Not My Worst Nightmare

The Library Link of the Day is a Slate article entitled “A Librarian’s Worst Nightmare,” about Yahoo Answers. I made fun of some of these answer services several years ago in the C&RL News, and the Yahoo Answers seems just as problematic as the services were then. The only reason to pay attention to these sites is to see what we might learn, not to be afraid of them.

The article concluded: “For a passive reader, this has the same value as listening to two random guys at a bar talk about what to do if you are driving during a tornado. You may not learn very much by eavesdropping–and you certainly shouldn’t trust what you hear if disaster strikes–but that isn’t really the purpose. The lesson Yahoo! Answers teaches is that, for millions of people on the Web, it’s less important to get a good answer than to get someone to listen to your question in the first place.”

Besides the easy availability of these services, from which librarians should certainly learn, the lesson on listening might also be taken to heart. We have the reference interview, which is all about listening and responding thoughtfully, but sometimes it’s easy to curtail such an interview, especially in online reference when the context seems to demand speed over thoroughness. I recently had my own embarrassing reminder of this in a chat ref session. But listening and seeming interested and available for help are reasons behind what some reference studies have found–that with the right service, people will come back to reference librarians even if they occasionally get the wrong answers. Ideally, we like to get the answers right, but even if we can’t help much, we can always listen.

You may have seen the TV show “Little Britain.” There’s a character in that show who always sits in front of a computer, and people come up and ask if they can get something (bank loans or whatever). The character always stares blankly, types for a few moments, then inevitably responds in a bland voice, “Computer says ‘No.'” As librarians, we don’t want to look like that.