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Finding Answers

by on November 6, 2015

The most frequent request librarians get at the reference desk (other than directions to the bathroom) is a request for an answer–not necessarily a resource. Over the years of working with various organizations, businesses, and libraries, it seems we have great access to all sorts of information. We collect it, we catalog it, we index it, we sort it, we file it, we shelve it, and we make it available with computers. The government does a lot of that too, and they even give rewards, i.e., grants to those who will collect the information and make it available either as booklets, seminars, workshops, videos, and digitally online.

What is becoming increasingly difficult within this plethora of information is finding answers. In 2005, Peter Morville wrote the delightfully entitled Ambient Findability. This should be a mandatory read for librarians. Morville takes us through a discussion of a number of evolutionary methods in the digitizing of data, information, images, and how this affects findability as well as how this journey is changing the way we work and live. The wonderfully informative Web Search Garage by Tara Calishan, who blogs under several titles including ResearchBuzz, tells us how to use the Google search engine to our best advantage. There are many books on searching, with discussions about semantics and federated searching, but I’ve noted some important earlier ones below.

The paradox is that the more things we digitize, even with more and more sophisticated methods of finding them through search and probability engines, the harder it becomes to find these items. Thus we create better software to help us with the finding of digital information. The ebook Desktop Searching Handbook (DSH) arrived in January of 2005 and is a thorough review of several “major” desktop search products.  It reviews Copernic, Google Desktop Search, Lookout for Outlook, MSN Desktop Search toolbar suite, Yahoo Desktop search, and offers a paragraph each on Enfish Find, X1, Blinkx, dtSearch desktop, Ask Jeeves Desktop, Wilbur, and Isys Desktop.  Oddly, they do not include HotBot Desktop toolbar. (HotBot. “Desktop” review of the Beta version, launched in 2004 hhttp://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb040322-1.shtml)  We had software called Kenjin by the company, Autonomy, which similarly searched both desk computer and Internet at the same time. Many of these are gone now, not always replaced with better products. The new Windows 10 now does something similar with its internal program Cortana.

Beyond ‘desktop searching’ we now have some 270 special search engines to help us around the various subjects and types of access. Along with these there are a number of reviews of the Top 10, Top 40, etc. https://blog.kissmetrics.com/alternative-search-engines/ .

With all the help we still have issues about whether the answers give us more questions. Around 2002, PEW Research told us if we used Broadband we’d get more work done. What they didn’t tell us was that the data on which they based the conclusion included listening to radio and watching movies or TV shows. I’m not sure all that was “work” unless one was a reviewer or critic of such things. Thus, defining the context is important as well. I ran into this recently. Someone is doing a survey for “digital humanities librarians.” Without context we don’t know precisely the definition of “digital humanities librarian,” e.g, the subject, Humanities librarians involved in digital projects, or  the activity, Librarians involved in humane/social project such as UNESCO and others.

The government sites tell us veterans will be given long-term health care, but nothing I found seems to tells me how to find out if I’m eligible. The Veterans Administration site also tells us of Medicare and Medicaid help, but doesn’t lead one to discover for oneself what VA eligibility is or how to apply. Other than a phone call, I’m sure it’s all there, but not here, the “Extended Care” page on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ website, http://goo.gl/vZGJp9 . Almost every VA site provides information along with links to additional information, but not the answer to “am I eligible?” or “What are the exact eligibility criteria?”

At one point we had circular references in Statistical Abstracts, e.g., we were told information for one set of statistics came from the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). When referring to RIAA inquiry of the statistics, they cited Statistical Abstracts as the source. Although dated, perhaps it’s time to get out the The Skeptical Business Searcher: The Information Advisor’s guide to Evaluating Web Data, Sites and Sources, by Robert Berkman: Information Today, Inc., 2005.

Because we librarians are used to looking things up, we forget that calling someone or finding an expert is also a process of accessing information quickly. When I worked at the Lincoln Center (NY) Research Library, we maintained a card file of subjects with names of people and phone numbers whom we could count on to help with answers. Find it Fast, an excellent book which came out many years ago, will be out in a sixth edition by the time readers see this article; Find It Fast: Extracting Expert Information from Social Networks, Big Data, Tweets, and More, Sixth edition by Robert Berkman.

Getting answers is the only reason we need to collect, process, and preserve the tons of digital and print resources being produced each day. Any suggestions or guides to finding answers should be the priority, not just providing information.


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  1. […] Last month I wrote about finding answers. This is a follow-up on the process. Sometimes the process takes us to strange worlds like finding the answer to the riddle, “Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Many of the experts we rely on use their memories. Now I know at my age, my memory is not completely coherent, especially with family time-lines, i.e., what happened when with whom. On the other hand, I’ve known theater buffs who could tell you what review showed up in which issue of Variety. […]

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