Does Every Question Matter?

I know it’s been a long time since I rock-and-rolled. I had a two-month research leave this summer to work on the Enlightenment and libraries book, which meant that I did little but work on that for July and August, and am still catching up with regular work after the hiatus. Fortunately for me, the time was productive and I got a lot of writing done. 

In August, I also attended the Reference Renaissance conference in Denver and participated in a couple of panels, including a debate with Joe Janes about “fake reference” questions over IM from library school students. It wasn’t earth-shattering, by any means, but it was a good discussion with a lot of audience participation, which was the goal. Typical for a debate, a lot of issues were raised, but I don’t think any minds were changed on the spot either way. 
The most significant question arising from the discussion had nothing to do with fake reference, though. At one point, someone in the audience (I think it was an LIS professor) asked me if I thought every question mattered.  I can’t remember the exact wording, but the basic idea was whether I believed every reference question, no matter the content or motivation, was worth answeringor had equal value.I think I surprised both her and Joe when I answered, No, I don’t. I wasn’t alone in that opinion, but it seemed like I was in the minority, perhaps even in the profession as a whole, so I’ve been working out what I think about the question.
I think the motivation behind saying all questions matter is the idea that the answer to any given reference question matters to the person who asks it, and that the job of the reference librarian is to take questions as they come. Thus, it shouldn’t matter to me whether the query comes from a library school student asking me a fake question or a student at my university with a research need. In other words, the questions matter because the people matter. But, as with the initial debate, it’s important to consider the context. All questions don’t matter to all librarians in all libraries all the time, because all people don’t matter to all librarians all the time. If you agree with that statement, then you agree that all questions don’t matter, at least in the sense I’m talking about here.
The initial debate was about library school students pretending to be genuine patrons and asking questions they really didn’t care about of librarians working at a private university, even when they had reference services at their own university. Their questions don’t matter for at least two different reasons. First of all, they aren’t genuine needs for information, and the job of the reference librarian is to fulfill information needs, not act as guinea pigs in LIS research. Only LIS professors think the role of the librarian is to serve as a guinea pig. Someone lying to me and asking me a fake question isn’t worth wasting my time to answer the question, especially when there are people with real information needs.
In this example, the questions also don’t matter because of the institutional context. I work at a private university, and our reference service is very specifically for my university’s affiliates, visiting faculty and students, and anyone with questions specifically about the university or the library’s collections. It is not our role to answer general questions from students at other universities, especially if that university has a reference service of its own. Also, in New Jersey, there is a statewide cooperative reference service called NJ Answers, in which we do not participate. This isn’t a public university, and unless they pay for access, we do not let members of the public use the library (and given the quality of the Princeton Public Library, I don’t see why many would want to use ours anyway). 
Some of you might consider this policy restrictive, and believe that academic libraries should serve everyone. However, I would bet that even academic libraries which have an open-use policy (as the previous two academic libraries I worked in do), there are still categories of questions you don’t answer. The big one that springs to mind is homework help. I’ve never heard of an academic library providing homework help for K-12 students, and the academic librarians who don’t provide homework help implicitly believe that not all questions matter. In almost all academic libraries, there are going to be categories of questions or patrons who are less important than the libraries’ core constituency, and generally this will be the result of staffing and expertise. Because it’s not our mission to answer every reference question in the world, we don’t staff as if it is. If we didn’t have to make choices among scarce resources, then we might answer every reference question in the world. 
I’m less experienced with public libraries, since my public library experience was in circulation, but based on my experience working reference in a public university with an open policy, I suspect there are distinctions in question-validity there as well. For example, most libraries have their crazy or obsessive patrons, the ones who are calling the library every day asking for celebrity birthdays so they can cast horoscopes, or the ones who come to the desk regularly and ask creepy questions about serial killers as long as the librarian is a woman. Sometimes it’s clear the patron just wants someone to talk to. I’ve seen all of these myself. I’d suggest these questions matter less than others because of the type of patron. Indeed, sometimes those questions are so crazy or creepy that if asked enough times the patrons will be banned from the library. Generally, we have less respect for obsessive questions coming from insane people. I don’t think we’re wrong to, either.
I would like to make one last distinction, that of the validity of the answer sought rather than the status of the patron. Can we not say that there is a hierarchy of knowledge, and that the validity of the question has some relation to the validity of the answer as knowledge? Maybe this could be the epistemological distinction between types of reference question, especially since the distinction relies somewhat on the status of the knowledge relevant to the knower. 
Let’s take the example of astronomy versus astrology. One is a genuine body of knowledge, and the other is a genuine body of hokum and bunk. However, the validity of reference questions related to them could depend upon the questioner’s relation to the information need. Astrology itself is nonsense, but as an object of scholarly study, it has equal status to astronomy. Studying astrology historically or sociologically is as valid as studying astronomy scientifically. Thus, questions about celebrity birthdays motivated by a desire to cast horoscopes would have less validity than questions about astrological beliefs motivated by information needs relevant to an academically legitimate area of study. While I might indulge the obsessive astrologer if there were nothing else to do at the reference desk, the celebrity astrologer would have to wait indefinitely if there were pressing information needs of sane people doing real research. 
So there’s at least four possible hierarchical distinctions among questions, depending on the genuineness of the information need, the institutional context of the library users, their relative sanity, and the relationship of the question to an actual body of knowledge. Even if every question matters to the person asking the question, the person asking the question doesn’t matter equally as a user in every library. Here I’m more or less brainstorming about possible responses than putting out firm beliefs, but if any of these distinctions hold, then for practical purposes not every question matters

6 thoughts on “Does Every Question Matter?

  1. I agree with you, but I’ve also seen this be a slippery slope for some reference staff. For them, oonce they start down the road of deciding the crazy people’s questions don’t matter, they start to lose judgment on other types of questions as well. Nothing pains me more than a particular co-worker who has decided that every LIS school student who asks a question is trying to “cheat” to get us to do their homework for them. I think it’s reasonable for LIS profs to teach a mantra that every question matters. It would hurt the profession to have new graduates come into their public service jobs already determined to rank questions by their worth. We know they will come around to realizing that some questions have more merit. I don’t think it hurts to have them learn it the hard way by taking the first dozen celebrity birthday questions seriously.

  2. I agree they should learn the hard way. Someone at the discussion said, “my students would sure be surprised to hear you say that [not every question matters].” I thought, that’s because they’re students and haven’t been answering questions for a decade or more. Mostly, I think it depends on context and institution.

  3. I think there is a huge distinction between how much a question matters to the user, the institution, and the librarian. For that crazy person wanting to check the horoscopes for their celebrities, it’s a big deal, but for the librarian, it is inane. I think your point about the patrons of the library being first priority is the biggest deal – I work at a state institution whose first priority is to the university community, and then after that to the general community at large. Questions coming from students have a higher priority than the gentleman calling to find out the air date of a certain TV episode from 1964 (and yes, I have had that caller). But as a fairly recent library school graduate and long time library staff (and someone who really hated the Ask a Librarian assignment), just having to go and do that particular assignment doesn’t mean that the question isn’t legitimate. And even if it is something forced, it is still important to that student, because they are completing an assignment.
    And I’d argue that the user standing next to a child doing the “potty dance” asking where the bathroom is could possibly be the most important question of your day.
    Basically, though, I agree with what you say, and think that prioritizing is needed, especially when there are so many tasks for so few staff to cover. However, I also agree with Patricia, in that it is a slippery slope. Once you start actively deciding whether a question is worth your time or not, it isn’t long before you have basically decided that there are very few, if any, questions worth your time.

  4. I think the slippery slope argument is an important one. One of our core responsibilities as librarians, at least as I define it (and within the bounds of our institutional missions, of course) is to promote freedom of information and to fight censorship of information.
    When we start making judgments about the validity or importance of questions or information needs, especially based on our own biases or on how someone looks or acts in the short time they are at the library, aren’t we in fact censoring?
    I certainly agree that we have to often prioritize when faced with the realities of workload and staffing, but I would argue we should try our hardest to avoid judging those asking for our help, if it can at all be helped. As with most things, we must balance our ideals with the reality on the ground. Speaking for myself only, I will always strive towards my idea of the ideal profession, and give in to realities that take away from those ideals only when forced.

  5. What’s interesting to me is how necessary it is in our profession to accept and to teach shorthanded maxims like “every question matters” because that is somehow the best way to teach new librarians how to make the distinction, when circumstance dictates, between the questions that actually matter and the ones that don’t. That’s a sort of tension, isn’t it? The theory so often belies the practice. Sometimes it does so necessarily and with a productive cognitive dissonance. Sometimes, in my experience, it does not.
    There are pedagogical assumptions being made when we assume that this is the best way to teach someone how to do something, that practice can and should be distilled and abstracted into theory, and that you need a degree in that theory to practice professionally. The assumption is not unique to librarianship, but it is so fundamental to the profession, for better or worse, that I’m not sure we always articulate or acknowledge it. I think of all the students attending library school without the assistantships that give them the actual work experience and I wonder if we’re doing them and the profession a real disservice.

  6. I would be interested in hearing more about the actual policies governing reference questions in both public and academic libraries. My local public library has some pretty strong wording in its policies about reference questions. “All reference questions are handled in a non-judgmental and impartial manner” (which can be interpreted in numerous ways) and “All reference questions are considered equal” (which tends to be less ambiguous in my opinion). Would anyone care to share their experiences with the policies governing reference questions in various types of libraries?

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