Journal Article Critique 1
Wu, M.-M. and Liu, Y.-H. (2003), Intermediary’s information seeking, inquiring minds, and elicitation styles. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54: 1117–1133. doi: 10.1002/asi.10323.
Libraries, from the days of the earliest massive archives of written works compiled for traffic and usage by a subset of the population, have had their usefulness to their patrons made dependent upon the ability of library assistants, or intermediaries, to understand and interpret the queries by patrons, in various shades of vagueness, for works which best address their searches. The means of “information retrieval”, or IR, largely lie in the ability of patrons to ask questions which reflect one’s desire for topical information. Two researchers, Mei-Mei Wu of National Taiwan Normal University and Ying-Hsang Liu of Rutgers University, performed a study, titled “Intermediary’s Information Seeking, Inquiring Minds, and Elicitation Styles,” which would analyze and understand behaviors which are involved in the process of “elicitation”, a term which, in the study, “is used to refer specifically to a request for information reflecting speakers’ information needs, state of knowledge, and intentions when people engage in information-seeking dialogues” (1118).
The researchers of the study hypothesized that there are certain measurable “styles” of elicitation which manifest consistently across multiple individuals based on a number of factors, or “dimensions” – namely linguistic forms, utterance purposes, and communicative functions. In order to test this hypothesis, the researchers recruited 30 patrons at random, some from the academic bulletin board or instantaneously at the library desk, and picked 5 intermediaries from various university libraries. Each of the patrons presented their own unique elicitations to the intermediaries, and their questions and intermediaries’ answers were recorded on video and audio for further analysis. Both patrons and intermediaries were then asked to fill out a questionnaire to show their individual backgrounds, their perceptions of the elicitation process, and levels of satisfaction with the answers. The results, based upon the data gathered from both the questionnaires and the video records of the elicitations, showed that there are three types of elicitation style exhibited by patrons, those being (1) situationally oriented, (2) functionally oriented, and (3) stereotyped, and that three types of “inquiring mind” were found among the patrons, those being (1) information problem detection, (2) query formulation process, and (3) database instructions. The research was purposed with a goal “to shed new light on the process of asking questions,” and it was hoped that the results “may bridge the gap between descriptive models of information behavior and operational task interactions in IR systems” (1118).
This study can be evaluated on a number of criteria. The study’s theoretical scope is focused on communication in the library sciences, but is also revealing of the diversity of factors which influence elicitations made by those who seek information, and can be just as applicable in any institution which is a regular go-to source of information. The methodology used in the study is appropriate, with the language structure of the recorded inquiries being measured against the data provided by the questionnaires to ascertain the nature and contemporary state of the patrons who make elicitations of the staff.
The arguments made in the study are valid in that the propositions, properties and participants within the study are all correlated by the process of inquiry and information retrieval, and they are also consistent with each other in their statistical and explanatory utility toward the conclusion of the research. The heuristic value within the study is that it sheds light upon the diversity of patrons and their elicitations of library staff, provides opportunities for the development of more engaging communication skills by employed intermediaries and other assistants with patrons, and helps libraries retool their IR systems to embrace, as much as materially possible, the diversity of patrons’ backgrounds and inquiries. The parsimony of the study is that the theory offered by the study can be broken down into these two simple axioms: “Questions are as diverse as the people who ask them and the reasons for why they are asked” and “Answering questions in an appropriate manner helps lead to correct retrieval of information.”
In conclusion, this study by Wu and Liu provides a strong insight into the nature of human inquiry of information. It is based upon solid, tell-tale and divulged evidence showing that individual patrons and intermediaries are very diverse, yet similar, in how they exchange and retrieve information. It demonstrates that both sets of individuals achieve their greatest potential for information retrieval when they meet each other half-way, when patrons’ backgrounds are taken into account by intermediaries, and when the natures of their questions are correctly addressed.