Monday, May 29, 2006

Reference Interview vs. Poor Website Design

So Friday afternoon I get a call from a woman looking for the phone number for "any Lion's Club in Somerset County." She tells me she's in a hurry. I decide to go to the Lion's Club website (surely a national organization has a website where you can search for Lion's Club clubs?). I chose English as my language and click on the link to find clubs.

I first have to agree that I'm not going to misuse any information I find on the website. This is quite laughable; it wouldn't take much to get past this point and find and misuse their information if I was someone prone to be that way, but I'm not. I click on 'accept' and head straight into my search.

I can narrow it down by state, but then I run into problems. There's no furhter narrowing. You then click on the letter of the alphabet which starts the name of the club. Most clubs are named after the city they're in, but still, I should be able to narrow it down by county at least. (it would have helped me some in this case)

I click on 'S' for Somerset, the town and county I am in. There is no club for Somerset. I'll be honest, I freeze. I become reference deer in the headlights. There are a lot of cities in Somerset County, and I don't know where to go next. (my mistake is not clicking on 'F' for Franklin Township, which is an alternate name to where I am, more about this later) I tell the woman I cannot narrow my results by county and start to explain what the website is showing me.

She reminds me that she is in a hurry (and her tone of voice adds 'I can't believe you are stupid enough to not remember that'). I state that I remember her being in a hurry and that I'm searching as quickly as I can. An aside: this is a reference desk, I am alone, there are patrons who come into the library that need my help, I don't have time to sit and have a conversation on the phone. I then again try to start explaining to her what I'm seeing and what I'll have to do to search for clubs in Somerset County. I want to ask her if there are particular cities she wants me to look for when she says 'I'm not asking for your opinion, I want information.'

Reference interviews can be frustrating even with a helpful, pleasant person. But when the person is nasty, they are unbearable. I say that I can't use the Lion's Club website to look up clubs by county. She tells me she doesn't believe me. If I wasn't annoyed before (and I was) I am now. I decide to switch tactics, very aware that she is in a hurry.

I go to a resource called Reference USA, which gives business and personal addresses and phone numbers, etc. I search for Lion's Club in NJ hoping that I can scan their list quickly to find a city in Somerset County, give her that phone #, and send her on her way.

I get back nine results for the entire state.

What I didn't know/didn't think about, is that many Lion's Club clubs do not have permanent addresses where they would have a phone number. They meet in restuarants and other places. I tell her the closest club that I have a phone number for is Woodbridge. (you can go to google maps to see distance from Somerset to Woodbridge if you want)

She tells me--for the second time--that she doesn't believe me.

I don't know why I would want to lie to her, it's not like I was enjoying the phone call. She was not in a good mood when she called, and I'm making it worse; not intentionally mind you, but I might as well be.

I hesitate. Reference deer in headlights again. I want to explain to her what I've done, what I'm looking at, but she already has shown that she does not explanations from me. I fire up SuperPages (Verizon's online phone book) and look for Lion's Club that way. Same results as Reference USA.

I tell that every way I search, the closest club I have is in Woodbridge. (this is not technically true, the closest club with a phone number is in Woodbridge, most later) She is--I suspect--actually angry at this point. She then says 'forget it, give the phone number for a woman's non-profit orgranization like the Lion's Club that is in Somerset County.'

This is worse than reference deer. This is reference overload. This question/request is so huge and vague that I blurt out that I don't even know where to begin. I think she thinks I'm saying something along the lines of I don't even know where to begin to tell you how stupid that request is, but I literally mean that I'm not sure--for someone in a hurry, this is twenty minutes into our call--how to start this search.

She questions whether she has the library, whether she has the reference librarian, she wonders what I know at all, etc. etc. She wants to talk to my supervisor. I'm more than happy to do that, except my supervisor is out until Tuesday. She is not happy to hear that. She can't believe that we're closed on Sunday and Monday. She is mad. She tells me to give her the Woodbridge phone number and hangs up.

After we're off the phone, and I'm staring at the page in the phone book that lists non-profits in Somerset County (and by name, I don't know that I'd know which ones are women's non-profits like the Lion's Club). There is no Lion's Club in the list. I decide to click on 'F' on the Lion's Club website, and see that there is a Lion's Club in Franklin Township. However, it has no phone number. It meets at the restaurant that is next door to the library.

I think back to the agreement I made not to misuse their information and I can't think of a way I could misuse this information. The worst I could do would be to show up for a meeting and buy everyone a drink. There is a contact name, but had I gotten this far with my reference interviewee, would I be expected to find the person's personal phone number and give that out?

While the reference interview was handled poorly by me (becuase really, the whole impetus of making the reference interview work is on the librarian), there is no excuse for the eggregious website design by the Lion's Club. There should be other ways to search for clubs than to click on the letter that starts the name of the club. What if I was moving to a new area and didn't know the names of the towns around to search that way? Would it be possible to get a list by county? How about a list derived from X city and everything within Y miles of it?

Both of those things would be easy to do. It might not have saved my reference interview, but it wouldn't have made it any worse.

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Bob M said...

John, What if you tried Google with "Somerset County Lion's Club" as the search string?

Go to first result, scan down the page and get a couple of numbers for the Deal Island Lions.

Go to second result, and I can see even from the Google search page this one: "Princess Anne Lion's Club 410.651.3571"

Go to third result and see the Somerset County event on May 28th, the Soft Shell Spring Fair, with the Crisfield Lions and Linoness telephone number.

Now, since I live in Sydney, Australia, my Somerset County knowledge is scant. But I reckon that this may have satisfied your customer.

Google will often beat out other means of searching for community information, because Google's business is search and presenting the results in relevant form. The Lions' business is not neccesarily that.

And you're right, because of the type of organisation Lions is, it may be of no fixed abode, but prominant members have been brave enough to give their phone numbers in the examples above.

I thought about one of your examples another way. Put "Lion's Club Franklin Township" as your Google query string. it brings up the site for that Lion's club as the first result. Click on that. Surf around that site until you click on "events" and you'll get the contact names and phone numbers of 3 people.

Google does a better job than the Lion's official website once again.

What do you think John? How about letting Google reduce your angst?

The Editor said...


I did use Google first to get to the Lion's Club page, where I thought I would get everything I need.

But here's the problem with Google. The first result you found is in Maryland, not New Jersey. So that doesn't fulfill the woman's query. The second set of results you found is for a Lion's Club in Pennsylvania, also not what the woman was looking for.

That's one of the wonderful things about using Google to find geographic places in the United States. Many places have the same name even though they are in different states.

That said, I still use Google often as a first search because it's faster (both to use and to get results) and often does the job. I often use Amazon when trying to find books and then I switch to our catalog once I have the book the patron is asking for (since sometimes people can't remember author names or book titles).

Google is nice, but it's far from being the be-all end-all solution.

In this case, had it been a normal reference interview situation (although I'm finding someone already annoyed and rushed for time is becoming the norm) it would have been no problem to find what the person was looking for.

John Klima

The Editor said...

Oh, and I wanted to write this post in such a way that I wasn't just lambasting this poor woman. While I was irritated and anggry with her at the time, much of that came out of my frustration at not being able to help her.


Bob M said...

Ah, I see John.