From the archives – the librarian can’t find the best source

This post from Lauren Pressley really resonated with me – particularly her note that not-blogging promotes not-blogging because when you don’t blog often you feel pressure to come up with something really great:

If you blog rarely, every blog post counts. It might be the last one left up over the course of a few months. :) And if it’s on the front page of your site for a few months, it better be pretty darn compelling.

I’m sure that it may come as a surprise to many who have noticed how difficult I find it to keep this blog up to date that I used to blog in two places.  I was never really pulling my weight over there, but I used to blog with Rachel and Caleb over at Command-f.info.

Command-f doesn’t exist any more, but the thing is that I had some posts I really, really liked over there.  So I’m going to move a couple of them over here before they’re lost to me forever.  (Yay Wayback Machine!).  Sadly, I fear the two-part Batgirl epic is no more.

This was the first post I made on Command-f, in August of 2008.  I’m reposting exactly as it appeared then, except for updating a few links.

I don’t feel like I hear nearly the emphasis on “the best source” as I used to, but I still do hear people frame “library sources” and “other sources” as if they are something different, and if there’s something superior about one. It relates to what I was saying in the Good Library Assignments posts about the desire I see in both students and faculty to use library collections as a shortcut for quality.

And I think it also relates to conversations like this one at The Ubiquitous Librarian, where I can’t be the only librarian to think that the students’ problem here wasn’t with difficult interfaces so much as a lack of understanding of research as an iterative, knowledge-creating process.  Not a matter of figuring out how to retrieve “the best source” so much as being able, cognitively and dispositionally, to be inspired to think about new things they see in the sources they find.

So – back to the past…

command-f logo

July 4, 2008 – 12:26 am by anne-marie

So this has been bothering me for a while and I haven’t been sure how to talk about it. It’s the phrase “the best source.” As in, “Google’s great for some things but librarians can really teach you how to find the best source on your topic.”

So I started really thinking about this one day at LOEX of the West when someone suggested that librarians involved in Open Access advocacy and instruction librarians are sometimes working against each other because open access advocates advocate using sources that are openly accessible and instruction librarians want people to use — the best sources. Now, I consider myself an open access advocate and a pretty good instruction librarian and I hadn’t been feeling that tension. I realized that I don’t think I do teach people to find “the best source” or even “the best sources.”

Really – I don’t even know what that phrase means.

Now, a couple of caveats here – I am not a very good relativist. I have been smacked down around a lot of seminar tables by smart people and foolish people alike for not being a very good relativist. I have had to learn to embrace the fact that my relativism has limits. So when I say “I don’t know what the best source means” it is not because “best” is a relative absolute term and I just don’t believe in that.

Two, I understand the concept of the seminal source. I don’t love the adjective but I get the phrase. I believe in it. I have had some transcendent academic experiences when I read an article, a book – some source that not only got me thinking in a new way, but that unlocked a whole discourse for me because by understanding it I had a framework to understand all kinds of things that came later.

(The Female World of Love and Ritualby Carol Smith Rosenberg. Signs – 1975. Such hard work. So changed my ideas about what history could be)

But that’s not what we talk about in libraries when we talk about “the best source.” And seriously, some of the most impact-heavy sources are also some of the most criticized and challenged. Two seconds on Google and you can find about a million references like this summary of the Big Six Information Needs step: The best source answers the exact research question or problem at the appropriate depth and breadth.

I don’t know what we even mean when we say things like that. And this honestly isn’t my snide hipstery “what would that even look like” voice. I am really asking – in the context of a real search, or a real information need – what would that even look like? Help me understand.

See, to me, the best source on a project is the source that gets you thinking — it sparks the idea, the understanding, or the connection that shows you where you’re going. You haven’t finished thinking yet and you haven’t finished writing yet – but you shift from “omg I’ll never get this done” to knowing what it is you want to say. It’s going to be entirely different from project to project and from person to person. If we could obliviate! memories and give the exact same person the exact same project and the exact same resources I’m guessing they would be pretty likely to find inspiration in a different place the second time around.

When Kate and I spoke about peer review at LOEX of the West, I’d say that our best source was this one article by David Solomon. His framework discussing five roles that journals play in scientific communities was what really pushed us where we needed to be in terms of framing the discussion. He cited another source, which we ended up using just as much in our final paper – so Solomon’s influence wouldn’t even be immediately apparent if you couldn’t get inside our brains but that doesn’t change the fact that for us, in our preparation, that source was probably the best source for us to find.

The point is that drilling down to the best source doesn’t match any kind of search process I’m familiar with. It doesn’t match how I see people exploring or discovering. It doesn’t match how I see people learning. But we say it so much – I’ve got to believe that it’s me that’s missing something. What are the situations and scenarios where we need to refine and refine – to add ANDS and ORs and parentheses until we have identified the single perfect source that answers our research question? What kind of searching is that – what kind of information need allows us to make that determination in advance of the learning, the synthesis, the analysis and the creation? What kind of learning process allows us to reject source after source as not worthy, and to keep those unworthy sources from sparking our thinking?

If I’m not missing anything, I think we need to really let the “best source” thing go. And not in the relativistic sense that there is no best. But to stop using it reflexively and un-reflectively. We need to really think about what kinds of systems, tools, lessons and conversations we can have with people to help them connect to their best sources.

Because I hope it’s clear that I think that there are best sources, but they’re slippery beasts. They can’t be discovered by drilling down, by narrowing and focusing, or by limiting oneself to a pre-selected pool of “best” resources. Well they can, but that’s not the easy way to do it and I think it’d take some dumb luck.

The easy way is still pretty hard. It involves a constant give and take of exploring and evaluating and I think it might be made harder by some of our tools. A lot of our systems in libraries are really good at getting the user to one thing, and not so good at supporting the kind of exploring and evaluating I’m talking about.

I’m looking at the catalog here – at the Virtual Reference Summit here in Oregon recently David Lankes said that the library catalog is the inventory record most organizations hide – and it is.

It’s the inventory record designed to help us distinguish all our stuff from all our other stuff. It is best at helping us find this book and distinguish this book from that book and that other book over there. It’s not as good at helping us explore and draw connections.

Is what the catalog does well, and has always done well, shaping how we think about searching and learning and exploring? Maybe it is. Maybe as a part of all of these conversations about the next generation of catalogs we can also take some time to re-think the idea of the best source.

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