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Magazines > Searcher > July 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 7 — July 2005
The Elusive Un-Client
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Now that the era of intermediated searching has become just a History Channel project, can studying its historical role in the evolution of online information have anything to teach us? More, that is, than the fact that not even the bravest of the current online search engines dare assume the full challenge of a reference interview, or at least one for which the interaction extends beyond correct spellings (“Misisipi, 1-10 of 7,270 … did you mean: Miss…”).

Historically, the era of intermediated searching did contribute to the rise of, and quality in, the current universal online. It parallels how the appearance on inadequately paved city streets of chauffeur-driven motor cars contributed to the explosive sales of Henry Ford’s Model T and a future so full of automobiles that the federal government could enforce national identification policies via state drivers license bureaus. (Google that one (“REAL ID”), my friends! And without one day of hearings!)

People saw rivals or competitors getting quick, comprehensive, authoritative information and wanted to make sure that they weren’t knocked out of the game before they sat down to play. People saw other people living large and wanted some of the same. Fear, greed, aggression, envy — all wonderful market motivators that any salesperson loves to see gleaming in a prospect’s eyes.

Well, today, everyone has access to online searching, but intermediated searching may still have a role to play in bringing online information to dark corners still unlit in the workplace. Researchers — whether in laboratories, marketing departments, law firms, or anywhere else knowledge workers gather — know how online searching fits into their work life. (Whether they can perform the searches well enough to satisfy their needs is another question.) But what about the folks who may not see research itself as part of their assigned tasks? What about the people who handle the daily operations of the institution? Do those operational middle managers have the same sense of the value of online searching? Are they aware of what it takes to do successful searches in their fields?

Perhaps it’s time for us professional searchers to pick up our lanterns and go looking for our lost sheep. Now we have to be careful. If we make too much noise or start waving our hands about, they may take fright and scatter. For example, too much information — whether by pushing them to take full-scale training sessions in online searching or by conducting major searches and dumping loads of reading matter on them — may pose the greatest danger to success. The most-
desired outcome for any effort to find and cultivate low-use end users is just to make sure they ask questions and ask the people who can and will help them — namely, us. And that’s not just self-interest speaking. People who only search once in a while do not stay on top of changing resources, changing search functionality. Even if they do their own searching, they need to have a coach available at all times, particularly if decisions depend on the outcome of their searching.

So into the field goes the intrepid professional searcher, clipboard (aka laptop, palmtop, recorder, etc.) in hand. We check through institutional documentation — in-house newsletters, old memos, procedure manuals, etc. We find what people in other departments are up to, who is responsible for what, what middle managers are spending money on these days. We do some initial searches, find some topnotch articles, find key sources, create some effective saved searches, check out the updating options (“RSS, anyone?”). Then we put together a small (!), high-quality package of information and search tips.

Now what? How do we market to these difficult targets? Here’s a suggestion on how to handle the more obdurate. Instead of approaching them with an offer of service, a formal marketing of our services, with its implicit message that we know as much or more than they do about their own business, try requesting their help in building your services. Show them how you have been working on tools to help the people in their section improve the performance of their important tasks. Naturally, you didn’t want to intrude any more than you must with their daily activities, so vital to the welfare of the organization, but now that you have something to offer, you need their professional expertise to help you evaluate it and improve it into something they might even use.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin [] has a marvelous example of how old Ben, the wily fox, used this approach to convert an opponent into an ally. Ben concludes the story: “This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, ‘He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.’” Convert your service to your clients into a favor they do you.

Ongoing operational information needs are not the only functions that could use our tender, loving care. Individual needs for information, especially when relating to some institutional goals, can offer opportunities to “do good and do well,” as they say. For example, most institutions care about the health of their employees and most employees care even more. How about online info packages on the library Web site that address different health problems — anti-smoking campaigns, nutritional reports, how to get a second opinion, etc.? Most of these packages could probably be taken from other sources, such as insurance company or public health sites. Talking with the human resources department should give you lots of ideas for issues that concern employees. A shared, perhaps even co-branded release of information products built around serving those needs should help employees throughout the company to turn to their own information professionals first with any problem or goal. The human resources department staff would probably be first in line.

Now that online information has moved so many of the tasks formerly performed as intermediated searches to end users, we professional searchers have the time to pursue new opportunities for service. Once again, the cry goes forth, “What’s next?” and the answer is another question — “Who’s next?”


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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