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Month: September 2008

The Future of Questions

The Future of Questions

I was asked recently to fill out a survey about the situation, goals, and ideas of “future library leaders”. One of the very first questions the survey asked was a true or false type thing; there was a statement and I was asked my opinion about it. The statement said something like this: “In the future, 100% of questions will be directed first at Google.” It was worded better than that, though.

I disagreed. I explained why, but now that I’ve answered this question, I want to elaborate on my answer, and why I’m positive that I’m right.

I don’t mean to imply that Google will become less important. If anything, it will probably become more important. It works. But I don’t think all questions will start there. I think we’re missing something really key.

While everyone loves Google and uses it, most people would prefer to ask their questions of real people, in digital form. In every online community of which I’m a part, there is this constant problem; new users “abusing” the group by picking their brains. On Feminist, the erudite community on livejournal, there were so many questions looking for help writing women’s studies papers that schoolwork-related questions were actually banned from the community. Similarly, on Academics Anon, another livejournal community, many, many questions are posted that are answered thus: “Google is your friend.” There is a near-constant conversation going on about how people don’t read and can’t they just google that citation question, and why does everyone expect us to answer all these silly questions that we’ve answered already 15000 times? The crankiness about it is one thing (and I understand it, in spite of being a librarian). The fact that anyone would rather face that kind of hostility and ask their question to a community of jaded academics (the basic premise of the community) rather than simply type the keywords of their question into google (how to cite a website, etc.) is telling.

In the last two days, as I’ve been preparing for Burning Life, the same thing is happening again. In order to get into the land set aside for Burning Life, you have to join a group. The chat related to that group is almost 99% basic questions that are all answered on Burning Life’s webpages, and the natives are getting very restless. Those webpages are actually very clear and well constructed, but when redirected to these pages, the question-askers are getting mightily upset, as if being asked to read a webpage is some kind of insult. I find this fascinating. They don’t want to read the webpage, even though they are told repeatedly that the answer to their question is there. They want to be told. They want their hands held. They want the personal touch. All digitally, of course.

So why is it that reference as a service is dying by this desire for personal communication is so prominent in online communities?

I think the key to it is trust. And it’s not that these new Burning Life folks trust the rest of us in the group as individuals. They trust that we went through this process already and know how to do it. They trust that we have expertise, and an unwillingness to share it with them offends them. The same is true in the feminist and academics community; they don’t come to us because they like us as people, or find us approachable. They come to us because they trust that we know what we’re talking about.

What makes this all the more confusing is that there’s that constant refrain out there about how you never know who you’re dealing with on the internet, but no one takes that too seriously in these cases. They don’t care if you’re really a dog. They only care that you know something about this very specific category of knowledge, and your participation in this forum provides that degree of trustworthiness.

How can libraries get themselves into that kind of category? I’m not sure. But I think clearly defining and expressing our particular expertise is part of it. The rest is an open question.