Virtual Reference Interview Fail

I made a chat reference inquiry with a library worker from Florida’s Ask a Librarian statewide service. This was my question:

I’m looking for information on Richard III – was he healthy when he died, besides his humpback? It’s for a school project. Thanks!

I admit, I was a bit of a mole, since I already knew the answer I was looking for and part of the intent was to see if the reference staff followed current events/newspapers.

Overall, the experience was a bit of a let-down, especially given the very positive experience with chat reference I had with an academic librarian a month prior when I was searching for a reference cited in a book I was reading and needed digital inter-library loan to get it.

The Florida librarian did not conduct a reference interview beyond the fields in the form I had to fill out in order to log on to the chat. (My name and ZIP code were required. My email was optional. I had to choose from a drop down menu that I was a graduate student. This was also where I entered my question.) Once the librarian logged on, she proceeded to search for resources and send them to me. Her only questions were closed questions, such as confirming that I could open a link or that I got her emailed article.

I was actually surprised with how rushed the reference chat felt. There were several times during the interaction where the librarian tried to pawn me off on searching for books in my local library’s catalog because she wasn’t finding suitable results for me with her resources. Had this been a serious query, I would have left feeling like I was on my own and wondering why I had consulted a librarian in the first place, because she gave up on the search. I tried to give her feedback on the content of the articles, but she never did provide anything that actually answered the question. As she started to end the interaction, I was very tempted to give her a hint that maybe there would be forensic analysis somewhere, in light of the news of the discovery (since I had already found such an answer in a newspaper article). However, she ended the interaction quickly, without checking if she had met my needs or waiting for my final “thank you.”

I suspect that, toward the end, she was in a hurry to finish up because the chat service was closing in 30 minutes, even though she hadn’t completely helped me. It is also possible that she figured out that my ZIP was not a Florida ZIP code, and, therefore, she had little obligation to help me because the service is for Florida residents. Since I also had to list on the form that I was a graduate student, she may have been less willing to try as hard for me because graduate students are usually more competent at searching on their own.

If I had been the librarian in this situation, I think I would have tried to learn more about the assignment and asked me what I had already found, instead of throwing resources at me, hoping I’d go away. I think that her attempts at the search were not successful because she didn’t actually conduct any sort of reference interview. It seemed like she was more interested in the mechanics of doing the search and completing the task than actually meeting my needs. I was also very put off that she didn’t confirm with me that I was satisfied with the interaction and did not even give me a chance to say thank you—to me, a librarian should always focus on providing this kind of customer service.

Is what you see really what you get? I hope so…

David Weinberger starts out Chapter 5 of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, entitled “The Hyperlinked Organization,” with the words: Business sounds different these days. I thought, “Yeah, it really does!” as he went on to explain how things have evolved from “Fort business” into the hyperlinked organization. I was feeling very positive and upbeat about the potential of the future and how lucky we are to rid ourselves of the old “business pharaohs [who] build their pyramidal organizations out of fear of human fallibility; they’re afraid of being exposed as frightened little boys, fallible and uncertain.”

We are seeing, then, a realignment of loyalties, from resting comfortably in the assumed paternalism of Fort Business to an aggressive devotion to making life better for customers. The business isn’t a machine anymore, it’s a resource I alone and we together can use to make a customer happy.

Yes! It seems we really have wised up. Most quality workers I know would agree, simply because it is the “right” thing to do. You know—work while you’re at work. In other words, take care of business. This makes me happy!

Weinberger also talked about information and understanding:

We don’t need more information. We don’t need better information. We don’t need automatically filtered and summarized information. We need understanding. We desperately want to understand what’s going on in our business, in our markets. And understanding is not more or higher information…

…Here’s another example. I worked at a company that tanked for lots of good reasons. When a bunch of us ex-employees get together, some of us say that it was because the product got too inbred and complex; others say that Marketing failed to predict the platforms the software would have to run on; others say that the management team was too focused on new products and ignored the bread and butter. None of us tell the same story. And that means that we, as a group, don’t understand what happened.

I went through a nasty breakup a few years ago that left me reeling. We ultimately reconciled, but truthfully, I had no idea what happened. I still don’t, actually. I don’t think he does either (even though it was his idea to split.) I mean, we were both there, and obviously contributed to the mess, just like in Weinberger’s failed company, but the connections never got made. While we may have learned from some of our mistakes, the drama of the failure also left some marks.

I think that happens in business too. As workers, when we are burned by a situation, we are automatically just a little gun-shy. I’m not referring to committing the errors that Weinberger applauds as useful and necessary to ferret out the new ideas. I’m talking about getting spanked because you have put yourself out there as counter-cultural in the enthusiastic and optimistic way that has been so encouraged by this incoming era of the hyperlinked organization.

We often use the phrase “knowledge is power” to make it seem that hierarchically granted power is justifiable. In most hierarchies, however, knowledge isn’t power, it’s a weapon. Being right advances you and being wrong is a defeat. That sucks.

You can see the politics of “being right” throughout most organizations. People win arguments — and thus secure their position in the hierarchy — through the cutting remark, through megatonnage of evidence, through agreeing with industry consultants, and through the smug refusal to ever admit being wrong.

Unfortunately, as Weinberger described the politics of “being right,” it made me consider the sad truth that there are still a lot of those “kings of the fort” left out there who would be threatened and hostile toward the idea of relinquishing their power and control. The only thing is, you don’t always know you’ve run into one of these people until you’ve stepped on their toes. It’s gotten better, but it’s left me cautious.

This is where I diverge from Weinberger when he basically says: It’s coming and we’re going to be better off for going down that road. I want to be as positive as he is about it—it would be so cool to always be allowed to use my “real voice” at work.

If the work environment within an organization such as a library is to become more transparent, it only makes sense that, externally, being honest with users and the community is ideal tool. It’s an opportunity to endear yourself as an organization to them: to show that you have their interests and needs at heart and in your mind as you are making decisions or planning new services. Casey and Stephens, in their article, “The transparent library: Living out loud” in Library Journal , say it best: “Your public, your customers, expect it and will hold you to it.”

It’s nice to think that you can control the outflow of information and discussion, but the truth is, you can’t. Those days are gone. Staffers talk to customers, and customers talk to customers. It’s no longer possible to control a solitary message from one central location…

…Remember, if you don’t participate in the story, it will be told without you.

Here, Casey and Stephens (from “The transparent library: Library 2.0.” in Library Journal) remind us, as Weinberger did, that the way we need to approach the organizations we work in is changing. I agree, but I think we all need to tread with care.