Searcher Vol.8, No. 5 • May 2000
Needed: One (Maybe Two) Rocket Scientists
Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher

Many, many moons ago, pinned down by a lynch mob of vendor representatives all shouting “Troublemaker!! Troublemaker!!!,” I squealed out my standard excuse, “I don’t look for trouble. Trouble looks for me!” But what still amazes me is how diligently it finds me.

Take this morning, for instance. I pick up the mail. Out pops an election ballot from the local chapter of a national association of information professionals. (No name. Why get nasty?) First of all, the biographical information for all the candidates running for office appears on separate sheets for each office. OK. So someone didn’t have time to work with a copier that puts copy on both sides of a page. No big deal. I scan the entries, mark my selections, insert the completed ballot in the accompanying envelope, seal it, and reach for a stamp. With stamp half raised to waiting tongue, I suddenly notice that the envelope has no address. Quick! Un-seal the envelope before the glue sets and yank out the ballot to get the address off the bottom. Huh?!? No address anywhere?!! Just a careful reminder for me to put my return address on the envelope if I want the vote counted.

What is this? Some kind of voter registration test? I thought the Supreme Court outlawed those. I guess this group figures if you’re a REAL librarian, you can find anyone’s address; and, if you can’t, then you’re not a REAL librarian and shouldn’t vote in their election.

Harrumph. Still shaking my head, I pick up a newsletter from another national association of information professionals (again, nameless). This issue had a very interesting article on a topic that you may see appear in Searcher soon, if I can ambush the author I have in mind. (Someday I should calculate how many hours per article I spend lurking in tree tops, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting talent.) Actually, the most interesting point in the article came from a citation to another article. Whoops!! No bibliographic information — just the author and the title. Must be another one of those info pro tests.

This is giving me a headache. I reach for the aspirin. Oh, wait! I’m all out. Now I remember. When last I tried to re-order some aspirin and vitamins from (dot-com’s we do name), it didn’t work. The brands I like had disappeared from my customer list. keeps a running list of everything each customer orders. It used to make refilling orders a snap. Instead of keeping empty containers around to remind me to order more, I relied on to keep my list — and they relied on my reliance to keep my business. Apparently, they have either restricted their inventory substantially or decided to only work with allied suppliers. In any case, they no longer carry what I want and have edited the list to match only what they now offer. And I — poor fool — never made a copy of my list. So now, I have to re-learn, and relocate online, the brands that serve me best. And when you’re allergic to niacinamide, that can involve considerable research.

Sheesh. Well, back to work. At least there’s solace in sharing one’s work environment with learned colleagues and beloved columnists. That reminds me. I need a full-text copy of an old article from Searcher. Let’s just check that out in Gale’s Magazine Database on Dialog. The file should have the “Dialog Alternatives: A Power Searcher’s Checklist” piece from the September 1998 issue. And it does...but, what’s this!?! The the author’s names are garbled. Instead of a piece by Amelia Kassel and Karen Ann Drebes, it’s become an article by “Ann, Amelia; Drebes Kassel Karen.” Well, that’s not so bad for Karen, unless she has a lot of monogrammed towels with her middle initial, but poor Amelia has vanished completely, unless she plans to change her last name to “Ann.”


In the past, reporting that kind of error involved many steps, none of them particularly efficacious. You called Dialog (or whatever other vendor you were using), then they referred you to Gale Group. You called Gale Group and, assuming you ever found the Damage Control Officer in charge of misnamed authors, they might make the correction. How long that would take, they could not tell you, for after they made the correction, they had to send it back to Dialog (or whatever other vendor you were using) for them to schedule the correction into a future data loading ritual. Of course, now that Thomson owns both Dialog and Gale Group, not to mention West Online and a zillion other things, maybe this kind of change will go much, much faster.

Speaking of the Thomson rescue mission, we all love to see images of helicopters hovering over loved ones in peril, but after the first rush of relief, what should we searchers most watch to predict the success of the operation? There’s an old saying, “Listen to their mouths, but watch their feet.” Personally, my eyeballs will be focused on customer feedback. When a new owner has serious intentions to improve service, not just maintain it, they turn to established users for ideas.

And as we observe the new Thomson Dialog for its interest in the interests of its revenue providers, let’s look beyond the traditional customer scanning mechanisms — focus groups, study panels, written requests for input, even survey forms. Let’s look for restructuring of customer feedback mechanisms using tools too old to be considered new any more, but still unused among the traditional online services. Let’s look for constant electronic feedback requests appearing at the beginning or end of search sessions, for listservs and newsgroups built into database services (LEXIS-NEXIS has started the ball rolling there), for electronic surveys that promise to publish results, and, in time, for reporting mechanisms that share the results of all the feedback monitoring with users, database providers, and — of course — Thomson Dialog staff.

Traditional online services already have the rocket scientists available to them — and at rock-bottom prices — their users! If they will only learn to listen and respond, we can tell them what we need and how we want it. But if they don’t ask, then we searchers have to ask a question, “How can anything get better?”

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