Knowing how to find out

Many librarians, when asked what is involved in being a librarian besides checking out books, will say something to the effect of, “I don’t know the answers, but I know how to look them up.” Where a doctor has knowledge of medicine, a librarian has knowledge of how to find out knowledge of medicine. (Or how to organize and store knowledge of medicine for later retrieval, and how to connect people with the medical knowledge they need.)

An overarching problem in LIS, as I’ve said before in different ways, is that we have confused “knowing how to look it up” with technical knowledge of tools.

Knowledge of the tools is important, but is worth nothing without knowledge of the materials on which the tools operate. By analogy, knowing how to drive a car is of little value when you don’t know where you are and have no map and don’t know how to read one anyway, and you’re late to an appointment. To extend the analogy, it solves nothing in that situation to make technical improvements to the car, regardless of how fast you can make it go.

We are making vast technical improvements to the tools we use to find things, making them more powerful (in some respects) and easier to use. At the same time, however, we are gradually forgetting – by way of de-emphasis and de-prioritization – the general knowledge and domain-specific knowledge that enables us to do what we do at the reference desk.

If you’re a reference librarian, consider the thought-processes that are involved in answering a challenging reference question. Knowing the tools is helpful, obviously. But knowing what to do with them, based on your knowledge of the question’s subject area, is what gives you abilities that your patrons couldn’t pick up so easily. The knowledge that enables us to find things is knowledge of what Paul Otlet theorized as “the biblion,” the bibliographically interconnected world of information in documents and books. (The knowledge that enables us to interpret users’ information needs hermeneutically is another kind of knowledge altogether, but I won’t go into it here.) We can start with a couple of clues, infer a couple of different clues, and move from there into a rich inroad of relevant material, because we have knowledge of the field and the historical and conceptual relationships within it.

Actually, the initial exposition of the idea of knowledge of something versus knowledge of how to find something out, or at least the one our tradition goes back to, had nothing to do with knowledge of tools and was all about bibliographic knowledge, the ability to follow a thread from one place to another in the web of science and culture. It was a conversation between Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1775. As well as we know it, it went like this:

“No sooner,” says Boswell, “had we made our bow to Mr. Cambridge, in his library, than Johnson ran eagerly to one side of the room, intent on poring over the backs of the books. Sir Joshua observed (aside) ‘He runs to the books, as I do to the pictures; but I have the advantage. I can see much more of the pictures than he can of the books.’ Mr. Cambridge, upon this, politely said, ‘Dr. Johnson, I am going, with your pardon, to accuse myself, for I have the same custom which I perceive you have. But it seems odd that one should have such a desire to look at the backs of books.’ Johnson, ever ready for contest, instantly started from his reverie, wheeled about, and answered, ‘Sir, the reason is very plain. Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it.”

(This conversation was quoted by Andrew Keogh in his address to the American Library Association Annual Conference in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1907, and is reprinted in Speaking of Information: The Library Juice Quotation Book.)

I have an ambition to do some research that lays out the thought processes involved in answering complex reference questions, the knowledge and creativity that we bring to the table, over and above our understanding of search interfaces and index structures. If you would be interested in helping with research along these lines, please let me know.

7 comments on “Knowing how to find out

  1. The question that immediately comes to my mind is how well bibliographic literacy translates to literacy with hyperlinked materials. If Johnson were here today, would he be endlessly following trails of links? While having general and domain-specific knowledge enables better research, are we able to keep up with the explosion of new information available online? I wonder if this type of knowledge is being de-emphasized in favor of technical skills because we lack the time to “read the backs of books” enough to gain satisfactory mastery over current treatments of an increasingly broad array of topics.

  2. Mike,

    When I talk about knowledge of the “biblion,” I’m just referring to recorded knowledge. I definitely mean to include hyperlinked materials in that idea. In fact, I think it’s easiest to demonstrate how a reference librarian’s research skills come more from knowledge than anything else when we’re limited to using Google as a research tool, because it means that the variable of “knowledge of the tools” is controlled. My point is that subject knowledge and general knowledge is what enables us to understand the context of a link in a web page in order to know without going to it if it is leading in the right direction. Google and web directories give endless links. Without knowing something about the subject matter to begin with a person is really at sea. They will learn things, but may not get to their answer or may get to their answer from an oblique angle that results in a partial misunderstanding, and it will take too long.

    What is sparking this post for me is a recent experience answering a challenging reference question using Google. Someone needed to find the original French source of a quotation that is all over the place in English and attributed to a certain author. It was hard to find at first, and then I figured out that the common attribution is wrong. I used Google to find the real author and the original French text. Google is a great tool, but anybody can use it. But not everybody can do what reference librarians can do with it.

  3. hi — brings to my mind a former cataloging student who told me once when I asked about reference coursework these days, said that they are learning so many “things” or “tools” but do not really know what they are for or how to really use them. Guess it’s a related issue to your questions above. With so many new tools for use these days, it may become quite an overwhelming feeling for people more than ever –and how to manage it all. we can also go a bit further and then think about how an average user must feel today too.
    the conceptualization is key / cheers Karen W

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