by Marylaine Block
One of the first questions I ask when I'm looking for information is, "Who cares?" Not "who cares" as in the unenthusiastic approach Dewey, of the library cartoon strip Unshelved <http://www.overduemedia.com/>, takes to answering patrons' questions, but as in "Who cares enough about this topic enough to collect or create large quantities of information about it?" "Who cares?" is a corollary to my first rule of information, "Go where it is."
When I was in library school, our reference class provided backup reference service for the state of Iowa. Among our most heavily used resources were The Encyclopedia of Associations and state and federal government directories. When a person planning his vacation asked us what greyhound racing tracks he'd find along the way from Omaha to New York, we got on the phone to the Greyhound Racing Association of America. When an inventor asked if there were events where he might display his toys to many manufacturers, we called the Toy Industry Association. A question about bike trails in Iowa sent us to the Iowa Department of Transportation, which offered a bicyclists' map of Iowa. When we were asked how many hunting licenses had been issued in Iowa, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources was our first stop, and the only one we needed.
When I taught research methods to business students, I got their attention by focusing on how these resources would help them with what they cared about most: landing a job. I'd tell them to research the company they were applying to: find out how well it's managed by comparing its financial ratios over the past several years with those of other companies in the same industry; familiarize yourself with its product lines and advertising, and read its annual reports, to find out what it values, and what it sees as its marketing edge -- quality? value? innovation? Be well-enough informed about the company, I'd tell them, that they could see where their skills would fit in, what their possible career path might be within it. Know enough about the company to be able to ask the interviewers intelligent questions.
After showing them the print sources, the library's business reference web site, and the full-text databases where they would find articles about the company, I always told them, "If you have any choice about when to schedule a job interview, schedule it for the afternoon. And then spend the morning in the local public library." Why? Because, while the business press may care moderately about your company, the local newspaper and the local library will care passionately about it; that company's doings are pivotal to the community's economy and way of life. The library almost certainly will have the newspaper backfile and an index. It will probably have a file of clippings and other information about local companies, and may well have books about long-established ones.
Many of those resources are now available online, of course, but the principle still applies: look for the people who care the most about a topic. Who collects data on the most frequently censored books? On librarians' salaries? On tax referenda for public libraries? The American Library Association. Who publishes suggested policies and marketing materials for libraries? ALA. Who keeps track of congressional funding and other legislative initiatives that impact libraries? ALA. Why? They have to. Nobody else cares enough to compile the information.
If you were looking for information about the 1992 Caterpillar strike, you'd probably look for articles in the business press, and in local newspapers for day to day coverage. But the people who cared most about the strike, who had the most at stake, were the workers, which means there's a good chance that highly detailed records were kept by the union local. Area social service agencies and churches who helped the workers' families during the five month long strike may also have kept historical files on the subject. Local libraries may have collected articles, photos, and oral histories of the event, as the University of Washington did for the Seattle World Trade Organization protests <http://content.lib.washington.edu/WTOweb/>.
We also need to consider that sometimes information exists that's buried inside people's heads and hasn't ever been written down. To get at that, we'd need to talk to the people who were part of the event. The union and the social service agencies have plenty of people with long memories who could talk about their experience with the strike. Local government officials from that period and federal labor negotiators are also likely resources. And of course, to get a complete and balanced picture, we'd want to talk to company executives as well.
If your child suffers from a rare disease like Aarskog Syndrome, you may have a hard time finding research in the medical literature, since the bulk of research funding tends to go to more common diseases. Your best source of information is likely to be an organization for that disease, like the Aarskog Syndrome Parents Support Group or The MAGIC Foundation for Children's Growth.
I like to refer patients' questions about their conditions to support groups in any case. Of course, I steer them to MedlinePlus and other excellent doctor-approved information first. But the question doctors cannot answer, in most cases, is, "What is it like to live with this condition?" Nor do doctors have much wisdom to offer on questions like, "How will my having this disease affect my family life?" "How much of a financial drain will this place on my family?" and "Is it normal to have this much pain and nausea after this procedure, or after taking this medication?" The only people who can answer these questions are people who have walked that particular road before you.
Now, it's true that people who care passionately about a subject may well have opinions which make it difficult for them to assemble a neutral collection of data. Interest groups, and even public agencies with a budget to defend, may not always draw a firm distinction between facts and their preferred policy, and may even gather data for the specific purpose of influencing public opinion and legislation; there's a real temptation to inflate numbers or ask survey questions in a way that generates the kind of answers survey writers want. Even those who intend to be objective can inadvertently skew results with denial and wishful thinking.
That's why we can't unquestioningly accept the information they provide. We have to ask how they got their numbers, what were their assumptions, how was the survey designed, and who did they ask? We need to ask ourselves if their data makes sense in comparison with what we know about total population figures -- if an eating disorders organization tells you x number of American girls have eating disorders, for instance, does that number make sense compared to the total number of American girls (and how are they defining eating disorders, anyway)?
We need to ask the most important question of all, the one we should ask about data on any public issue: To whose benefit? What will the organization or agency gain if this data guides the public discussion? (The reason you always ask business students to read both a company's 10-K report and the financial figures in the annual report is that a company might logically want the IRS to think it had a very bad year, and stockholders to think it had a very good one.)
We have to try to find outside verification for an organization's data. A citation search or link search can reveal what other people think about it. We can look at data provided by organizations with different views on the topic, and subject it to equally close scrutiny.
That may seem like a lot of trouble to take in order to be comfortable using an interested party's information, but in fact, we should be applying that kind of critical analysis to almost any information.
Our world is full of experts. They're ordinary people. Some of them are government employees, who collect data and offer public information on a day-to-day basis. Some of them are people who organize to share their knowledge and passion, for their work or their hobbies, for librarianship or lacrosse, for medicine or model trains, for selling guns or shooting them. It would be such a shame to not take advantage of all that expertise. And all we have to do to find it is ask, "Who cares?"
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Creators are not publishers, and putting the power to publish directly into their hands does not make them publishers. It makes them artists with printing presses. This matters because creative people crave attention in a way publishers do not. Prior to the internet, this didn't make much difference. The expense of publishing and distributing printed material is too great for it to be given away freely and in unlimited quantities -- even vanity press books come with a price tag. Now, however, a single individual can serve an audience in the hundreds of thousands, as a hobby, with nary a publisher in sight.
This disrupts the old equation of "fame and fortune." For an author to be famous, many people had to have read, and therefore paid for, his or her books. Fortune was a side-effect of attaining fame. Now, with the power to publish directly in their hands, many creative people face a dilemma they've never had before: fame vs fortune.
Clay Shirky. "Fame vs. Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content." http://shirky.com/writings/fame_vs_fortune.html
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2004.
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