Monday, January 09, 2012

Just in Case or Just in Time?

Some time ago my husband asked me out of frustration with the frequency of his trash duty, "Where does all this trash come from?!"
My answer: "They mail it to us."

How much time do you spend trying to decide if the information coming into your home or office is worth keeping and where to put it? Do you worrying that you will miss something? A sale? A coupon? A bill? A message from your doctor? A wedding invitation?

And what about your email? How much "piles up" (or falls below the screen to nowhere) before you decide you don't need it? How much time should you waste making the decision whether to delete it or save it just in case you need it? When you do need it, will you know it's there? Will you be able to find it?

What about research? Do you hoard resources just in case you need them later? A book or an article you want to read some day? Do you have a shelf full of such unread books? A drawer full of great articles? A garage full?

There is a principle of information retrieval; people want information just in time, not just in case. When a reader determines that they need to know something, that's when it's valuable. Otherwise it's useless.

Saving information just in case you might need it later becomes clutter to sort through or trash.

But how do you keep from missing something important? When it comes to research there are helpful tools such as mailing lists and RSS feeds that can contribute to your feelings of being overwhelmed by information. In order to be able to use information when you need it requires you to be able to find it. Knowing how to search effectively is key. You want to be able to retrieve only the information you want and need -- not the "stuff" you don't.

Taking the time to learn effective searching strategies is the answer. Understanding the scope and purpose of a database you are searching is key as well as knowing how the information is stored and how the search engine works.

Recently, I was telling one of our professors about a quick way to get started searching for online articles for a new course he was writing. I suggested some key words from his course description and explained briefly how the catalog interprets keywords and what fields it would search.

For instance, knowing that "pastoral counseling" in quotes is important to getting only articles on that topic -- and not the thousands of other articles on pastoral issues unrelated to counseling, or on counseling but unrelated to a pastoral role. And, knowing whether or not a keyword search would be searching the full-text (body) of the articles as well as the title and abstract is instructive.

As a librarian it's my business to know how information is organized, stored, and accessed.

For personal information, the responsibility of organization, storage (or not), and method of accessing your email and snail mail falls on you. It's your information and your retrieval system. I had a professor in library school for whom I did some cat-sitting. I marveled at her home office with rows of file cabinets without any labels on them. When I asked how she found things, she told me since no one but her needed access to it, she just knew where everything was.

My husband used to file his records (yes,vinyl) according to when he purchased them and he had them shelved with the spine facing away from the user so you could not read what was on the shelf. But he could easily pull the records out of the sleeves when he wanted to play them. Since he didn't share the collection with anyone else, it was a system that worked for him! Unfortunately, he had to change his way of organizing his collection if I was going to be able to integrate mine with his and we were going to share it. We agreed on some filing rules which have worked pretty well for nearly thirty years.

For a shared resource such as a library, organization and storage has to make sense to a larger community so they can quickly access it. Then, librarians have to help our users understand and access those resources. This is what makes libraries and librarians so valuable in this information economy.

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