Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Information Deficit

Information technology, women's health, and librarianship collided in an interesting way for me this week. Yahoo! launched a new online tool, Yahoo! Answers. This site allows users to ask almost any question, and receive answers online from other Yahoo! users. Unlike Google Answers, researchers aren't vetted in any way, and there is no charge for receiving answer. Unlike asking your local librarian, there is limited opportunity to clarify the question, or correct/weed out misleading or inaccurate information.

For example, I was browsing the Yahoo! Answers questions, and came across this one: When do you start to show during pregnancy?
Three people answered, with responses ranging from "3 months" to "it depends on..." After receiving answers, the user can choose to select the best answer, call for a vote on an answer when there are multiple answers, or extend the deadline on answering the question. In this way, the user may actually think their question is answered appropriately and close the question, even if the provided answer is wrong. Likewise, if another more knowledgable user wants to add clarifying information, this can't be done on a closed question.

The thing that really disturbed me about this question was the follow-up from the author: "Thanks that help me a lot because i really don't know if i'm pregnant but i have the syptoms of pregnancy and i have not started my period in 3.5 months."
Clearly, this user has information needs beyond "when do you start to show?" These might include:
  • That a pregnancy test can be obtained at a drugstore for $10-$15.
  • That there are other causes of amenorrhea aside from pregnancy
  • That if a pregnancy is confirmed, at least two recommended prenatal care visits have already been missed
  • Information on pregnancy and prenatal care
  • Where to go in the local community for low and reduced cost care

    A good librarian could have delved further into the request with the patron to bridge the gap between the stated need and the real need. Unfortunately, due to the closed answer, other Yahoo! users cannot provide this type of information. The implications of the question are notable - that the asker thinks she might be pregnant, hasn't gotten her period in months, and is looking to find out whether she should be showing yet as confirmation or refutation of a pregnancy. One wonders about the circumstances she is facing, and what led her to ask an anonymous and decidedly non-expert online community for an answer.

    I've been troubled by this user's question, and the distance between the answer she got and the answer she needs. I'd also like to use this opportunity to encourage people to use their local librarians. You may think of them as the people who check out the books, but this is like saying a doctor writes prescriptions. While true, there is a vast store of expertise and knowledge in your librarian that can be used to answer your every question. As your doctor is an expert on medicine, and your lawyer is an expert on your legal needs, your librarian is an expert at digging up the information you need, no matter how trivial or profound. Your librarian will never close your question, and will never let an answer go at face value when you give her/him signs that you really need more.

    Technorati Tags: ; ;
    MeSH Tags: Internet/utilization; Librarians; Library Services
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