Vol.8, No. 3 • March 2000
A Pig in a Poke
Barbara Quint
Editor,  Searcher

Somewhere long ago I read that as you get older, your ability to learn new facts, to acquire new motor skills, erodes, but your ability to make connections, to synthesize observations into truths, increases. Sometimes, alas, acquiring wisdom can have its down side.

The other day I called a major national professional association whose name shall remain anonymous (and no, smarty-pants, not because I’ve forgotten it). The executives at this organization had either read one too many articles on the value of information in today’s world or had just allowed their heads to swell beyond the limits of their hat sizes. Anyway, this group had installed a new policy. They now charged for information, though their educational and lobbying responsibilities would seem to mandate them to facilitate the widest possible dissemination. But, hey, if their members don’t see a problem, none exists. On the other hand, the members still only see the free side of the service.

But I digress.

After toiling through this outfit’s voicemail undergrowth, I finally got to the information operation. The minute they discovered that I did not have a membership card clutched in my hand, they transferred me to the customer service desk. Of course, it’s always hard to assess moods and attitudes of strangers, particularly with only your sense of hearing to rely upon. Nonetheless, I felt the customer service rep sort of pounced on me when she discovered that I did not belong to the membership class. Immediately she launched into a script explaining the end of the “free lunch” era and the need for me to “be a man” about the new policy (my vocal pitch apparently hovers somewhere between Lauren Bacall and James Earl Jones), face fiscal reality, suck it up, and prepare to pay. After she ran out of rehearsed presentation, I finally managed to get in a few words to explain what information I needed.

However, this customer service rep apparently only knew why I should pay — and probably how, though I didn’t stay long enough to find out. She had no idea what specific information the organization could actually supply. She didn’t even seem to know who in the organization would know what they could do, much less know who could do it. As I indicated, that sort of marked the end of negotiations for me. I wonder if anyone ever gets past the point of listening to the script.

What were the people behind this “information service” thinking? Were they thinking at all? Why would anyone want to hand their credit-card number over or set up a deposit account or start a subscription or sign a contract for information the deliverer cannot even define? Why would anyone want to buy the Information Age equivalent of a pig in a poke?

Then suddenly, one of those syntheses conked me on the head. Ouch! Hard truths hurt! That “pig in a poke” policy is the same one I use as an information professional. I’ve been doing it for years. All we intermediary searchers insist customers commit to paying without requiring us to commit to finding. We promise to look, but they have to pay whether we find what they want or not. The stakes for making mistakes have just gotten a lot higher. Check out Carol Ebbinghouse’s “Sidebar” column [“Disclaiming Liability”] in this month’s issue. Downright scary! Librarians and information brokers could find themselves facing malpractice suits, particularly if the new UCITA codes go into effect around the country.

Question Audits
What do we do? Go into another line of work? No. Let’s just approach our work a little differently. Information professionals take pride in their status as generalists. “Anything you can ask, we can answer,” we proudly boast. Nor should we give that up — at least, not completely. We do possess talents and techniques that can forage far and wide into all sorts of fields. Information itself does have underlying structures, independent of topic. Like geologists scanning satellite photos to find prospective oil fields, our professional training and experience can let us view the surfaces beneath the surface to find the hidden substance our clients need.

On the other hand, we are all specialists too, if only because of the knowledge we have gained in answering questions from specific clients. We all need to categorize our question-answering abilities and experience, to itemize which types of questions we know we can always answer quickly and accurately (“Sure Thing”), which we probably can answer with a little more time and resources (“Try Me”), and those for which we cannot predict success (“Good Luck”). At no time do we abandon our position as generalists. We are willing to help, no matter how challenging the task, but we have to warn clients when we judge the chances of quick, cheap, authoritative success as small.

Many of us have already embarked on “question audits” in the course of developing content for our Web sites. Whether through imaginary reference interviews of invisible clients or through actual surveys and focus groups, we have come up with lists of what types of questions our clients ask again and again and where we turn for answers. We load or link the sources to clickable versions of the questions to make useful and productive Web sites.

Let’s extend this process further to a full, ongoing question audit. Identifying which questions rank in the “maybe” category for success will help us target areas of our skills or resources that need improvement. Comparing the different success rates between information professionals working together, whether in the same library or in a “talent consortium,” can build clear guidelines for referral of questions. It can also help managers improve staffing and training plans. Talent consortiums can cover a range of alternatives, from informal networks of colleagues who help each other out regularly, to a “virtual corporation” network of information brokers assembled for a major project that vanishes after the project ends, to outsource suppliers of information services augmenting internal operations. With the “Aska” services on the rise [see Nick Tomaiuolo’s article in this issue], more and more formal services have arrived on the information scene.

The groundswell movement toward defining all service in terms of 24/7 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) has put pressure on all information managers to know exactly what they can deliver and when. Call center operations that staff corporate customer support efforts and online and offline catalog ordering depend on constant analysis of incoming questions and outgoing answers. One management reality faces all these organizations: The tighter the subject focus, the better the chance for efficient, fast, accurate service.

So how can generalists who take on all questions hope to succeed? Soon, reference service may network along the same lines that cataloging did with OCLC. Once we have our question-and-answering capabilities defined, we can begin full networking with other institutions. We can formalize some of those informal, collegial networks. We can build databases that identify which network partner rates their answering capability as “Sure Thing” for a question that falls in our “Good Luck” category. We can build expanded virtual reference operations that burst the boundaries of geographic areas and institutions and daily schedules. As the enabling power of digital formats moves us toward the creation of a global library collection, networking connections move us toward a global reference desk.

But it starts with the right question.

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