Magazine article Information Today

Answering the Unanswerable at CIL

Magazine article Information Today

Answering the Unanswerable at CIL

Article excerpt

As librarians and information specialists, we are relentless. Even if a question seems impossible to answer, it goes against our nature to simply shrug our shoulders and say, "I just can't find anything." So of course, the Computers in Libraries session was packed for a presentation by info guru Mary Ellen Bates on "How to Answer the Questions You Can't Answer."

Unanswerable questions, Bates said, come in several varieties, each of which demands its own strategy:

1. Questions no one knows the answer to--Example: "How many American flags have been sold since 9/11?"

"Does no one really not know?" Bates asked. She suggested that researchers start with relevant trade groups--in this case, the National Flag Foundation or the National Retail Federation. In addition, she advised searchers to look for anecdotal evidence in newspaper and magazine databases, while considering whether there are "related indicators," such as an increase, in military enlistments, Hallmark's sale of more patriotic-themed cards, etc. "It's not as hard as it seems to do some value-added distillation and extraction," Bates said.

And yes, go ahead and "throw it into Google," she said. You may come up with some useful Web sites that, at the very least, will provide you with contact information for someone who might be able to help.

2. Questions that require analysis--Example: "Why is Wal-Mart trouncing Kmart?"

According to Bates, these are the most difficult types of questions for information professionals because they require them to provide actual answers to customers rather than just information. And yet, an analysis--or an "executive summary"--is "seen as high value." So your focus should be on "what added value you can provide to answer the question." Bates recommended doing a literature search; reading SEC 10K reports, especially management's discussion and analysis, which tends to .be the most readable part of the document; and checking out analysts' reports.

Alas, Bates said, "Sometimes there is no one answer.... We can just provide them with the perspectives that are out there."

3. Questions where no one really cares about the answer--Example: "What's the market for purchasers of specialized carbon blades?"

It may seem trivial to you, but there's almost always some organization or government agency out there that collects statistics that are related to it in some way. Bates suggested checking such agencies as the Department of Commerce, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, NASA, the Department of Energy, and trade associations. You can locate all of these organizations on the Web and, even if the. answer isn't right out there, you can find contact information for someone who can help, such as a media representative or special librarian.

Another approach, said, Bates, is to "look for parallel indicators." In this instance, you might want to investigate purchase patterns for other carbide products or other types of blades.

4. "Huh?" questions--Example: "I need examples of effective HR departments."

For questions like this, Bates emphasized the importance of the traditional reference interview--e.g., "What do you mean by HR departments? Within our own organization? Within our industry? In our local area? In organizations of similar size?" Then you need to find out "what we need to compare" to determine effectiveness--e.g., awards won, minimal employee turnover, training sessions presented, etc. Finally, you have to determine what your customer wants in the way of an answer--case studies, journal articles, statistics/metrics, lists of' organizations that have won awards, etc. …

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