What Is the Question?
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
It seems these days that article after article, commentary after commentary, even blog after blog keeps asking and answering questions on the future of libraries, librarians, and information professionals. The responses are often exciting, usually stimulating, and always indicative of deep and passionate commitment, but all that worrying is, well, worrying. Everyone seems positive that we need to build vital, vibrant, forward-looking services for our clients, services that strip away the stodgy images of the past and reveal us as the accomplished, heroic, even daring professionals we truly are. (Cue theme music.)
But what exactly are these fabulous new services? Whom do they serve? How do we know where to invest all our talent and energies and resources? If we’re going to sacrifice the tried and true for the new and vivid, we’d better make very sure that the market for the new services is waiting for us — preferably with its tongue hanging out, panting in anticipation. And, by the way, as a longtime fan of the brilliant 1970s television series, The Rockford Files, I flash back to an image of Angel Martin, Rockford’s hustler friend, introducing yet another failure-bound, crooked scheme to Jim with the words, “Now, you and I know that you can’t make one thin dime from giving people what they need. You’ve got to give them what they want!” Now I’m enough of an information professional purist to consider that remark an overstatement. And, if you’ve ever watched the show, you know anyone who believes everything Angel says has only a tangential relationship with reality and a serious lack of survival skills. Nevertheless, there is a core wisdom in his words that would be dangerous to forget.
With or without Angel’s insights, however, the first step in any major change and, indeed, in creating a reliable, ongoing change process, is to find out what people want and what people need. You’ve all heard, of course, of Quint’s Revisionist Theory of the Collapse of the Soviet Union, aka, “Low-Grade Cement and the Berlin Wall.” I believe the Soviet Union fell due to its suppression of feedback mechanisms. When you get in the habit of punching people in the nose for telling you your product or service smells bad, you not only contribute to the rise of a resistance movement led by people with bloody noses, you also succeed in eliminating reports that might lead to product or service improvements. When something stinks, it’s Mother Nature’s way of telling you not to eat it. When some product or service fails to please, only the consumer can tell you what’s missing.
Regardless of the setting in which information professionals work, we all need to build networks of mechanisms for gathering information from clients on what they would like to know, what they need to know. In the gathering process, we should encourage the widest possible sweep — existing clients, prospective clients, established constituencies, virtual constituencies. We should build feedback mechanisms that have minimal or no filters, nothing that limits the expression of perceived needs or wants to “proper” or “authorized” interests, and certainly never any limits prescribed by the services we already offer. You probably can’t solve every information-based problem anyone and everyone might have, but you should know what these problems are, if only to understand and bond with your clientele.
Different settings will mean different processes, but a wise info pro should stay on top of whatever feedback processes any info pros are using in any setting. The input may overlap due to overlapping client interests. Academic librarians may find feedback from special librarians helpful. After all, the special librarians are probably serving their graduates. Public librarians serve everyone within a community, including the clients of special and academic and school librarians. Vendor info pros should take particular care to attach visible feedback mechanisms throughout their product presentations. It’s just good manners and essential to good customer relationships to appear to care about client success or failures with information products. Beyond appearances, it’s also the best way to create
a permanent focus group.
Some needs and wants that emerge from the process may reflect personal problems. Don’t ignore them. Some of the best breakthroughs I ever made to hard-to-bag clients came from the ability to handle personal needs. People remember the services and the people who helped in unexpected ways, either by tapping unique resources or connecting people to new tools and techniques. They also prize people who solve a problem even when it’s outside a strict interpretation of their job descriptions. The ethic of information professionals requires that we inform people whenever we can. There are limits, sure. But what would you think of a doctor who wouldn’t help an injured person in an emergency situation? Not a very ethical physician, right?
Libraries can also provide a neutral ground for educating experts. For example, some people can find themselves getting “lapped” when it comes to new technologies. If some people slept through the first phase of the cell phone revolution, clutching their cordless and punching their answer machine’s Play button, they might find those mini-computer smartphones daunting. But in the privacy of a library and an encounter with a friendly librarian, they need not suffer the undying shame of having to ask colleagues, maybe even junior colleagues, for assistance. Who knows? They might not even have to ask their kids for help.
Take your feedback process to where people do their work. Don’t make them come to you. Walk into offices. Attend staff meetings and presentations — not of your staff, of your clients! Chat people up in company cafeterias, corner Starbucks, local shops. Keep your website on the qui vive, rife with feedback forms for anything you offer now. Build blogs open to your clients for reporting on what they think you’re doing and, even better, not doing. And even after you’ve gotten the great ideas you hope the process would supply and built the new services and tested them and exceeded your wildest dreams of success, never — repeat, NEVER — stop collecting more input.
When the famed and — tragically (sob) — defunct Southern California Online Users Group (SCOUG) used to hold its annual retreat, it would distribute T-shirts to all attendees. The T-shirts carried the image of a droopy palm tree and the name and number of the retreat. But it also carried SCOUG’s motto: “If Online Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” SCOUG may be gone, but for the world’s information professionals, the Question never goes away.