Yahoo! Answers in the Wild

Yesterday, I got a chance to meet informally with the students who will be in my 3-credit course I’m teaching here in the library at Baruch College  (“Information Research for the Social Sciences and the Humanities”). When I was asking the students to tell me about kinds of research they have done that takes place outside of the classroom, a couple of the students mentioned using Yahoo! Answers to get advice about what cell phone or laptop to buy. Although they also mentioned using things like reviews on CNET, they preferred the personal commentary from question answerers to the more polished articles on tech and gadget sites.

When my class starts next Monday, I hope to probe more deeply into this issue and find out more about how they assess the credibility of those providing answers in Q&A sites. Not only will it be interesting to me as a reference librarian but also as an instructor trying to teach a semester-long course on how to find, evaluate, and use information to answer questions.

2 Replies to “Yahoo! Answers in the Wild”

  1. This isn’t a fully formed idea for me yet, but I think we classify questions based on their “domains” – some questions patrons think of as being in the library domain, some of them in the Yahoo! Answers domain, some in the ‘mom’ domain, etc. And while libraries often push the “we can answer any question” kool-aid, patrons don’t think of every question as belonging to our domain.

    For example, take these questions:

    Do you have the edition of the Odyssey with the translator before the translator of the newest edition?
    Droid or iPhone?
    Where can I buy pot?
    How do you make spaghetti?
    When is Portal 2 coming out?

    These are the sort of thing that have been asked on our virtual reference service, and I have seen librarians give valiant efforts at answering all of them. Often, the spaghetti and drugs questions are pranks – one being in the “common knowledge” domain and the other in the “information black market” domain. We love showing off our huge collections of cookbooks and helping patrons negotiate their medical marijuana licenses, but we are not usually the place people go to for that information. The in-between questions on phones and video games are things we can help with and are often successful because we turn to official sources (product websites), independent reviewers (cnet) or forums ( When patrons ask us a question out of our domain, we often lead them to the appropriate one.

    There is some research out there on the use of “ask a” services for formal and informal queries. So blah blah blah. What other kinds of questions would they ask on Yahoo! Answers? What questions would they never ask in a library?

  2. What I mean to say for the rank questions is that from a pranksters perspective, librarians aren’t the people you go to to buy drugs, and everyone knows how to cook spaghetti, so we are idiots for trying to answer them. That’s the joke anyway.

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