I’m sorry, it doesn’t exist

Just a little food for thought before the holidays – this’ll probably be my last post until after the new year (unless something extra fun and exciting crops up that I just have to blog about – always a possibility!). Happy Hogswatch everyone!


There’s an interesting (and only slightly ranty) thread on the Librarians who LibraryThing forum about what to do when your library users ask you to find information that doesn’t actually exist. It’s interesting seeing how other people have handled those types of queries  – it’s something that crops up all too often in my current job, usually (but not always!) a trainee trying to find an authority on an amazingly specific and obscure point of law. Often they’re asking for something where the information is available, but either a) from several different sources, so they’ll have to synthesize the information themselves, rather than it all being in one neat package; or b) it’ll cost money to get hold of. It never ceases to amaze me how much less vital a certain report becomes once it turns out they’ll have to pay £10 for it, rather than just downloading it for free off the web…

I had a wonderful example of point a) above a few weeks ago – one of our lawyers wanted to find about a particular point of Spanish law. I duly dug out a textbook (yes you read that right – a book!) which had a nice summary of the relevant legislation in it, in English. I handed it proudly to the lawyer, and her face fell – her exact words were “oh, is that it? What I’d really like is a nice table listing the Spanish laws in one column and their English equivalents in the other”.

I managed not to let out any of the responses that immediately occurred to me (competing for first place were “Why didn’t you say that’s what you wanted then?!” and “That’s nice, I’d like world peace”) – instead, I gave a measured “ok then, I’ll see what I can find, but I can’t guarantee there’ll actually be anything that neatly set out”. The lawyer responded with “but surely there must be something online!”.

And there, I think, is the problem. Somehow the lawyer in question had arrived at the conclusion that “online” was a magical place where all human knowledge was recorded, all neatly synthesized into any package she might want for any purpose. I never did manage to find the exact summary table she’d imagined, but I did (after a fair amount of digging) determine the English equivalents of the Spanish legislation she was after, pointed her to the relevant sources, and suggested she contact our Madrid office if she wanted anything more in-depth. To be fair, she seemed fairly satisfied with that.

One of the commenters on the LibraryThing thread notes that this issue really relates to a frequent cause for concern among library and information professionals – the decrease in research and analysis skills in the general public. She comments that “users expect to be able to go online and find a complete one-sentence answer to any question”. Again, this comes back to information literacy – one other commenter suggested that we really need to start teaching about the value of information from primary school level, if we are to avoid having another generation grow up with no appreciation of how to find, evaluate and analyse information.


7 comments on “I’m sorry, it doesn’t exist

  1. Oh god, the amount of times I’ve had to deal with this!
    The favourite is the “well, I found it on Google” option. Obviously, Google knows that Scots, English and many other laws are different, and will therefore give the location-appropriate results, yes?
    These are fully qualified legal professionals, yet they don’t even take 10 seconds to check jurisdiction of materials that they’re using.
    It’s kinda scary…

    • Scary indeed! My absolute favourite was this recent exchange:
      Partner: Can you help me find some cases on this topic please? I know there is case law in this area, but haven’t found anything yet.
      Me: No problem – can I just ask where you’ve looked already, so I’m not just duplicating your efforts?
      Partner: Oh, I just had a quick look on Google…

      And this was a bloody partner!!!

  2. Maybe we should be grateful to Rupert Murdoch for leading the move against the concept that the Internet contains all the worlds knowledge for free.

    I often suggest people try looking for free market research on the web and let me know when they find something valuable.

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