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Magazines > Searcher > February 2008
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Vol. 16 No. 2 — February 2008
SEARCHER'S VOICE
Trust: A Bust?
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastIf hope is the thing with feathers, then trust is a warm puppy, a warm puppy not yet housebroken. When it comes to information gathering, you can get into a lot of trouble letting trust substitute for the exercise of critical judgment and the discipline of cross-checking sources. Actually, that’s one of the hidden values to using information professionals on research projects. High-end clients may have more expertise in a field and even a network of contacts, but the value of an independent, critical eye coming at a subject from another angle can make all the difference in success. Lacking extensive foreknowledge of a subject and the tempting access to a “ask-the-one-who-knows” shortcut, information professionals tend to rely on more formal and established sources, which they tap using impersonal, replicable strategies subject to independent verification.

Now I don’t mean those remarks as a commercial for the profession from which Searcher magazine’s readers come. Well, maybe I did just a little, but mainly it’s just so true that I felt I had to mention it. (Ahem.) But I can recall a study produced way — way — way — back when I was in library school. It analyzed how serious researchers acquired information, and the favorite mode, by a country mile, was personal contact. Going to conferences, phoning colleagues, networking among fellow practitioners — this was the predominant way researchers gathered the information they needed for their work. Even after the arrival of online, later studies showed that personal contacts remained the favorite mode, if not the exclusive one.

So here we are — decades later — in a web world. A recent study by the Pew Foundation shows that most Americans turn to the web when they need information on serious issues in their lives. (For a copy of “Information Searches That Solve Problems,” by Leigh Estabrook, Evans Witt, and Lee Rainie, go to www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/Pew_UI_LibrariesReport.pdf.) In this study, contacts with experts — not to mention, friends and family — bowed to web research in all but two of the 10 problem scenarios used in the study. Fortunately for respondents, at least one exception to this rule was health. Although individuals can clearly use the internet successfully to protect their health (and to prove that point resoundingly, just read next month’s Internet Express column, “Zooming Ahead of Cancer on the Information Superhighway”), listening to physicians would clearly seem to provide more critical information. In fact, from years of doing medical searches for patients or their relatives, I discovered that the primary value of such searches lies in the improvement it can bring to the quality of exchanges between patients and physicians. Doctors talk more freely and openly when the person across the desk understands their terminology and asks intelligent questions. One can only hope that some of those intelligent questions can lead physicians to do some follow-up searches on their own.

But in most other problem areas, people turn to the web first. Even those who go to a library for more traditional help usually head to the public access computers for a stint with the internet. How productive are those lone user searches? Very, according to the study. But how safe are they? This the study did not answer. Almost all web searches are productive, if only because there seems to be a website — usually thousands — out there for every subject imaginable. But how good are the answers? How effective was the search strategy? How well did the end-user searcher identify and follow the leads turned up by the search? How critically did they examine the search results?

There’s an old Spanish prayer that can help us all live happier lives: “Lord, send us not to get what we want, but to want what we get.” Following the life advice implicit in the prayer may heal the canker of discontent and dissolve the embitterment of envying others. However, the advice has its down side as well. It could promote self-delusion as a substitute for self-knowledge and erode any commitment to achievement. When it comes to information gathering, I fear that most people, when faced with a mountain of data, will grab a couple of facts or a pail of results and tell themselves that they have found exactly what they wanted. It beats getting caught in an avalanche.

So now that most information professionals have become custodians of their clients’ information welfare, what can we do to assure their safety? Well, guaranteeing some kind of feedback mechanisms would be the first step. If you are licensing some information tools for your clients, make sure that any client interaction with those tools has a feedback mechanism built in. (“Did this source have the information you needed? Did your search succeed? Do you want information that the source did not provide? Would you like me/us to do a follow-up search for you? How else can I/we help?”) If the vendor providing the licensed content already provides feedback features (Call me if they do!), make sure that you get copies.

And as for that warm puppy of personal contact, it looks as though social networks are giving people whole kennelfuls. Float your question out there on the anonymous network and wait for truth to come bobbing back on the waves. Use a newly expanded search engine to tap “the wisdom of the crowd,” user-generated content. It can work, if you’re lucky, but if it doesn’t, ouch! It assumes both undocumented expertise and unproven good will. Even if your answerers have both — and that’s a big IF — it still leaves a wide chance for dangerous gaps.

And if you don’t believe me, let me ask you a couple of questions. Have you ever picked up the phone or opened your email box and kindly answered a question from someone about a subject in which you were expert, only to remember something you forgot to add a few hours or even a few days later? How often have you chased down the someone’s email ID or phone number just to add that additional information? Or did you just say to yourself, “It probably wasn’t important” or “They probably already know that by now”? After all, it might be kind of embarrassing to look forgetful or incompetent in answering the question. Wouldn’t want to spoil the good feeling of the original encounter. Better to keep the relationship warm … like that puppy. Right?

— bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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