Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Look at the Website Wondir

As a reference librarian who has been to numerous classes and workshops on the reference interview (taught a few), I have often heard it said that there are no stupid questions. I have said this many times myself. Having looked at the website Wondir, I now wonder whether I should rethink this statement.

The idea behind Wondir is not bad. People who have questions post them on the website and other people who know the answers reply. According to the creators of the service, answers come from “experts, tutors, mentors, enthusiasts, and peers” who volunteer their services. They emphasize that the service is open to all for asking and answering questions, and all communications are public. The creators do not interfere.

Librarians often worry that people are too afraid to ask questions, afraid that they will ask something that will cause the librarian to think less of them. Librarians work hard to be approachable, but do not always succeed. Wondir seems to have the opposite problem. Because everyone is unseen and unknown, people ask anything.

In my view, some of the problem questions result from the open license for mischief. “Would you like to spank me?” seems to be a frequent question. Looking at the question board, it appears this kind of query often gets three of four responses. It is hard to take a service that leads to this kind of conversation seriously.

The service also gets many poorly formed queries. I know I am old fashioned in that I like complete sentences and correctly spelled words (I misspell a few myself), but I do instant message and virtual reference successfully, so I can interpret slapdash questions. I find some questions on Wondir particularly unformed and incomprehensible, but even the most mysterious queries get responses. Looking at these exchanges, I think there should have been reference interviews.

There are many serious information queries. How should one clean a stainless steel sink? What is the major export of Nicaragua? How does one worm a cat? What happened to Sunkist? How does one upgrade an old computer? Many get fairly quick replies, but “I think” is often appended to the answers.

Other questions ask for relationship help or career advice. Should I dump my boyfriend? Should I hit my sister? Should I get a new job? Do these people have trouble asking people they know for advice? A whole community of amateur counselors has risen up to help them, but the quality of the answers varies.

The people who answer the questions are interesting. Some have registered profiles, which tell you whether they have qualifications or “just like to help people.” If you click on “Best of Wondir”, you find a list of the screen names of the people who have answered the most queries. A couple of people had logged nearly 6000 answers in 90 days. That’s over 60 replies per day!

At the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago last month, the panel at the Reference Interactions in the Digital Age program mentioned and quickly dismissed the website. It certainly is a disturbing phenomenon for library professionals who are devoted to a higher quality of service based on trusted resources that answer the clients’ real needs discovered through interviews.

Perhaps Wondir does some good. I am glad the mischievous questions are asked on the website and not at my library’s reference desk. Still, I wish many of the other queries came to our libraries. I know we have better answers.

To find reviews of books, media, and websites go to rickindex.

1 comment:

The Daily Wondir said...

Hi Rick,

Appreciate you taking the time to try Wondir out and posting your honest assessment. We realize we have a ways to go in terms of consistent content-quality and features, but we're still in the early stages of development and hope to have hundreds of librarians (a few already are) participating in the future. I posted at length here and here in response to a few other bloggers in the library and information science space that blogged about Wondir that you might find interesting.

I'm certainly looking forward to hearing more from you as we tweak and enhance the service. We're certainly working on new ways to improve the service to attract and sustain higher quality questions and answers while retaining the essentially philosophy that we all have questions, and we all have answers (everyone's an expert on something). Thanks again.

Allen Searls
VP Community
Wondir Inc.