:: Reflection ::

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?

5 thoughts on “:: Reflection ::

  1. I had a similar interaction with myself. I used to own 8 typewriters back in Seattle. Moving to Michigan necessitated selling 7 of them. So I put them up on craiglist one by one. Pictures and such.
    Now, I’m a pretty good googler. But I learned more from talking with people who bought my typewriters than I ever learned through years of internet research. I learned of all sorts of resources, tidbits, and also of communities which trolling garage sales and relatives, I could have been a part of if I had not stubbornly lived in a world where I thought I knew everything about my typewriters that anyone knew because I had googled extra well about them.

  2. linguomancer says:

    I find this really interesting because I’ve actually caught myself having similar thoughts before, but perhaps for different reasons. I think I tend to make assumptions about what’s included in a person’s job or what a person is likely to know, and to act or to not act on those assumptions. For example, in a library setting, this could be demonstrated by a patron deciding not to consult a librarian because she feels it’s not the librarian’s job to answer that sort of question, or that the librarian isn’t likely to know the answer. Maybe we need to work more on making sure patrons feel comfortable and confident about approaching librarians for any type of question at all, or maybe we need to make it clear what questions can be asked of librarians.

  3. Miss Masura says:

    You story ties in with a recently published book called Alive Enough. The author reflects on our relationships to our digital objects after hearing some kids at a museum discouraged about the laziness of a live turtle in its exhibit. The kids said that they wished they just put a robot turtle in the exhibit, because that would have been “alive enough.” I think this idea is fascinating; Google is alive enough for a lot of us.

  4. Tyson says:

    These sort of stories are an interesting antidote to all the “end of reference” talk that goes around so much. Obviously, reference is nothing like it used to be– but talking to people is still a good way to get information a lot of the time. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the stuff that _is_ on the Web can’t be gotten to through Google because it’s part of the “deep Web.” This includes almost all digital content from libraries and archives. Still plenty of “reference” work for librarians and archivists to do, I think!

  5. […] blinds them to the realities of the information landscape. I talked about this very briefly a while back on the blog, and it is also something that I have noticed among our students. This report specifically […]

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