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Magazines > Searcher > June 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 6 — June 2003
Cuddly Caveats
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Do 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 is GGG's...")

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?


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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