Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Do the Means Justify the End-User Searching?

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Do the Means Justify the End-User Searching?

Article excerpt

It kind of scares me when I hear librarians imply that end-users should leave all the searching to people who know how to do it right. It's not only an attitude that refuses to give end-users credit, but obviously, it would be impossible for us to do all searches for all people! Now I know that sometimes librarians are just being overly protective--there are just too many tools and too much information out there. It's overwhelming. Of course, librarians have the expertise in training, knowledge gained over time, and/or a knack for finding data needles in information haystacks. Can end-users substitute persistence, patience, practice, and guessing for expertise? Are systems easy enough to use that non-professionals can achieve an acceptable satisfaction rating?

Typically, end-user instruction/training/teaching in searching touches on six capabilities for successful results: defining a topic, formulating a search, finding the right place to search, evaluating search results, evaluating/revising strategies, and communicating to others (as needed). So how are the end-users doing on their own?

The Defining Difference

In a recent NETTRAIN posting (1/4/00), Donald Barclay, of the Texas Medical Center Library, suggested separating "Serious Researchers" from "Internet Junkies" by assigning different colored headbands. [1] This tongue-in-cheek tactic was thrown out as an option to help restrict resources in the library. Barclay started his "modest proposal" like this: "Just as it is impossible to be on both sides in a war, it is impossible to be both a serious researcher and a recreational user of the Internet." The intentional fallacy of his joke is that it is impossible to separate both types of users.

It's impossible to separate serious from fanciful, serendipity from foolishness. That goes for both librarians and end-users. We can't read other people's minds--in fact, that's the whole point of so-called "reference interviews," to clarify what people want. And we all know that sometimes what people ask for isn't what they really want. That may be because they haven't thought about it, they don't know enough about it, or they have difficulty articulating their needs.

Think about that for a second ... Let's assume that for every person who asks for or receives help from the librarian that there are 100 who don't. (That's probably low--it's probably more like a thousand or even a million!) That means they'll either figure things out themselves or they won't. if they don't, they'll probably fret and fume and forget about it. if they don't storm off, it means they're sitting there trying to figure out what they want. They are making false starts, taking erroneous tangents, fumbling around, getting frustrated and bored, trying things out, and sometimes just guessing out of desperation.

What's the difference between a serious researcher and a recreational user of the Internet? Probably the expression on the person's face! But don't go by that alone ... no doubt some of those guesses or tangents lead to useful, interesting, funny, or weird results.

Are end-users really capable of defining their problems? One of the primary reasons for doing so is to generate synonym alternatives that might be found in "free-text" documents so they can begin formulating the search statement. Debbie Flanagan, an end-user who's also an industrial psychologist and instructional designer, has emulated librarian-like advice for end-users in her tutorial "Web Search Strategies." [2] She recommends that a user state his or her problem, identify the keywords of the problem, brainstorm variations/synonyms, combine terms into a search statement, and, oh yes, check spelling. It may not be intuitive that it helps to take these steps, but it is encouraging to see instruction and advice coming from others besides librarians.

By the way, don't worry about people outside the information profession giving searching advice. …

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