Sunday, March 13, 2011

Scary Librarians and Serial Killers or: The Pitfalls and Perils of Social Knowledge Production and Access

Looking at the list of different topics they all seemed interesting, but then I ran into a realization during the readings that led me to choose the connections between Social Q&A sites and libraries as the topic for this post. The word "social" should probably have tipped me off, but I didn’t realize until halfway through Dr. Gazan’s article that sites such as Yahoo! Answers can provide far more than just a quick response one’s question. I’ve always wondered why such sites remained popular despite the fact that one has to wade through an ocean of off-topic or plain incorrect answers to find any useful information, overlooking the possibility that "useful" does not necessarily equal "factual", and that the process of sharing and connecting may actually be more important than the eventual answer. This is what Leibenluft describes as a combination of social networking and reference tool, yet the system of such Q&A sites, based on user contributions and seemingly built around opinions rather than facts, appears completely at odds with traditional reference services offered by libraries. Still, it seems that both systems could benefit from adopting some of each other’s successful aspects in order to offer a more complete experience to their users, combining the speed and connectivity of social networking with the reliability and trustworthiness of libraries.

Since I’m already somewhat familiar with Yahoo! Answers I decided to take a look at the social Q&A site Dr. Gazan mentions in his article,, and to carry over the balance of unfamiliarity I also chose a library site completely new to me, in this case the Seattle Public Library. Starting from the two homepages, the different focus of the sites was instantly apparent. The first thing that jumped at me on Answerbag’s main page is a long empty space to submit my question. Clearly they cut right to the chase and offer information the quickest and easiest way. Everything surrounding that empty box waiting to be fed my question is aimed at highlighting the purpose of the site… not only to inform, but to connect. There is a leader-board listing the most prolific "answer-people" (including assigned levels such as "maestro"), which seems to whisper "you can be on this list too! contribute, contribute!" in my ear. There is a list of current Q&A activity, which displays little avatars and username before the actual question, as well as a list of poplular questions. There is a poll, links to a forum, blog, and discussions, all of which emphasize the importance of sharing and community, inviting visitors to feel comfortable among others just like them, who may need answers, but can also provide them.

comparison: Answerbag's main page & Seattle Public Library's help page

where would you prefer to ask your question or find your answers?

The Seattle Public Library homepage on the other hand is informative, but not intuitive to someone seeking answers, quick or otherwise. After some clicking around I found a small "Get Help" section at the very bottom of the "Using the Library" page, which featured two possibly helpful services to an information seeker, "Ask a Librarian" and online homework help by "expert tutors". The library offers several ways to directly contact a librarian for help, including chat, email, and text messaging, yet it’s not very clear if that means help in finding library materials or answering just any kind of random question. The online homework help suffers from a similar problem, as those services obviously are geared toward a particular group (students) and limited to topic related to schoolwork. Although all pages are accompanied by picture of smiling people using laptops or phones, one doesn’t get the sense that there is any kind of cooperation or sharing going on here. This information highway is clearly one-way only, with experts providing factual information to a particular kind of questions limited by scope and topic.

It seems that these two systems are too different to even compare, let alone find common ground from which to use each others strengths to improve their overall function, but the most important requirements are already in place. Both systems have an online presence and a diverse user-base of people who visit them (online or in person) at least in part to find answers to their questions. Besides an online catalog Seattle Public Library also offers e-books and other digital media through their websites, including recommendations, themed book lists, and podcasts, so the potential for a more interactive connection with their users is already in place.

part of Seattle Public Library's online presence... recommendations & more

By offering the possibility of asking questions anonymously through chat, the library has already adopted one of the Q&A sites major advantage, the ability to ask any question, no matter how weird or embarrassing, without the fear of being of judgment or other consequences reaching beyond one’s online personality. As Leibenluft points out, this aspect is easily abused not only by those asking questions, but in the case of communities such as Answerbag, also by users providing pointless, offensive, or plain wrong answers. Yet as Dr. Gazan describes, this anonymity is also what makes Q&A sites not only popular but a powerful tool, despite their drawbacks when it comes to accuracy and trustworthiness. How many of us have been reluctant to walk up to a reference librarian even for the most harmless question, simply because we wanted to avoid feeling stupid for something that was easily answered? (or was it the chilling stare from across the desk spelling doom for everyone who dared to approach? just kidding, reference librarians are awesome and not scary at all... mostly)

Adding social media components such as a forum, including usernames and avatars, or the ability to comment on site features such as recommendations, might be a first step. Displaying and maybe archiving "Ask a Librarian" interactions in an open format similar to social Q&A sites rather than a closed chat could allow other users to comment or weight in with their own opinions, supplementing the expert advice of librarians. This would also introduce a factor that so far has barely if at all been touched by library reference, yet constitutes a major draw of communities such as Answerbag: the kind of information that expands beyond facts and figures and depends on personal experience and opinions. For example, one of the questions listed in Answerbag’s "Most Popular" list asks: "Who is the most demented (famous) serial killer?"

example of a Q&A interaction on Answerbag

This is a topic few people would approach a reference librarian with, or even ask by phone or e-mail. Yet “Freaky_chick” obviously felt perfectly comfortable to ask it in a somewhat anonymous setting, and the replies of over 150 people indicate that she wasn’t the only one interested in an answer. This question could certainly benefit from accurate information on serial killers, which a librarian could provide, but it also clearly benefits from opinions (hopefully not personal experience in this case), for example why Ted Bundy may be worse than Jeffrey Dahmer, and maybe even thoughts that may relate to the original query but also pose new questions, such as if Hitler should be counted as a serial killer or not. The latter, for example, was not mentioned at all in the Wikipedia article I used to look up the name of a second serial killer, and a librarian might not have considered it in her reply to a reference question, so this is an example of the combination of various viewpoints offering new perspectives on the original topic. Unlike Duguid’s suggestion that uncoordinated contributions by many users to one task can lead to fragmentation that ultimately lowers the quality of the whole, the process he calls granularity can lead to positive results in the Q&A environment, allowing for a variety of opinions to come together to shape a broad, multi-layered picture of possible answers.

Of course, it won’t always work this way, and more often that not you’re simply end up with comments that are clearly unhelpful (such as "all serial killers are demented") or incorrect ("OJ Simpson"). Other questions call for facts rather than opinions… rather than feeling enlightened by new perspectives, someone asking for the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1998 would very likely be confused and possibly annoyed by a large number of different replies. Another aspect that sites such as Answerbag usually don’t address is the possibility of providing sources for further information", such as links to relevant websites providing more in-depth information, or even recommendations for books or other offline material on the topic. Those are two areas where trained librarians could definitely add a new dimension to the Q&A process, as experts with the ability to either provide facts or recognize and isolate correct information from a multitude of contributions, and as knowledgeable providers or additional sources or recommendations.

With an environment in place that encourages interaction and community, and the expertise and trustworthiness users expect from a library, a combination of social Q&A and traditional reference could possibly overcome the limitations of both the purely user-based and mostly un-moderated system of the latter and the rigid top-down structure of the latter. In the end what counts most may not be the “correct” question to any given answer (most of which users could probably find with reasonable easy on Wikipedia or elsewhere anyway), but the ability to help users understand that answer, and enable them to pursue it further on their own. Because at least to me, that’s what both libraries and social Q&A sites in their own unique ways have always been… not a place to find a quick answer, but a starting point to explore a question or topic on my own.