Sunday, October 15, 2006

To give the fish, or to teach people how to fish

I wanted to blog about this separately. Also from Feral Library Tales (on the future of libraries):
A major theme is the ‘service’ part of information. Do we instantly gratify to help the client get what they need or do we teach to enable them to learn how to get more. (You know the old “give someone a fish and he eats for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat forever....or something like that.) Increasingly we are faced with clients that want the piece of information they want and nothing else.

This dilemia is usually faced by Public Libraries and arguably less by of Special Libraries.

Special Libraries serve a very specific clientele, whose clients specifically pay for the library's service so that they don't have to search on their own in the first place. Public libraries, on the other hand, serve a wide range in terms of customer segments as well as functions (handling enquiries is just one aspect). As a result, we (in public libraries) are not able to fully anticipate the information requests of customers. Hence, much of the advisory and enquiry questions are acted on the fly. Obviously, the stress comes when you have to handle indepth enquiries that take up about two hours to fulfill (because customers expect answers and not merely citations), and you don't have time for other tasks.

My views are that:
  • We ALL live in an age of "instant gratification" and will continue to do so. Unless Internet Technology collapses, and/ or Google closes down, people will tend to want 'answers now';
  • Even if the customer knows how to fish, they will still want to find cheaper, faster and "good enough" ways because they'd rather be doing something else.

So to TB's question:
"Do we instantly gratify to help the client get what they need or do we teach to enable them to learn how to get more."
I think we have to do both. We still need to "teach people how to fish", but in order to have them want to stay and listen, we must "give them the fish". We may have to give lots of fishes before they'd be willing to hear what we have to say next.

Most library customers these days will search for information on the Internet, and then ask friends or colleagues before they ask librarians (if they do at all). Suppose they approach librarians after that. Instead of getting direct information or answers, they get more instructions, which in their minds could be just more of the same of what they have tried to do earlier.

This is of course a simplistic case but I feel it's the way things increasingly are. That's why I say libraries have to do both -- we "give the fish" (within reasonable means as defined by charter and mission) and then they might be more open to us showing them "how to fish".

Before we tell customers how to access XYZ database, we ought to first show them what is in the database by giving them not the citation, but the full-text or a relevant extract. Only then can will they be more receptive to instructions on how to access the database. They may not even try it for themselves the next time they have a request. They may choose to ask a librarian instead of attempting a search on their own. Well, is that necessarily a bad thing if they find that librarians are more efficient and effective in using the database? : )

Even when citing book titles, we should do more than just cite title, author and Call Number. Where we can, we ought to extract relevant passages with page numbers, or a synopsis, or list the content page. That way, they will have more reasons to make a trip to the library to borrow the physical item. If we merely cite book titles, we are making an assumption that they can infer the relevance of the book content from the title alone. That is often not the case. I believe customers will ask in their minds, "How do I know the information I seek is in the book, and what if it's a wasted trip to the library?"

I'd like to think that it's about showing our goodwill and also expertise, and subtly, showing them how and why libraries and librarians are still relevant. It's also about customer service. Our competition is Google and The Age of Instant Gratification.

If we can't make a better cheese, then we have to find better ways to move the cheese (while juggling with other taks) to customers -- in the manner in which require.

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  1. This is a perpetual issue that we face at the museums too - how to make content accessible without dumbing it down too excessively. Either way, you are going to leave somebody high and dry.

    The problems I see are several fold.

    1) Many users being spoon fed throughout most of their formative years in education.

    2) Being too much of a society which values instant gratification over hard and prolonged work.

    3) The curse of the internet age - expecting all answers to be hyperlinked from where you are, or available at the touch of a button.

  2. I forgot to add earlier. They want cheap, fresh and *censored*.... If you know hokkien, it will be "ai pi, ai chi, ai tua liap *body part*"


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