The Doctor Is In
by Barbara Quint
Back in the good/bad old days (amazing how often that phrase occurs in my writings these days — sigh), the reference interview was the most useful and the most fun assignment in a searcher’s day. With intermediated searching the only way for clients to reach the wondrous bounty of online, the info pro was in the catbird’s seat. A client had to be able to tell their tale clearly. (Pause for polite laughter.) Actually, the searcher had to be able to carefully, meticulously, and laboriously extract the client’s needs. Most importantly, the searcher had to vault over the obstacles of client assumptions as to what the searcher could — and could not — do for the client. If I had a nickel for every time some client would launch a request with a list of keywords … well, a nickel doesn’t buy much these days, but I could still make a profit. It was like the client thought I was some kind of a vending machine. Insert quarter, pull handle, eat candy bar.
Of course, we expert searchers knew that we could do anything for clients. We could answer questions they didn’t ask but should have. We could stuff them with information, so much that they could share it with others, maybe even trade it for something else they needed. Heck, we could answer questions their friends and colleagues wanted answered. We used to believe, “The only bad question is an unasked question.” (Come to think of it, we still believe that.) In fact, with careful tutelage and skilled chattiness, I came to treat those reference interview sessions as sort of an information-oriented version of psychoanalysis, with me assuming the role of Dr. Freud.
But now that everyone’s an end-user searcher, now that intermediated searching is such a rarity, what has happened to the reference interview? It’s not just a problem of searchers getting lonely waiting for clients or missing the old back-and-forth of a skilled reference interview. It’s the instinctive professional concern that those false assumptions of clients as to what we can and can’t do are still out there blocking our opportunities to serve. Only now we can’t see them because the clients no longer have to pass our guardianship, even though that guardianship was for their own good.
This issue carries another excellent The Medical Digital column from Stephanie Ardito. This one is on the adverse side effects of medications. One of the services Ms. Ardito describes includes a master list of the most prescribed drugs matched to the adverse side effects. Several hundred of them are apparently real problems. Reading that column, it occurred to me that anyone taking medication on a regular basis should probably check their meds against this listing and, if their meds change, recheck the list appropriately. And that isn’t the only self-analysis suggested in this issue. Irene McDermott’s Internet Express column carries a sidebar listing sites where citizens can check their political temperatures. Hmm.
And that’s when the nickel dropped — the information audit. Instead of dealing with clients one need at a time, one crisis, one project, we need to expand the reference interview into a full-scale information audit. When do people search for data and when don’t they? What tools do they use and what ones don’t they? Which aspects of their lives or jobs do they regard as information-bound and which don’t they? Once completed (with regular renewal periods and/or specific types of changed circumstances requiring a renewed audit identified), we can come up with analyses and lists of suggested beneficial adjustments. To promote the service, we should probably promise to save people time, e.g., by more efficiently handling of email and social network flow. But we can also use the opportunity to suggest new sources, including the ones the library has licensed — not to mention the intermediated searches our staff would love to conduct for them. Another timesaver.
You notice that I am referring to the information audit as a personal service while some consider it a task performed for and about an institution. Well, I’ve always been one to look at the trees before I judge the forest. Institutional information audits should spring from the personal audits. For one thing, you should get more honesty if people see you as working for their personal benefit. God forbid they should see you as ratting out their deficiencies to the boss. And working at the level of individual needs gives you a chance to come up with solutions that are practical and economical. When you can’t find realistic solutions with the tools at hand, you’ll know it’s time to check your institutional toolbox. Maybe you need new licensed content or new staff skills. Maybe your institution needs to have some new hires to improve performance.
Info pros serve the people, whatever their needs, but first we have to know what those needs are. And, by the way, in the course of doing these audits, let’s be generous. Have a second agenda, namely helping people with their personal problems. It won’t take that much longer and it could turn a client into a friend and supporter. With all the fine professional searches I conducted over the years in a traditional library setting, the stories I tell of breaking through to high-ranking clients who could and did do the library a lot of good are stories of searches for personal needs. For one thing, those personal searches burst through those false assumptions, those keyword-as-quarter vending machine assumptions. By straying into areas not normally covered in the organization’s tasks, we proved the power and sweep of what the library could supply. Information audits can help engineer better clients by giving people better tools and better practices in using them, but it can also let clients dump jobs on us. And that’s fine by me. After all, the best way to improve an info pro is to demand more of them than they give today.