Sunday, April 17, 2005

Real Questions, Real Needs

Dewdney, P. and Michell, G. (1997). Asking “why” questions in the reference interview: a theoretical justification. Library Quarterly 67(1), 50-71.

The sincerity of asking “why” on the part of librarians is generally misunderstood by patrons/information seekers. Patricia Dewdney and Gillian Michell return to visit an area rich in conflict and ripe for conflict resolution: the reference interview. A librarian’s best effort to figure out a patron’s motives may be misunderstood as intrusive, and responded to in a hostile manner. The authors apply two strategies to make “why” successful in a reference interview, contextualization and neutral questioning, relying on theory in “philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, and communications” (51) to support their arguments, but are concerned with earlier work by Hutchins (1944), R. Taylor (1968).
Obviously, the well-known grouchiness of librarians has been around ever since the first reference question interrupted a librarian completing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. The librarian would naturally wonder “why” anyone would care to ruin another day in [her] life by asking [her] anything. Obviously, Robert Taylor and Nick Belkin and many others have stressed the importance of knowing why in order to know what a patron “really” wants to know. This topic first became relevant with Robert Taylor’s 1968 article on negotiating questions, and has pushed the human information behavior researcher’s pen to the paper for the past 40 years or so.Dewdney and Michell, although theorists, come up with some practical answers, albeit their responses to resolving the troublesome nature of “why” really takes much practice. First of all, librarians must be more sensitive to what is being conveyed by their questions. Speech act theory gives some insight into what philosophers and linguists rely on to determine the nature of communication between the librarian and the information seeker. Simple questions of fact can be confused with a request for more information. The “why” question also opens up other territory, some of which is not very comfortable for the librarian, like when the patron’s answer to the sweet and sincere librarian’s “Why are you asking me for this information?” gets a “None of your business” in reply. Theoretical considerations provide all the support for the authors as promised, although Dewdney obviously put in her field time training reference librarians prior to the publication of her dissertation in 1986 on the topic. The research interview obviously is not an easy one to conduct, regardless of what the question is, especially when even a ready reference question may have a hidden motive. The authors’ practical snippets of dialogue make the arguments clear, but for the reader, they are only the beginning of becoming a skilled reference interviewer. The reader must agree with the authors that a philosophical basis must be at the foundation of training reference workers. Without knowing the theoretical basis for actions, librarians will continue to misunderstand their patrons, and vice versa. A number of early source works from the article seem interesting in the light of what we think of as the first 50 years or so of human information behavior.

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