like 'the reading quarter' (literal translation of voorleeskwartiertje). After all, language matters and that's why we need to phrase activities carefully.

By Rianne van Melik (
Translated with (free version)
Translation of Dutch column in monthly magazine Bibliotheekblad (2023-6)

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