The Problem with Questions

We librarian-types who work the reference desk help people who have questions.  These questions coming to us can be put in four somewhat overlapping categories:  those the inquirer understands and those he/she does not and those the librarian understands and those the librarian does not.

It used to be that the first category comprised a large percentage of what came into the door.   The inquirer understood the question and simply didn’t own the resource that was needed to find the answer … the standard resolution for such things was for the librarian to either pull out the proper book or show the inquirer where he or she could find the answer.  Oftentimes, of course, the person who understands the question doesn’t need any help – that’s what a self-help catalog or index is for.

Nowadays, that’s what a well crafted search string is for (assuming it isn’t so easy that it pops up on Google on the first try).

The second category is one where the librarian must play a game of “20 questions” in order to determine what the inquirer is trying to know.  The “movie with a sled in it” might just as well be “Nanook of the North” as it might be “Citizen Kane.”   The inquirer often doesn’t know enough to know when an answer is correct (which makes database searching into a wholly baffling experience).

The their category of question, those the librarian understands are, well, the reason a person comes to a library to ask for a bit of help – there’s a feeling that the person at the reference desk can actually help (beginning, perhaps, with an inkling of what’s required but soon ramping up to enough understanding to conduct a search).  This may actually be true if a specialized need meets a librarian with a specialized understanding.

The fourth category of question – the ones the librarian does not understand – is a surprisingly large one.

Back in the mid-80s, the State ofMaryland(the state library, I think, but perhaps a library school) conducted a “stealth” reference service evaluation, sending students to the various public libraries with a set list of questions.  Upon evaluation, it was discovered that the reference librarians provided the correct answers 55% of the time … the so-called “55% Rule” that once wafted through discussions of reference service like the smell of old socks.

The thing is: these question were not about anything esoteric.  Quite the contrary.  They could be answered from the “ready-reference” books (dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, thesaurus, almanac, etc.) found at every library’s reference desk.

The great FAIL is that the reference librarians did not seem to understand what were, after all, easy questions.

The professional question then isn’t “How can I, as a reference librarian, find the answers to questions?”  It is: “How can I, as a reference librarian, come to understand the questions?”

The answer, to some degree, is of course study.  But any person can only learn so much.  A better answer is:  get help.

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One Response to The Problem with Questions

  1. The reference conversation amazes me. What a terrific, underappreciated skill/practice.

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