Sparking off of Kristin’s Lands’ End story, a while back my dad asked me for some help finding something on Google. He had recently bought a special kind of shotgun second hand. I can’t tell you what’s special about it. I just know that he was super excited. He wanted to find the manufacturing date of the shotgun based on the serial number, but he was having no luck finding anything online. He figured there was some secret password he needed to know to find some sort of listing of manufacturing dates. He just didn’t know what it was.
Enter Librarian Mode. I gave him a proper reference interview and came away with the following hard facts (plus a whole lot else):
- Company name: Merkel
- Location: Germany, previously behind the Iron Curtain
- Distribution is handled in the US by dealers and not by the company itself
- Searching Merkel also brings up results for Angela Merkel, German Chancellor.
- That darn Iron Curtain and the beating the company took by war and reunification means that record keeping is unlikely to have been robust, extensive, or consistent. Even if good records exist within the company, it is very possible that they are not available online.
- Very few shotgun companies have serial number listings available online.
I did not find anything. So then I had to sit down with my dad and have The Talk. You know, the one where you explain
where information comes from that not everything is on the internet. The history of the company and the practices of the others make it pretty unlikely that the information is available online right now. Just because the information isn’t online doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I suggested that he call the American distributor and ask questions. I found him the contact info. He wrinkled his nose and asked me to show him the advanced search tab in Google, convinced that somehow, somewhere, the information was online.
And maybe it is. Somewhere. (Incidentally, if you happen to have the magic password to this particular question, please let me know.) But what struck me about this interaction is how unwilling my dad was to make a simple phone call and talk to someone with specialized knowledge on the topic. This is a man who spends significant time on a daily basis on the phone. Clearly, he is not afraid of a phone call. He didn’t just want the answer. He wanted the answer to be online.
What kind of implications does this have for librarians? For subject specialists? For learning in general? Patrons don’t want people who know things. They want machines that know things. What do we do about people who will spend hours online looking for something because it is “easier” than asking a question of a real person? How can we teach people if we never find out what they don’t know?
Both the woman in the Lands’ End story and my dad have pre-exisiting knowledge that do not serve them in their instances. The LE woman believed that if her CAPS LOCK search term didn’t find what she was looking for in the database, it didn’t exist. My dad believed that he simply needed to find a new way to search because the answer to his question must exist online. Neither was willing to try a different approach to solving their problem. To what lengths should we go to try to alter that frame of reference?