The Unasked Question — The Unrecognized Need

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I seem to be having a run of wonderful, thought provoking conversations lately. Today, it was a conversation with my research project co-investigator, Mary Talley, that led to the theme for this post.

We were talking about the value of the embedded librarian, about our hypothesis that intimate knowledge of the customer group’s work enables the embedded librarian to communicate well, to understand a question without requiring a lot of background explanation, and to deliver highly targeted, highly relevant, and important answers to the questions that customers ask.

All true — but we proceeded to discuss how the response to the unasked question, the unrecognized need, may be even more valuable.

In library and information science, our classic models of information seeking (e.g. Belkin and Oddy) start something like this: “1. Recognize information need”. They go on with things like “articulate need”, “select source”, “develop search strategy” etc. etc. But wait, back up, hold on there. “Recognize need” is a big hurdle to get over. I don’t know about anyone else, but I know there are many times when with 20/20 hindsight I’ve thought, “… if I had only thought to ask; I wish I had realized that information was available…”. So, I hope it’s not just me, and that recognizing when we have an information need is a problem for a lot of us.

When we don’t recognize we need information, or that the librarian could supply it, we don’t go to the library. The question never gets asked. The information isn’t found, isn’t used, doesn’t affect the outcome of what we’re doing — and most likely, the outcome is poorer as a result.

But what if the librarian is right there when the need arises, perceives the need and the possibility of satisfying it, doesn’t have to wait for the question to be asked, the need to be expressed, can interject into the meeting, ‘hey wait, we need information to help us resolve that issue.’ And then can get it, maybe even right there on the spot. The question doesn’t have to be asked, the librarian doesn’t have to wait in the library or by the phone or the computer — the librarian sees the need and formulates the question, then answers it.

Maybe this is the greatest value of the embedded librarianship model.

p.s. I’ve used the example of a specific information need above, but I think the same case could be made for other information services — like organizing the documents in a collaboration webspace, or anticipating the need for a taxonomy, etc.

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