If You Have to Ask …

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Recently, I was re-reading an old document (from 1993, actually) that contained advice I’ve seen over and over in the library literature, and disagree with pretty strongly.

Talking about corporate librarians, the authors say that “a large number of our potential customers do not use our services” and go on to advocate that “we should interview non-customers whenever possible. We can ask how they obtain and use information and what we could do to provide it.”

While I applaud the emphasis on outreach, I have two problems with this line of thinking.

First, we shouldn’t be measured solely by our reach, or what proportion of our potential audience comes in contact with us in some way. That may be a more important measure in some contexts than others. But as a rule it’s more important that we reach the right audiences — the ones who need us the most. Where, in the corporation, government agency, law firm, etc. can we have the biggest impact? In the university, which courses have the heaviest information fluency component? Embed instruction in those — don’t worry about the rest.

Second, I’ve generally found that asking people about their information behavior is a relatively unproductive exercise. There are exceptions, but for the most part, they don’t tend to think about it. They’re not aware of the options they could have. Information is secondary, it’s a tool to get some other goal accomplished. It’s that goal that they’re focused on. So instead of asking them about information, ask them what they’re working on. Better yet, observe what they’re working on. And by all means don’t ask them what you should do to provide information. Two skills the librarian should bring are the ability to  analyze the information dimension of a situation, and the ability to improve it. If we can’t do that, then they probably don’t need us. But we shouldn’t be asking our “potential customers” to do our job for us.

Both of these points fit well with embedded librarianship. Embedded librarians should think strategically about where to embed: who needs us the most; where can we have the greatest impact? And the more embedded librarians collaborate with a group, the more we understand the nature of their work, and the role of information and knowledge in it — and the more opportunities we see to make a difference. So, we don’t have to ask — we know.

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One Response to “If You Have to Ask …”

  1. Ben Says:

    I thik you can still ask how they obtain and use information but for a different purpose. This question is not going to help you with the provision of information from the sources people list, but it will help you understand the subject matter, which can help you to identify inherent information challenges in the field. Terminology, for example, can differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If your company is international, that can have a big impact on what information employees are finding.

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