Way, way—way—back when I was in library school a century or more ago, I remember active discussions of a government study documenting that the preferred—and by far the most used—method for gathering information by researchers was personal contact. The documentation was used to justify a lot of conference junkets, I imagine, but the dominance of this person-to-person information-seeking must have impressed our professors sufficiently to become a warning of the uphill battle we would have in our careers as information professionals. Whatever the reason, the notion that researchers would cling to personal contact as a dominant choice in gathering information has stuck with me throughout a multiple-decade career.
My very first reaction to the notion back in those misty days before online was severe skepticism as to the reliability of the method and a certain dismay that people considered to be serious scholars would rely on such a haphazard method, especially when its chief advantage might lie simply in the warm and fuzzy feeling of human interaction. It seemed dangerously subject to emotion-based irrelevance, not to mention just plain dependence on luck. You happened to reach the right person. The right person happened to understand your information needs perfectly and just happened to have all the right information at hand.
I still remember an incident well into my career as a reference librarian when I myself was the right person for a request. It was an “over the transom” call from someone I knew slightly. I answered the question off the top of my head somewhat adequately. But the minute I hung up, the very minute, I thought of something I’d forgotten that was more relevant to the question. Aarrgghh! On the other hand, this was not a request from a client, and I didn’t even have the phone number of the person who’d called. Nonetheless I remember harking back to that library school lesson and thinking how easy it would be to contact the right person with the right question and get a sort of right answer but still not get a right-enough answer.
I suppose my doubts about personal interaction as an information-gathering tool persisted throughout my career as a reference librarian in a major research facility. When online started coming in, I remember thinking that this was finally a way to seriously compete and shove the reliance on personal contact to a much lower priority. I suppose that thought motivated some of the ardor with which we embraced online. As formal information sources became digitally mobile and infinitely more responsive to user needs, personal contact became more of a way to initiate research. A researcher would chat with a colleague and then come to the library to follow up on leads, but online supplied two safety nets. First, if the researcher had no collegial network of sources, she could still have a full information flow on her own. Second, the online searches themselves supplied the names and contact information for an array of appropriate colleagues whom the researcher could approach. Even if researchers had to rely on the kindness of strangers, it would be the right strangers.
Even after the formality of information sources dissolved into an eternal Casual Friday under the destructuring influence of the internet and its web, we still had Google and other search engines to supply a somewhat disciplined, if utterly mysterious, search process. Alternative silos of “quality” information or at least information with the potential for consistent quality, e.g., peer review, have emerged. However, even the most traditional of silos, such as those supplied to and by the library community, face challenges. Recently, a flurry of librarian scoldings fell upon a prominent Ohio-based library consortium for the inclusion of “predatory open access publishers” in the collection of the “world’s largest union catalog/knowledge base.” (For the best respected list of predatory open access publishers, go to Jeffrey Beall’s annual lists at scholarlyoa.com/publishers.) As a matter of fact, even Google Scholar includes some of the content of these prowling predators, but sometimes I wonder whether Google’s content decisions may be driven in part by the need to protect its deep pockets from charges of censorship. On the other hand, if Google allowed predatory status as an algorithmic negative in ranking results, that should take care of the problem. Total guesswork on my part, of course. But a librarian-certified source such as the one from those Ohioans has a higher standard to meet, sort of like Hebrew National’s hot dogs.
And now we get back to the original posit of the unpredictable reliability of personal contact information. For online itself has absorbed and come to support and promulgate personal information gathering. It started with blogs and discussion forums, but at least there, one could have a bit more certainty as to with whom one was communicating and the overall flow of that person’s contributions. Along comes social media augmented by search tools that can merge input from any individuals with something to say about anything. In May, Google announced an experimental program to integrate search results from Twitter into its results displays. (For details, check out Danny Sullivan’s Marketing Land piece, “FAQ: How Twitter’s New Deal to Bring Tweets to Google Search Works,” at marketingland.com/twitter-google-search-deal-faq-117463.)
But how does one know who the tweeter really is? And what value does “personal” information have if its sources are not necessarily the person with whom one believes one is conversing? Tweets! Jeez. This is a long way from The New York Times editorial desk. Remove professional ethics or even professional training from a search source and what do you have? Maybe real-time truth. Maybe a chance to get the inside stuff from celebs.
And maybe not! When it comes to worrying about research processes, it’s déjà vu all over again.