Friday, March 21, 2008

For questions that matter, where would you turn?

One of the non-library for fun blogs I follow is PhotoBasement, a collection of hilarious photos that have me giggling at my desk for about 30 seconds. I was stopped in my tracks by this particular entry.
Okay, besides whether or not this person is serious or if it it a joke, what we have here is clearly a reference question: Why isn't my pregnant girlfriend getting her period? I tried to track down the original question, but it has been deleted. A thread on reddit came up.

My initial reaction was utter disbelief and a snort. I tried to imagine receiving this question at the reference desk, and playing the scene over in my head. Maintaining professional decorum would be a must, and relying on sources to answer the question that would be accessible to the patron. Health and Wellness Resource Center? Pregnancy for Dummies? What to Expect When You are Expecting? The more I played out the possible scene of events in my head, the more I came to the conclusion that perhaps this question would not come to the reference desk. That tools like WikiAnswers and Yahoo!Answers and AskMetaFilter allow questions of a sensitive, private, and even embarrassing nature to be asked and answered in an anonymous environment.

And then, there is the librarian who happens to be a Red Sox fan looking for information on where Sox fans generally sit at Sox Yankees games. Very important information. Where did I go? AskMetaFilter, because I trust the quality there, emailed members of the Red Sox in NYC Meetup group that I lurk on. In short, I didn't turn to any singular authoritative source in print or online. I asked around, as I took the answer to be part of community knowledge. I asked my boss (a Yankees fan), I figured out where the visitors dugout is. I understand that it is hard to separate myself from my skill set, and my question and our soon-to-be-a-father's are quite different, but we both turned to the same tools to find answers to our questions.

There has been some chatter about this issue in the blog world, and even a Slam the Boards Day! (which I like the idea of using to further promote the public library). I found that Jessamyn West sums up the debate quite nicely,

Many questions asked on these sorts of sites aren't even reference questions. What will the librarian tell you when you try to figure out whether your boyfriend becoming more distant is a prelude to breaking up? Or how good is their advice when figuring out why your fridge is making that noise. Or what are they likely to tell you when you ask about good games for your grandfather with early Alzheimers? Pointing to reference sources is fine but sometimes human answers by other non-specialist humans can succeed when pointing to a restaurant review book can fail. Sometimes you need to have a conversation about the topic, not get a list of resources. These sites help that conversation to happen.

Granted, most of the time the questions being asked in Yahoo!Answers or WikiAnswers are somewhat, well silly. Some are amusing (just search for librarian. I am sure I could contribute volumes to the question of should i ask the librarian out?) But, then again, sometimes these questions to trickle into the reference desk. And in the end, it is about connecting someone with a need to the piece of information that will get them through their day.