If you've read my blog at all, you probably know I'm a Taylor (1962,
In fact, in a recent href="http://scienceblogs.com/christinaslisrant/2009/06/librarian_basics_the_reference.php">post
I talked about going from a visceral need to a compromised
need. This is a central idea in library science. So when I
saw this article in my feeds today, I had to pounce on it:
J. (in press). Compromised need and the label effect: An examination of
claims and evidence Journal
of the American Society for Information Science and Technology,
1-6 DOI: href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/asi.21129">10.1002/asi.21129
Let's look at this paper, its claims, and discuss it a bit, shall we?
As a reminder, compromised need is what comes out of the information
seeker's mouth or is typed by her hands when interfacing with an
information retrieval system (here, an information retrieval system can
have a librarian as the interface - and that librarian can be there in
person or connected via some electronic means - or can be a web search
page or research database search page, or even a book index).
The idea is that what actually comes out might be very
different from the actual need because there are labeling problems, you
might not know what you need or how to describe what is
needed, and because you change what you say based on what interface
you've got and what you think
the system can do with your input (see for example, my comps reading
from Wolfram (2008) in which the searches were different for two
systems, with similar google boxes).
Nicolaisen starts by talking about the importance of this concept - the
compromised need - and how it wasn't really used for much until the
1980s, when researchers started to use cognitive and psychological
research in LIS. Apparently though, this theory has
never been validated as such and tested to see if it holds water.
It's basically been taken at face value and reference
training for librarians has changed accordingly. His point in
this article is to compare Taylor's claims to empirical
studies that track reference questions received to see if there is
support for "compromised need."
In describing the claims, I think Nicolaisen says some things that seem
obvious, but do not match with my experience or what I've seen
in articles on evaluating reference service in the public library. The
first of these is that this compromised thing makes sense for areas
outside of one's expertise but makes no sense for a known-item search
or someone with a "verificative need". He says:
a verificative need, the inquirer is in possession of bibliographical
data, and if the information need is a conscious topical need, the
inquirer is in possession of terms and concepts necessary for
expressing the required information. However, when confronting the
intermediary, inquirers allegedly tend to specify their needs using
other terms and concepts, which mitigate or misrepresent their true
information needs. It almost seems like the inquirers deliberately pull
the wool over the eyes of the intermediaries, thus making it much
harder for them to provide the desired information.
He seems very skeptical (the way this is written) and questions how
often this happens. But actually, there are many instances when this is
indeed the case. For example, when the information need is on
a sensitive subject or if the patron doesn't have any faith that the
information system can respond to that request. He lists a
pile of references in which this is taken as a given, and found none in
which this idea is questioned. Indeed, in the literature
reviews everyone apparently relies on a study by Ingwersen that
essentially had a sample size of 2 - which is ok for qualitative work,
but it's not, by definition, generalizable.
When looking through the evidence provided in the studies he
reviewed, he found that only a very small proportion of the
questions required extensive interviews and likewise very few of the
questions changed from the initial question after the reference
interview. He ends the article by describing what's needed for
induction - going from some observations to a universal statement -
including large sample size, works in different settings, no
conflicting information. Further he calls this pseudo
scientific because it faces unresolved problems and it is accepted
without question and testing (whoa... them's fightin' words)
I think Nicolaisen's sample of literature is weak, to be honest. Many,
many public libraries have evaluated reference service and time and
again they've shown that failure to do a proper reference interview
leads to poor results. No interview -> few questions
are answered correctly -> there is something in the interview
process that allows the system to make a better match with the need
than without it. The patron could have perfectly specified the need -
but if it is not understood by the system, then they won't get the
answer. How about studies of search engine logs?
Clearly the needs are imperfectly specified because the
system returns documents matching the terms, and yet the user enters a
I was one of the student investigators on a study by Kaske
and Arnold of virtual reference services. We did a typical
Hernon and McClure study and it was the same old thing - librarians who
asked what we needed and checked back to see if what they gave us was
appropriate were the only ones who successfully answered the question.
It's not that we weren't saying what we needed, it's that it
couldn't be interpreted correctly most of the time in isolation. Just
because interviews were not performed does not mean that the questions
did not require an interview! It is often the case that someone will
come in for a specific book, but really have a much bigger problem, and
that you can only address this bigger issue through an interview.
Of course my experience and the myriad studies in the state of Maryland
do not contradict what Nicolaisen found in the studies he looked at;
however, I think he picked the wrong studies. He was only looking for
studies that specifically looked at before and after statements of
information need. It's not that it's not studied and questioned so it's
pseudoscience, it's that it is part of all of the studies that we do in
certain areas of our field.
My arguments are somewhat confused, but basically:
1) studies showing importance of reference interviews to answering
patrons' questions are relevant to this topic
2) reports that interviews aren't required do not say if/how the
patron's actual problems were solved or if the patrons were satisfied
with the service
3) people put 2-3 words into a search engine - that's it - there's no
way that can perfectly specify their information need
And I'm going to stop writing now, as I stopped saying anything new a
R. S. (1962). Process of asking questions. American
Documentation, 13(4), 391-396.
Taylor, R. S. (1968).
Question-negotiation and information seeking in libraries.
College & Research Libraries, 29(3),
D. (2008). Search characteristics in
different types of Web-based IR environments:
are they the same? Information Processing &
Many, many public libraries have evaluated reference service and time and again they've shown that failure to do a proper reference interview leads to poor results.
If you're talking about a body of literature here, then it definitely seems odd that the paper you're talking about didn't review it.
I can think of an alternative explanation, though this is not my field so I may be way off base. But couldn't interviews serve not to clarify the need but simply to improve the search strategy? In other words, couldn't "failure to do a proper reference interview" mean "failure to make full use of the trained librarian"?
I'm not sure that's an alternative explanation. In the standard transaction the librarian and the patron work together to make the need explicit in the reference interview (this is why we read Shrum and Rogers & Kincaid) and then the librarian selects an information resource, how to query it, and enters the query. "Failure to make full use..." blames the patron. These studies are all that the patron has come to the desk to ask a librarian for help and the librarian failed to answer an answerable question. Typical example p: "Do you have any information on china?" l:"here's a book on what life was like in the Ming Dynasty"... p (walks away and says to friend):"but I wanted to see if the mark on this heirloom meant that it was worth money?"...
I enjoyed your rant and think you are right that there is a real phenomenon underlying the meme 'compromised need.' Certainly calling it pseudo-science is extreme and un-insightful.
I agree that 'blaming the patron' is not an alternative explanationâit simply focuses on one side of the problem. As professionals we undertake the responsibility to assess the information needs of our patrons and don't blame them when we don't comprehend what they want... we seek clarification. The point is not to blame the patron but we do need to recognize that sometimes questions will not be well put.
Even outside of what you might call sensitive areas of inquiry, people simply do not always want to share their business with figures of authorityâeven benign figures of authorityâeven when it is in their own interest to do so. We would like to know the extent to which the compromised information need is a cultural artifact and the extent to which it is simply a part of the human condition. We would like to know the fundamental limits to defining and meeting information needs. We know the physical limits to conveying information (thanks to Shannon and Weaver) but we would like to know the psychological and cognitive limits as well. These may be theoretical questions but that does not make them non-scientific.
These studies are all that the patron has come to the desk to ask a librarian for help and the librarian failed to answer an answerable question.
"I think Nicolaisen's sample of literature is weak, to be honest. Many, many public libraries have evaluated reference service and time and again they've shown that failure to do a proper reference interview leads to poor results."
Dear Christina. I think your way of arguing against my article is weak, to be honest :-) Your implicit claim about me having overlooked or ignored "many, many" studies appears to be easily documented by references. That is, of course, only if you are right about my sample being so weak. If you, on the other hand, are wrong, it is of course quite difficult to come up with additional references that should have been included. Failing to provide just a single reference to document your claim ("many, many") is not a hallmark of academia. Some (but not me) might even call it pseudoscience ;-)
An empirical study that shows change in information need mental model of study participants from initial presentation of need is:
Cole, Line, Leide, Large & Beheshti, 2007, JASIST, 58(13), 2092-2104