Saturday, June 7, 2008

All Things Are For Human Beings

I've just finished reading this article
Araghi, G.F. (2005) Users satisfaction through better indexing. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 20(2), 5-17 for my cataloging class. I was impressed with this sentence:

One must not forget that although highly-automated technology dominate, all things are for human beings. (p. 14)

My primary professional interest is in providing reference service. Finding accurate information quickly is my passion. I agree that the classifier is the co-partner of the reference librarian. It doesn’t matter how good a reference interview I do if I can’t then find the answer to the user’s question because the information needed has been badly cataloged and remains hidden and cannot be retrieved.

I work as a part-time reference librarian at the Oregon State University library. I provide reference services face-to-face, by telephone, and through email. I also provide chat-based virtual reference services through L-Net and Meebo and I find that the most challenging of all. The questions from university faculty and students may be very detailed and complex, requiring a half-hour or more to answer. Many users are K-12 students asking basic homework related questions and there are always a few questions from members of the general public. Because it is a virtual environment and there are no visual cues, a good reference interview is essential. Some of the questions I receive are like this (real) example: “How much does a fully loaded tank weigh?” Where do I start?!

Araghi’s comment about “the ambiguity of index terms across cultures, languages, and time” has much truth in it. Language just isn’t always precise; there are countless opportunities for misinterpretation making access to accurate information complex. In the above example, what did the user mean by “tank”—gas, air, fuel, military, fish, something else?

Providing the information the user wants in a virtual environment also requires providing ongoing reassurances that I’m still there and looking for the information requested. Many expect an instant answer. I may ask the user to give me a minute, come back in less than that with the information they’ve requested only to discover the user has already logged off. I’ve found that recognizing there is another human being on the “other side” of the computer screen by using emoticons and addressing the user by his or her log-in name is very helpful in keeping the user engaged.

No comments: