Thursday, December 13, 2007


Jessamyn West, in her December 10, 2007, blogpost, commented on a Slate article about Yahoo Answers. That was my introduction to that site. For a reference librarian, it's pretty interesting stuff. I signed up and started answering questions. My library is a specialized one, so there's only a limited range of reference questions. The questions on Yahoo Answers are closer to those asked at a public library desk; I find the broader range a nice change.

My observations after just a few days (also posted, more or less the same, as a response to West's post:)

Many of the questions on Yahoo answers could be answered with an online search (Barney or some other one -- see my 10Oct07 post for use of Barney.) I'm not sure why those posting didn't try that -- but, then, maybe they did, but had little success due to misspellings, which are surprisingly common in the queries. As the old question goes, how can you find a spelling in a dictionary if you can't spell the word?

Many of the questions are "ready reference" -- librarian talk for a reference question that can be answered with a quick look-up. A phone call to a local library would seem to work as well as a posting. That service would seem to be one in need of some marketing by libraries.

Just as in a public library, some questioners online want all their homework done for them, including assignments that ask for essays, not just factoids. One responder to a question in the former category outlined how the questioner ("asker" in Yahoo terms, grrrrrrr) could approach the assignment. I hope the questioner rated that response highly. Of course, as any public librarian knows, a lot of parents come in to do their kids homework for them. Or at least to check out the books with the answers. Maybe it's an improvement to have the kids themselves posting the questions?

In library school, a friend joked that there are five answers that can be used to answer all reference questions: the only one of the five I remember is "a member of the carrot family" -- my friend claimed she used that to answer any questions from her mother about the identity of a plant. So far I haven't had a chance to use it, but maybe it will come in handy soon.

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