Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A few days in Anchorage at the Alaska Librarians conference: perceptions about search skills

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent a few days at the Alaskan Librarians conference (AKLA 2010).  It's the annual gathering of the librarian tribe, and this time it coincided with the start of the Iditarod trans-Alaska sled dog race.   (Tomorrow:  A search challenge from the Iditarod!)

During the conference, I had the chance to talk with lots of librarians about what they see their patrons searching for (or not searching for), and what their particular challenges are.

One thing that came across clearly was that most people think of themselves as being pretty good searchers, but in fact, this seems to be a bit of an illusion.  People's perception of the skill of searching (particularly their individual skill) is fairly positive.  Many times you'll hear people express complete confidence:  "I can find anything that's on the web!"

While that's great, it's also not quite true.  For the most part, the search tasks that people tackle are reasonably straight-forward: What time is the movie at the megaplex tonight?  What is the population of Japan?  Why are Alaskan husky dogs in the Iditarod so small?  (FWIW, they're much smaller than I'd expected!)

For these kinds of search tasks, the web has a large information base that's straightforward to locate.

But the really hard questions--the kinds we're interested in for our purposes--are a bit harder to answer.

I sat for a few hours at the University of Alaska library reference desk and observed as the reference librarian answered questions ranging from the simple ("Do you have a copy of 'The Great Gatsby'?")  to the more difficult.

U. Alaska Anchorage:  Great Room at the library

I find these sitting-at-the-reference-desk observations to be invaluable for my studies.  While the range of reference questions you see at the desk is still broad, some of the harder questions are genuinely tough to answer, requiring the best skills of the professional researcher... and the educational knack of a skilled teacher.

One patron asked for a "ranked list of the top sociology journals in the world."  That sounds as though it should be simple--but the hard bit here is defining what "top journal" means.  The reference librarian did a masterful job of trying to elicit what the patron really wanted--does "top journal" mean by subscription volume?  By citation counts?  By number of appearances in the popular press?  By number of issues published each year?

Any of those are possible to figure out, but to answer the patron's question (or by extension, their Google search) they need to understand what tradeoffs and choices are possible.

That's the function of the reference interview, to drill down into what the patron really REALLY wants, as opposed to what they say they want.  As my clinical psychologist friends often say, "the presenting problem is rarely the real problem."

But knowing how to drill down and identify the shape and nature of information that actually will satisfy the patron's request requires broad knowledge about the world, about what resources are available and more than a bit of human psychology.

The patron who comes in to ask for "everything about the civil war" definitely requires a guiding hand to hone in on what would be a good answer.  Now, if that patron has a British accent, the librarian might want to ask "which civil war do you mean??" since they could be asking about any of several different civil wars.

An expert searcher incorporates much of this skill into their own search strategy, asking themselves:  What is it that I'm looking for anyway?  What would a great answer be?

This kind of meta-cognition is, to my mind, the next great frontier for teaching people how to search effectively.  It's hard to do and slippery to teach.  That makes it a great challenge.  More on this in times ahead.

Now... on towards Nome!!

1 comment:

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