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Making Sure Help is Helpful

by on June 26, 2015

A fundamental premise of librarianship appears to be that librarians wish to be helpful. With the predominance of listservs, the process of asking a question and getting a quick response is phenomenal; in fact sometimes it can be a life saver. However, sometimes it is an exercise in frustration and a large drain of time and energy. Thus, I know of many librarians who refuse to join professional lists and therefore lose what is valuable in the participation.

The important thing when answering a listserv inquiry is to consider if the information being supplied actually answers the question being asked. For many years reference librarians were trained in the art of the reference interview, designed to discern what the real information query was in comparison to the actual question being posed to them. Often in these ‘live’ situations the exchange was quick and the person asking the question might not have even known what information they were really seeking.

I would suggest with the advent of online inquiry the reference interview—and subsequently the true focus on the actual question—has become a lost art. Perhaps it is perceived as no longer relevant. With the Internet inquiry the question is posed solidly before us. Because it has been typed out by the inquirer, there is inherently more conscious thought going into it. Further, for those asking questions of listservs, it is very likely that the asker already possesses some Internet skill and has done preliminary investigation, particularly if the listserv is centered on a particular profession or topic.

I have found many times on professional listservs that when a question is poised, there is a myriad of replies, but few that actually answer the question. For example, I recently asked a group of librarians if they had a sample vendor contract for a particular service. The results I received told me information about the service, vendors who performed that service, and how to engage in the service, but none supplied me with a sample contract or even referenced one. Some suggested I search the Internet for information, which of course I had already tried. The internet findings suggested I contact my peers for samples.

The responses were frustrating on many levels. Worst of all, despite having numerous replies, I did not gain the needed information. While I would encourage all to be helpful and participate, I would suggest that it be done with focus.

First, consider the audience. Replying to a general group might warrant a different kind of reply than if replying to a professional group, just as answering a reference question regarding information about animals would be different depending upon the age of the person standing before us. I believe it is safe to think that if answering a question on a professional librarian list, suggesting the Internet search is not needed unless one is suggesting a particular website or unusual resource.

Second, focus on the content. If a poster is seeking contact information for a specific program provider, comments about reference books on the topic are not helpful. If a questioner asks about fundraising ideas to supplement their budget, responses about municipal budgets would not apply. A helpful starting place is to consider if the question is looking for general direction or specific information. It might be helpful to consider the kind of answer you would be seeking if you were asking the question. This is the same process reference librarians apply to the reference interview.

Finally, specifically in the context of professional listservs, I always ask myself why I am reaching for the reply button. Do I truly have content to provide or do I just want to help? Is the reply that I am forming in response to the inquiry or because of something else (a favorite topic, a recent experience, or a slow day)? Before hitting send, I also recheck if the answer I have now typed out has already been posted in the interim.  I focus on whether my information actually helpful. If I answer “not really” or have any doubts, I don’t send.

I believe that if we approach the listserv inquiry with thoughtful consideration we will all save time and become truly more helpful.


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