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Finding Answers III: Searching For the Right Questions

by on February 22, 2016

Whether rebranding, reorganizing, or answering the public’s questions, we have to talk about semantics. Susanne Langer in her 1948 book, Philosophy in a New Key told us, “The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it—right or wrong—may be given. If we are asked: ‘Who made the world?’ We may answer: ‘God made it,’ ‘Chance made it,’ ‘Love and hate made it,’ … if we say, ‘Nobody made it,’ we reject the question.”1

If we are asking a question, the way we ask can disrupt the course of inquiry…if we ask the wrong question.

Many other more recent books and search engines have been engaged in struggling with the semantics of questions and queries. The new one by Leslie Stebbins, Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth, suggests there are many issues related to ‘Search Psychology” when evaluating the reliability of answers.

Whether we are searching online or doing research for a solution, the results are based on the questions we ask and how we ask them. I found recently that when a music library was asking to find opera glass reviews, using those two separate and common words, that search results were about glasses and operas, but little about those little binoculars called opera glasses. Hyphenating the same terms, “opera-glasses,” brought reviews to the top of search results.

We have a number of issues when searching online looking for the right combination of terms and operands such as InURL:PDF and using space between words, such as the undocumented Google proximity operand, AROUND(5). Many of the tips we find for searching exist as a result of others’ trial and error or from reading books of those who have studied search extensively like Web Search Garage, Yahoo to the Max, The Extreme Searcher’s Guide to Web Search Engines, The Skeptical Business Searcher and the newer one mentioned above. Someone, maybe several, have put all the operands on the net.

Organizations have been looking for solutions to good management for decades. Such processes as used by efficiency experts, management by objectives, total quality management, quality circles, Deming methods, re-engineering, strategic planning, and most notably recent, re-branding everything. Since we keep seeing new ideas along with a plethora of books on creative thinking and innovation, perhaps we are not asking the right questions. A few years ago, Special Librarians were asking what they must do to stop their company from closing the corporate libraries, as if they could do something different to make those events stop. As I explained in a long letter to the editor of Information Outlook, “It’s not about us,” it wasn’t our fault.2 Mergers require someone to pay the debt created and often some of it is born by those corporate libraries which are closed.

The real question might have been, “How do we stay connected to top management or board of directors who make such decisions?” I’m aware of one library that died and took with it all the microfiche that told the engineers what type of metals were used for connections to underwater cables—a necessary thing—lost information requiring new onsite checks.

In 60 AD, Petronius Arbiter, a Roman Imperial Army officer, was attributed as saying, “I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by re-organizing and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.”3

More recently since the 1990s, due to a translation and publication of a Russian book, Theory of Inventive Problem Solving by Genrich Altshuller, U.S. Engineers have become acquainted with TRIZ, a systematic innovation methodology. TRIZ is a process through which engineers can sort out and optimize the best approach to a solution. It’s about finding the right questions as to what is to be solved. Sometimes through the forty principles, finding ‘conflicts’ or ‘contradictions’ lead to new questions leading to different solutions than those anticipated. TRIZ is used at Boeing Company and some others. Some businesses have adapted the program or process. I’m unaware of any libraries using this powerful process, TRIZ, for finding the right questions for organizational development or re-branding.

The recent Gallup poll tells us that only 32 percent of staff of corporations (and maybe large libraries) are really engaged in all of this rebranding, re-engineering, and various innovation programs. Possibly, it is because the emphasis is on changing processes and organizational charts, rather than giving responsibility to line staff for finding solutions at lowest levels. Gaining solutions to library problems and issues should be about finding and asking the right questions. One bad or one good experience with a library with line personnel will color a patron’s confidence in all libraries.


1 Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. (New York: New American Library, 1953), 1.

2 Editor, message from author, June 1, 2004.

3 Petronius Arbiter, quoted in Quote Investigator.


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