Friday, April 16, 2010

Getting a Clue

The novelist William Gibson noted during a 1999 NPR interview: “As I've said many times, the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed.”

It’s a bit of a problem for those of us providing reference services. To generalize (and I do know of exceptions) those who are in their 70s might as well be on a different planet from those in their 20s. Also, those who live in areas without high-speed Internet access are not experiencing the same world as those who have it.

Whether or not our brave new world is “good” is another matter. Ease in asking a question is not the same thing as knowing what to look for or of knowing how to ask a question … one of the downsides of Google is that few people in their teens and early twenties know how to do a Boolean search, carefully adding or subtracting terms, in order to find gems in the mud.

There’s a sense – perhaps a primitive sense of magic – that the computer “just knows” the answer. That’s certainly the view I get from studies showing that students will seldom look below the first page of search results when doing research.

That actually makes a certain sense. If you don’t “have a clue” as to what comprises a good answer, any answer will do.

The answer to this, of course, is “Get a clue.”

That’s not easy. And that’s one great hope for reference services … as long as our reference department staff members are properly clued and dedicated to staying that way.

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