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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Resurrecting the Reference Interview
Volume 40, Number 2 - March/April 2016

Back in the olden—very olden—days, there lived a small but mighty group (assuming, of course, that right makes might—and we were so right!). It was called the Southern California Online Users Group (SCOUG). There were other OUGs scattered across the information landscape, including the New England group, but we felt ours had more to say than others. Probably we were just louder. At our annual retreats in sun-kissed Santa Barbara, Calif., we imagined an online world and how we could contribute to its emergence. Did we succeed in our wild and woolly plans? Well, look around you. I rest my case.

One motto was inscribed on every T-shirt for each one of our 10 years’ worth of SCOUG Retreats: “If online is the answer, what is the question?”

All the world now knows that the internet and its web contain all the answers to all the questions that could ever be asked. Oh, there may be some dusty, forgotten bits and scraps still hiding in some dingy warehouses of print, but, if such sources had any real value, they would be online like everything else, right? Even the reality of any person’s existence can now only be verified on the net. Does a person without a social media profile even have any kind of profile? How faceless the Facebook-less must be.

But that ancient question we SCOUG-ers used to ask still scratches at any information professional’s consciousness. Accepting that online sources will provide the answers to any question, doesn’t that make the quality and range and focus of the questions all the more important? In a world of answers, don’t questions make the difference?

In the early days of online, when intermediary searchers provided the only access to available digital resources, and a world of end users was just an information industry worker’s lubricious dream, the initiation of any search required a reference interview as the first step in the journey to useful truths. In those early days, I worked for a research establishment committed to the practice of interdisciplinary research teams. This put demands on our searching that stretched beyond an individual client’s customary sources. Of course, intruding a professional searcher not tied to customary sources inevitably led to more thorough and expanded results from even the customary sources. But, the real excitement and addiction to our searches came when clients realized they could find sources they’d never heard about, sources that colleagues from other disciplines would recognize and appreciate.

One time I did a search for a leading member of a department that rarely used our services. I was hoping the search would open a wedge into luring new clients from that department. But when I provided carefully edited results—no print dump for this one!—the researcher admitted that my finds in indexes serving her field were on target, but she really preferred to skip citations from “B level journals that only occasionally carried material of interest” to her. Thunk! My hopes sank slowly into the sunset. All I had left was a little show-off display in which I had run her key search term through every database in the leading search service to see if I could find something from the fringe. Bang! Boom! Three citations had her on the edge of her seat. One came from a medical journal, another from agriculture, and I’ve forgotten the third. I realized that relevant outliers in search results would have a special cachet. Think how it would look when she brought them to the team’s notice. She’d look like a miracle worker, a Wunderkind tapped into every field of human knowledge. (And all because of me, the two-legged Google, long before Google came to be.)

The value of interdisciplinary research as a process lies in its performance for research aimed at making policies, the policies that society will use to alter realities, to make a real difference in the world. Using multiple disciplines guarantees that all angles are recognized, all dangers anticipated, all opportunities exposed. At least, that’s what everyone hopes. But in the current Google-y world, more and more personalization and customization tend to narrow search results while, at the same time, encouraging more and more reliance on online information to supply guidance for making real-world decisions. Partly, this shrinking of search results stems from the desire to fit the most relevant information into the smaller screens of mobile computing devices. Now isn’t that a promising development? Eternal Truth vs. screen size as driving the search process, and screen size wins. Where is Watson when you need it?

But what about serious and complex questions? What about situations demanding the very best information from a range of relevant experts? And I do not only refer to broad societal issues and government policymaking. Life- and-death decisions are made by anyone with a serious medical condition or a loved one with such a condition. Whole futures are decided by financial decisions that may well need more facts and opinions than just those supplied by Yahoo Finance or, God forbid, “real people” chatter on a social network. Bottom line: When you have to make decisions with a lot riding on them, you need to reach out to whatever and whomever can help you the best.

Intermediary searching allowed a generalist, the professional searcher, to work with the specialist, a client with specific knowledge of a problem. The reference interview itself was obviously designed to explain the problem to the searcher, but in the course of those interviews, clients frequently found themselves clarifying their own thoughts, learning of alternate sources for a range of input. After all, when you think about it, if the person looking for an answer knew enough to define the question perfectly, she would probably already have the answer. It puts me in mind of all the weight put on patients to define the appropriateness and legal responsibility for their own medical treatments when they’re the most ignorant persons in the entire medical facility.

Terminological demands alone should press searchers to plan alternative strategies for reaching diverse expertise. I can remember studies showing which newspapers serviced which industries, e.g., New York papers for financial institutions, Broadway, and publishing; Connecticut papers for the insurance industry; Southern California for movies and celebrities; etc., etc. Which sources use which jargon? What are the bibles of each relevant field? In the past, that would have been key magazines or journals. Now it’s blogs, social network groups, wikis, etc. Who are the key players in each field? Where can you find information on them? Who or what supplies the access to the best information?

We must educate our clients—and ourselves—to step back and see the forest before we start swinging through the trees like Tarzan, hollering for our data mates. Ask them and ourselves the age old starting questions: Who besides me would want to know about this? And why? With these answers in hand, we begin the look for key sources that serve whomever we have envisioned. Then we start asking what terms and conditions would successfully penetrate those sources to reach relevant and useful information. Once we find some “good stuff,” we step back again and see if it provides any alternate sources, any new terminology, any key contact information. Then on to new sources or maybe back to replumb the sources we’ve already used with new tools.

“If online is the answer, what is the question?”

The late Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, contributing editor for ITI's NewsBreaks, and a columnist for Information Today.


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