by Barbara Quint
kids still play that old game of "Mother May I"? Does it
still join other games like "Red Rover, Red Rover" or "Simon
Says" in teaching young minds the Importance of Process,
the essentiality of placing one's requests in exactly the
right manner if one hopes to get them fulfilled? Or perhaps
today's generation just learns the lessons of lost cash
from Alex Trebek when a contestant on Jeopardy does not phrase
an answer in terms of a question.
Speaking of Jeopardy, I've sometimes wondered
why contestants do not take advantage of a structure
in most European languages that allows any statement
to become a polite question with one unchanging phrase.
Instead of burdening themselves with the extra intellectual
effort of deciding whether the answer-as-question will
require a "What is...?," a "Who were...?," or whatever
preceding it, contestants might put the interrogatory
language at the end of the answer. Most European languages
have a way of turning a statement into a question by
adding a phrase that asks the listener's opinion. In
German, one adds "nicht wahr?" ("not true?") to the
end of a statement; in Italian, "non e vero?" In English,
the closest equivalent would probably be something
like "isn't' it?" or even "wouldn't you say?" The form
offers a polite and becomingly modest way of answering
a question without offending any listener by appearing
as a know-it-all. Instead, the rhetorical device appears
to ask for the listeners' approval of the answer. Even
when the device merely amounts to a grammatical courtesy,
it also puts some pressure on the listener to concede
agreement, if only by silence.
One should always remember to observe the niceties
in dealing with people. Wouldn't you say? Don't you
agree? Is it not so?
Niceties are particularly important when one has
some negative information to impart. Information professionals
face this situation every day in the new Web world.
In performing their new roles as leaders/mentors/supervisors
of end-user searcher communities, professional searchers
must work constantly to improve the critical judgment
of end-user searchers. This can involve every brand
of carrot and every size of stick whatever works.
Inevitably, however, no matter how many subtleties
or candy-coated techniques the searcher has used, someday
someone's going to have to tell end users that something's
wrong, that the source is inadequate, that the data
is flawed, that the Webmaster or listserv sysop or
blogger has other fish to fry than Truth.
So how does one deliver that kind of message over
and over, situation after situation, end user after
end user, month after month? No searcher wants the
reputation with their clients of being nothing but
a nag, a Bad News Bearer, the Know-It-All's Know-It-All.
(Speaking of "Mother, may I?"!) At the same time, all
searchers even end users who use online
research to gather information that drives actions
that matter must develop and apply critical judgment
if they hope to search safely.
How can professional searchers instruct their charges
without alienating them? Invisibly, when possible.
If you can construct an array of quality sources and/or
a flow of data from tried and true sources, the end
user may simply get the data without having to learn
any new techniques. Unfortunately, too much invisibility
may leave end users unaware of all the effort that
goes into creating a pool of quality data from which
they can drink safely. Without such awareness, the
end users may simply not drink from the purer pool.
To sell end users on switching from the GGG ("Great
God Google") and the open Web to a pre-selected, often
expensive but narrower set of data sources, information
professionals will probably end up having to show the
mistakes to which overly naive searching can lead.
If you have to use real examples in such arguments,
make sure no one can identify them with any individual
clients. Perhaps you could allege that the examples
come from stories told by librarians working for competitors.
Handle that kind of fiction carefully, though. You
wouldn't want your patrons thinking you're telling
tales about them.
When invisibility fails, you must still find some
way to warn users. If a source disappears e.g.,
the departure from Dialog of The Los Angeles Times and The
Washington Post or if a source has only
truncated versions on one vendor e.g., 90-day
coverage of The New York Times on all carriers
but LexisNexis and special services from ProQuest,
the user has got to know. Or what about when a user
makes a habit of going to original publisher sites a
habit you probably encourage in general but
you know that the archives on publisher Web sites,
no matter what the price, often do not match the longevity
of archives from commercial online sources? How do
you warn the user effectively and with a positive spin?
One suggestion, to give your caveats that warm-puppy
quality, always repeat, ALWAYS include
a solution with every statement of a problem. If a
source loses access to a file, tell the client where
else to go. If a commercial source to which you have
access has better coverage than an open Web source,
remind the client that you can do the search for them
and have the results back in their e-mail inbox in
no time at all. If an open Web search offers better
results than online, don't forget to memo end users
on that point as well. ("Render unto GGG, that which
As you do your job of protecting your clients from
making mistakes and your institutions from the consequences
of those mistakes, as you instruct your end-user charges
in the realities of online searching, you sell your
own expertise and professionalism. You display yourself
and all information professionals as Can-Do experts,
not depressing nay-sayers. You connect the lessons
taught in formal or semi-formal classes with the daily
tasks of searching throughout your client communities.
For those who haven't taken the classes, you prove
the worth of changing their minds about the need for
online education. By setting up an ongoing dialogue
with all the end users you lead, you encourage them
to tell you of problems you may not have spotted and
share resources you may not have found. A good leader
is a good listener.
Nicht wahr? Non e vero? No es verdad? Right?....bq
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.