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.

2 thoughts on “The Future of Questions”

  1. This is a huge question that probably has no quick fix. But it occurs to me that the internet, and Google in particular, are pointing out some deficiencies in school curriculum… or more likely, deficiencies in approach to learning. I am one of the organizers of Burning Life and, in fact, the one that wrote that wiki page that so many love to ignore.

    As a non-librarian, I’m probably stating the obvious, but the most liberating moment in my entire education was the day a teacher told me, “It doesn’t matter what you know. All that matters is that you know how to find out what you need to know.” Of course, in those days we were referring to having the phone number of the Library help desk, and knowing how to use a card catalog. “Finding out” *was* all tied to the library and it’s staff.

    Today the library is so available it’s become ubiquitous. Today, ability to gather knowledge is tied solely to ability to comprehend what you read in that library. People have joked in group chat that Burning Life is really just a large reading comprehension test.

    I believe you are right— people require that personal touch— require the reassurance that someone else is an expert and can help them. And why? I’m guessing that they simply don’t trust their ability to read and understand information. They know they fail at reading comprehension. Being asked to read the wiki makes them face that failure head on. Grrrr.

    We know there are two types of people in the world: those who can follow directions, and those who can’t ;-). I think we’ve covered the ones who can. I wrote a wiki page. One person–> approximately 5 hours–> informing thousands. Where we run into trouble is serving the other half of the world. We balk at the obvious short-term answer because we are short on man-power. But the answer is to have a human- staffed Reference Desk in center camp.

    Someone actually proposed something similar to me yesterday. For all I know it was you 😉

    In RL, Burning Man has a 1950s Bookmobile truck that rolls around the playa. It’s owned by someone who loves books. But in-world we need “Bookmobiles” that are really Event Reference Desks. Staffed by people who love to help people understand information. Short term, I think it’s all we can do. Long term, “Reading Rriting and Rithmatic” need to be changed to “Following Instructions, Writing and Rithmatic”.

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