25 April 2013

Ask Better Questions and Tell Shorter Stories: The Secrets to Productive Encounters with Information Professionals

Last week I revealed that genealogists who visit libraries are well known for telling long, rambling stories instead of asking pointed questions. I've been on the long-suffering listener's end of those exchanges, so when I interact with librarians and other information professionals, I try to ask better questions and tell shorter stories. While I was in hot pursuit of the obituary I mentioned in yesterday's post, I deviated from my usual fend-for-myself strategy and decided to talk to a librarian first. I wasn't admitting defeat, just saving myself a lot of time.

Ever noticed how many newspapers have similar names? Tribune, Journal, Sun, Dispatch . . . you get the picture. When the name of the city isn't part of the newspaper's title, trying to find the correct bibliographic record in a huge library's catalog is often an exercise in frustration. And since my favorite library in the whole world has an entire room dedicated to newspapers and periodicals, going there and talking to someone who knows the collections just seemed like a no-brainer.

I don't have a verbatim transcript of what I said when I approached the reference desk, but it went something like this. Again, I've replaced the specific details with descriptions in square brackets, same as I did in yesterday's post.

Hi, I'm looking for an obituary for a woman who died on [month, day, and year of death] in [name of town], which is close to [name of nearby metropolitan area]. I've looked for [the major newspaper in that nearby metropolitan area] on ProQuest Historical Newspapers and on ProQuest Newsstand, but neither database covers [that major newspaper] at the time this woman died . . .

Okay, I told her a story, but it was mercifully short! Also, the story I told was about my search efforts, not about a person. I mentioned a specific item (the obituary) and the resources I'd already consulted (the two ProQuest databases). I didn't ramble on about the woman in the obituary, didn't say a word about her life or her family. I didn't even mention her name. Why would I? The name of the newspaper was relevant; the name of the woman in the obituary was not.

Once I'd finished my short story, the librarian told me that the newspaper I'd mentioned was available on microfilm. Woo hoo! I thought. She pointed out the self-serve cabinets, offered to come up with some alternative newspapers if I didn't find what I was looking for, then let me do my thing. Is that good service or what? She anticipated my information needs so quickly that I didn't even have to ask a question!

I could've cut to the chase and asked, "Do you have [this newspaper] on microfilm?" That's all I really needed to know. However, I truly believe that demonstrating initiative and self-sufficiency goes a long way with information professionals. I wanted to show the librarian that I knew what I was looking for and I'd already tried to use their tools (the ProQuest databases) to find it. If I'd decided to bore her with a long story instead--a story she didn't even need to hear--do you think she would've offered to show me alternative newspapers? I don't think so!

Next time you go to a library with a genealogical problem, ask better questions, tell shorter stories, and see what happens. I'd love to hear about your experiences with this technique!

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. We researchers need to remember that the Golden Rule applies. I may not be the information professional but I sometimes get a "long story" when people find out why I'm in a particular repository! Good reminder to talk research goal and not the person ad nauseam....to anyone....until asked, then they're fair game! Thanks! Looking forward to exploring more of your blog!