FAQ Check

Friday, August 01, 2008


We've all become semi-experts in using search engines and search terms to get information on the web. But how easy is it to ask a question in normal language and get the right answer? Several new services are trying to do just that. OTM producer Mark Phillips set out to get some answers.

Comments [21]

Gail Enid Zimmer from Fair Lawn, New Jersey

As a reference librarian with 43 years of experience I had to say "Huh?" when I heard this! But the other side of the coin is that many libraries are putting more money into books in high demand and DVDs and taking it away from reference materials because they believe that library users prefer to get their information from the Internet. If that were the case, what would be the need for these non-library information services? I think librariies need better PR, and recent articles in major newspapers about increased library use as a result of our recession have reminded people that libraries exist to serve a variety of needs.

Mar. 22 2009 11:07 PM
Bill Pardue from Arlington Heights, IL

I'd love to see a follow-up about just how much IS being done in libraries (although I think the comments have been great here). About 500 reference librarians from 42 states and 7 countries just met for a "Reference Renaissance" conference in Denver earlier this week (http://www.vrd.org), and we even discussed ChaCha.

Of course, will ChaCha even continue? Tech Crunch and Information Week just reported on some potentially troubling changes:




Still, if ChaCha fails, some other similar service will probably step into the breach. Reference librarians are discussing is whether our trade in quick answers is basically going away. Perhaps. However, we're very good at digging for the "hard" answers, finding content that Google just can't find (like demographics from GIS systems) and information beyond the range of a quick answers service like ChaCha. A reference librarian can "hack away" at a question, making calls and referrals that a ChaCha guide just wouldn't have time for. A librarian can be more of a "personal research assistant." Of course, we can still do the quick stuff, too!

Aug. 07 2008 01:41 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

When I was about 4, my mother, our next door neighbor Ruth Johns and Mrs. Ewer, North Haven's Children's Librarian (who lived across the street), talked while I fell asleep standing against Mom. I awoke watching she and Ruth walk away and wondered how I could be leaning against her while she walked away.

In this way my mother taught me to trust my librarian as I would she.

Connecticut librarians were the first to stand up to National Security Letters. Yahoo shrinks from the Chinese! As for Cha-Cha, sorry it’s wrong technology for me. I don't text message.

I've been batting my head against a story I know but have lost the documentation on to research the upshot and I am so glad you librarians shook me awake again as to with whom to start my search. No search engine was helping.

Aug. 07 2008 02:23 AM
Michael Braun Hamilton from Portland, OR

Famous: as others have mentioned, calling and waiting on the phone isn't the only choice for library reference anymore - a lot of libraries do chat/email reference now and more and more are setting up SMS gateways as well.

Aug. 05 2008 03:31 PM

my experience w/ Yahoo answers is that the quality of answers are pretty pathetic.

Just for fun, here's a link to the infamous Q&A lifted from yahoo answers for "how is babby formed?" you can do a google search for "how is babby formed" too.


basically, you find that when you ask any objective question to the public, half the people who answers would not know what they are talking about - which is exactly what you would expect. so going to yahoo answers mean you'll be provided with ~50% uninformed answer. one is usually better off doing a search on the wikipedia or consult forum/groups w/ the expertise.

Aug. 04 2008 06:51 PM
Famous from bed

Great story Mark Phillips.

I don't mean to insult our public library system which I hold in the highest regard, but waiting on hold for ten minutes (or even 2 minutes) is not a viable alternative in this day and age to texting or just leaving a voicemail and then getting an answer back by text which can be read at your leisure.

And the adds on Cha Cha aren't pesky. They come after the answer.

Aug. 04 2008 04:44 PM
Mark Phillips from WNYC Producer

Glad to see all this discussion - just thought I'd chime in here. I was trying to be facetious when I said "god forbid a trip to the library." In fact, I love the library! Also, I actually had two lengthy conversations with a librarian at the New York Public Library's "Ask NYPL" service, which is to my knowledge the oldest library answering service. Ultimately I couldn't include it in this piece because of time constraints and because I felt like I should focus on these newer services. [I also had to cut out a section on the now-defunct Google Answers]

I asked "Why Are Barns Frequently Painted Red," on three services and it produced some interesting results:

On “Cha Cha” - I got an answer in about a minute that was actually pretty good. [“Farmers often added rust to their paint in order to prevent fungi growth.”]

On “Yahoo! Answers”: I found the thread within a minute and the top answers were more in depth than Cha Cha and pretty informative. [http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=AmXdjB34p_jIGR9XiSFmYpAjzKIX;_ylv=3?qid=20071020160517AAQ8I2L]

With “Ask NYPL”: I asked at the end of a long interview and after 10 minutes on hold, the librarian read me a short article called “Why are Barns Painted Red,” which explained that ox blood was used because it was cheap; no mention of the anti-fungal properties. In the end, I’m not sure which answer is most correct.

Anyway, keep the comments coming!

Aug. 04 2008 03:06 PM
JayeL from San Francisco

I was disappointed, as I see many others were 1) that you would have an article on Yahoo Answers that did not include similar services such as the fate of Google Answers and Public Library hotlines; and 2) when your comentator said "god forbid, a trip to the Library." He needs to get online and see what libraries offer for free form the comfort of his own home. Here is one of the many articles describing what real libraries are like (as opposed to the mythical old fashioned libraries your commentator was familiar with). http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-07-28-library-evolution_N.htm

While I think that Yahoo Answers is an interesting concept, I think it needs to be a lot more moderated and have some verification of the answers as part of the service. Everyone has different and valuable experiences and information to contribute, but information has to be accurate and verifiable if someone is going to act on it.

And, yes, I am also a librarian.

Aug. 04 2008 01:46 PM
Colleen Dazé from New Jersey

Mr. Phillips: You are missing out on the best information service in the world if you don't ask a librarian. Librarians will work with you to understand your question and quickly give you a reliable and unbiased answer. Librarians email, IM, chat in real time and answer the phone quickly and ready to help. Don't wait: program your favorite library reference desk phone numbers into your mobile phone and bookmark their web sites! Many states have live chat with a librarian: in New Jersey, the Q & A NJ chat library service administered by the NJ State Library answers questions 24/7, www.qandanj.org .
Am I an NJ librarian -- yes!

Aug. 04 2008 11:53 AM

To parrot Ms. Sue Steinke, check out the movie Desk Set, from 1957. Deals explicitly with the issue of computers replacing people doing this type of work and the inherent benefits you lose in the process.

Aug. 03 2008 10:13 PM
Donna Worth from Whitehall, Montana

This service already exits with no pesky advertisements and with reliable answers. Many, many libraries provide a web-based 24/7 reference service at no charge through QuestionPoint, which is a collaborative project of the Library of Congress and OCLC and is staffed by volunteer librarians across the country. You can find links to this service on library websites. The collaborative group my library belongs to in Montana is called Ask Montana! at http://askmontana.org/, however that link will take you to the entire network of reference librarians, not just Montana Librarians.
Many,if not most, libraries also answer phone requests for reference question also. Another point in favor of librarians is that they are trained to not let their personal feelings influence their response to a question.
We aren't your Grandmothers library.
Donna Worth

Aug. 03 2008 09:17 PM
Pankaj Mehra from San Jose, CA

This program took me back to my grad school days, before Mosaic and Web, back when "Internet" was about email, UNIX talk, FTP and Gopher. There used to be this email application called Oracle that routed questions (to grad students mostly) randomly. Its quality was not very good. My experience these days is indeed different -- LinkedIn for instance provides such great experiences that when candidate Obama had a question about how to fix America's education system, he asked, well, everyone on LinkedIn. The answers were eye-opening and better than any debate on TV, and even better than NPR's or BBC's coverage. Democrats and Republicans alike responded and I felt I was in touch.

The lesson: Human question-answering systems can be even more fun when you let all the people see all the questions and all the answers.

And I am all for intelligent routing using computers, glad to see the machines go back to being the slaves, if only for now.


Aug. 03 2008 06:32 PM
James Waters from Phoenix

Answering questions is a task that has and will always be performed, by individuals (or computers) with varying capabilities to provide sufficient responses.

The real challenge though, is to ask the right question.

For this, we will always need skilled mentors and teachers.

Aug. 03 2008 05:33 PM

The phrase "God forbid a trip to the library" reveals that Phillips is not a library user or hasn't been since he was in school. Libraries have offered phone reference services almost since phone service was available. Has he never seen "Desk Set"? If one's local library doesn't offer email or IM reference, then one can use online services such as the Internet Public Library. It's rather sad to see someone who's in the information business so unaware of longstanding information services.

Also, Phillips must have been looking at different Yahoo!Answers pages than the ones I've seen. Most of the answers are inane, and I sometimes think the one rated as the best got that rating because the questioner was relieved that a semi-helpful answer was offered at all.

Aug. 03 2008 04:56 PM

Others have posted my suggestion to ask a reference librarian, but I want to add that this recommendation is based on expectations of quality and correctness, not something one can assume with this "answering service," as Mark pointed out. Librarians know the resources available to find information and may use resources that are not the most obvious ones. Some reference librarians are also subject matter experts and they have a "mind map" of the subject that does not depend on reliance on algorithms built on certain engineering assumptions and not necessarily with knowledge of all sources available or relevant. In addition, librarians are able to evaluate the information they retrieve for relevance, authenticity, and feasibility, not something one can expect from services like "Cha Cha."
"Cha Cha" also sounds like the network of subject matter experts called "About" that already exists and is also a free service. These people keep up with their topics and you can (usually) rely on them for the most up-to-date information. They are not just filtering info on the WWW which is itself filtered information (via an algorithm).

Aug. 03 2008 04:05 PM
Mary from Hawthorne, NJ

Ug! Spelling error - If you're interested!

Aug. 03 2008 11:00 AM
Mary from Hawthorne, NJ

I have always called the library when I am looking for information. Even a spelling word! Librarians are a great source and will sometimes give you a list of books for follow-up, if your interested.

Aug. 03 2008 10:59 AM
Roland from Miami, FL

Any time OTM mentions Web 2.0, they should be required to play this: http://www.somethingawful.com/flash/shmorky/babby.swf

That is the true Web 2.0 experience.

Aug. 03 2008 04:39 AM
Gar from Philadelphia, PA

"Or God forbid a trip to the library."

As Rebecca pointed out, ask your librarian. Most libraries don't even require the trip. Call, email or IM.

(Great segment!)

Aug. 02 2008 05:08 PM
Rebecca from Grand Rapids, MI

I am a guide for ChaCha, and although my teaching career is more lucrative, it gives me a fun reason to look up random information. I recommend applying for a position if you also enjoy learning about anything, and you have some time to spare.

Aug. 02 2008 02:05 PM
Sue Steinke from Dayton, OH

There is nothing new about what these "answer" services do--reference librarians have been doing it for decades. Not only that, we do it impartially, ethically, and without commercial interest. And we are Real People. As a matter of fact, I imagine many of the Real People behind the online answer services are...displaced reference librarians.

Aug. 02 2008 01:43 PM

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