Classic post from the archive:The reference interview in a scientific research setting

(I'm posting some classics from my old blog while I'm on a much needed vacation)
This originally appeared February 26, 2006
The reference interview in a scientific research setting: question pairs establish intellectual identity
(This is thinking out loud stuff not approved scientific paper stuff ;) )
In library school, we're told that we don't need to know the subject, we just need to know how to find it. Yet in real life reference situations, we see customers making quick decisions on whom to ask and what to ask based on some assumptions of common ground. Librarians try to establish common ground in the reference interview by asking open questions first, then closed questions, then confirming questions. On the other hand, librarians with some scientific background know that there's a secret handshake thing that goes on when talking to a scientist customer -- she'll test you and if you don't answer correctly, then she'll ask an easier question or stop trying. Librarians are not expected to know the field, but we are expected to play the game. How we respond to the answers we get from our questions or the questions receive are key establishing common ground with the customer. Those of us with science or military training do this without even thinking about it.

Yesterday I read a really interesting article on establishing or altercasting intellectual identity through questioning in intellectual discussions (Tracy & Naughton, 1994). The article was specifically about brown bags or colloquia in a university communications department, but I think there's something of use here for public services librarians in research settings. The authors break down the facets of intellectual identity that are "made visible through questioning practices" into three parts 1) knowledgeability 2) originality (are you just reiterating everything that's been done) 3) intellectual sophistication ("recognize the intellectual tradition within which they work, to grant its limitations while articulating its advantages, and to reveal awareness of what is entailed by and inconsistent with their framework") (Tracy & Naughton, 1994). The lexical choices of the questioner and question recipient place them in a framework (these are smaller than disciplines -- these are what methodologies are used, what schools, what invisible colleges...)

My thought is that while the reference librarian is trying to find out what the scientist needs, the scientist is questioning the librarian's awareness of the appropriate framework. Also, the questions the librarian asks can be taken as challenges to the intellectual identity -- after all, the scientist has built this up over their career.

So -- if you come from the same intellectual tradition as the scientist (are homophilous) then you probably won't have as much to share because you'll know what they know. OTOH, if you aren't sophisticated enough to understand their tradition, you won't get to the heart of the problem. Hmmm... have to stop this wandering now -- homework to do!


Acknowledgments: Thanks again to Pengyi for assigning the article and to Lois for thoughtful comments via personal communication. Also, to a senior chemistry librarian and a library student at Maryland who provided food for thought.

Tracy, K., & Naughton, J. (1994). The identity work of questioning in intellectual discussion. Communication Monographs, 61(4), 281-302.

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