Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

I recently read a beautiful post on Greenheart.org. It began with this insightful observation.

“Language is one of the most important parts of any culture.  It is the way by which people communicate with one another, build relationships, and create a sense of community.”

Kelsey Holmes, Greenheart Club Program Assistant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of language in library marketing. We can get so caught up in the process of writing to capture the attention of our audience that I think we forget an important truth.  

If libraries are truly dedicated to providing and advocating for open access to information for all, then the language we use to communicate with our patrons and the wider world, in general, must match that pledge.

One of the ways we can best make all our community members feel welcome and safe is to use inclusive language in our library marketing and promotions.

What is inclusive language?

The University of Oregon has the best definition of inclusive language that I’ve found. In their editorial guidelines, they say “For communication to be effective, it needs to appropriately address all audiences for which it is intended. Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equitable opportunities.”

Why inclusive language is important to your library

When your library uses inclusive language in print and digital marketing materials, on your website, and in conversation at the front desk, you are fulfilling a core mission of the library. You are giving people the signal that your library is a safe space.   

A lack of inclusivity reflects negatively on your library and values. It affects library staff morale. Worst of all, it can have a negative impact on the community’s perception of your library, which can affect donations and fundraising efforts.

You must make time to check all your promotions for inclusive language. Every email, social media post, blog post, digital sign, bookmark, and brochure must be examined. You must make sure you aren’t excluding someone in your patron base.

Using inclusive language in library marketing

There are three general areas in which to evaluate your promotions for inclusive language. I’ve outlined each of these below.

This post is also full of links to outside resources written by experts. I rely on these websites and guides in my work. It would be good practice to bookmark these for your future reference.

Gendered Pronouns and Words

Pronouns are the words you use in place of a proper name. They include she, her, him, his, they, and them.

Make certain the pronouns you use are as inclusive as possible. Don’t assume people’s gender identity based on any type of outward cues, including their clothing, hairstyle, or mannerisms.

Here are some very easy suggestions for switching out common gendered pronouns and words for more inclusive language.

  • Use “They” or “Them” instead of “he” or “she.”
  • Use the word “Actor” instead of “actress.”
  • Use the words “Legislator”, “Representative”, or “Lawmaker” instead of “Congressman”.
  • Use the term “First-year student” instead of “Freshman.”
  • Use the word “Firefighter” instead of “Fireman” and “Police Officer” instead of “Policeman.”
  • Use the word “Chair” instead of “Chairman.”
  • Use the term “Mail carrier” instead of “Mailman.”

For a complete guide to gendered pronouns and their use in language, bookmark this Pronoun Guide from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

Race and Ethnicity

I’m going to repeat this sentence in this section several times because it’s important. If you’re referring to an individual or specific group of people, it’s important to ask which term they prefer.

If that isn’t possible, there are some general guidelines to help you when navigating language around race and ethnicity.

  • When referring to a racial community’s general experience, use the most all-encompassing term possible. Good examples of this are the Black community, the Black Lives Matter movement, First Peoples, or Aboriginal.
  • When referring to all people of color generally, the most inclusive term is BIPOC (pronounced “buy-pock”), which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
  • American Indian and Native American are both acceptable terms for Indigenous people in America. However, if you are working on a program or project with a tribe, or you live outside the United States and are working with an Indigenous community, ask them how they prefer to be identified.   
  • Hispanic and Latina/Latino are often used interchangeably but have slight variations in meaning. If you are working with a group, ask them which term they prefer.

The Associated Press has a section of their stylebook dedicated to thoughtful consideration and precise language in race-related coverage. I find these guidelines apply to library marketing materials as well and I suggest you bookmark this guide.

Abilities

If you are working with a group with expertise in abilities, ask which term they prefer. If that is not possible, there are generally two ways to inclusively refer to ability.

  • Person-first language: putting the person before the disability in a sentence (i.e., an author who is blind) to acknowledge they are more than their disability.
  • Identity-first language: positions disability as an identity, highlighting the way it impacted the person’s life experience. According to Jevon Okundaye in a post for the Massachusetts Advocates for Children website, “The Deaf, blind, and autistic communities most frequently see their disability as being fundamental parts of who they are.”  

For more guidance on writing about people with disabilities, bookmark this guide from the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network.

The importance of context and complexity

As you are proofreading your work, consider this question: Do you really need to include a particular characteristic or identity for a group? Can get your point across without adding the identity? If the identity doesn’t add any context to the phrase, you may consider leaving it out.  

If the identity does have a purpose, be as specific as possible. For example, refer to someone as Filipino instead of Asian or Transgender instead of LGBTQIA.

Identity is complex. One person may belong to several groups. Here’s a great example from Oregon State University: A veteran or person who uses a wheelchair may also be part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender community.

Another fantastic article on inclusive language by Ink encourages marketers to gauge the inclusiveness of your language by asking, “What is the potential impact of these words on my community?” 

You personally may not intend to cause harm with your words, but your intent doesn’t matter. It’s up to libraries and library marketers to consider how someone else will perceive the words we are using.

Read through the article to see more examples of phrases that may be perceived as offensive.

Ongoing work to remain inclusive    

Language changes frequently so it’s important to do your research and be in a mindset of constant learning. There are many websites that will help you keep up to date on changing language. Some of my favorites include:


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