“I Know the Best When I See It”

I had an assignment to write an essay for which the prompt was this:

Use [the following questions] to help you work through the comparison and contrast of using authoritative, canonical resources (whether in print or online) versus “Just Googling It:”

  1. What was the title of the work of pornography that caused a Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart, to say: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it?”  I’d like a complete bibliographic citation to the book, not the lawsuit.
  2. A genealogist swears that he has seen other sources citing this book and page numbers: Susan M. Keller et al., One Line of Descendants of the Keller Family in America from 1778 to 1961 (1961), p. 6-9, 13.  Help verify this title.
  3. I am looking for information about “Funnyhouse of a Negro” by Adrienne Kennedy. I am supposed to find criticisms of the work, but I cannot find anything. Do you have any suggestions?

Below is my (hopefully amusing) response to this prompt


“I Know the Best When I See It”:

Bibliographies and Catalogs; Authority and Use 

If there is to be a race, rules must be first be articulated and then observed for the outcome of said race to be meaningful. The rules are these: the Google team – which includes Amazon and any other non-canonical sources – gets first pass at supplying the answers to the three questions given for the assignment. If the Google team succeeds at this task, then the Authoritative team – which includes Books in Print and WorldCat – does not get to try at all. The team will be considered defeated before it leaves the gates. Much as the Authoritative team cries foul, the rules stand. They stand for the simple reason that this is how reference works “in the real world”, that which lies outside of the laboratory that is an assignment for a class. In the “real world”, users faced with an information-seeking issue will try what is easiest first[1]. It would be downright irrational if they did not. Should they succeed at this first try, they would not continue on to more canonical sources; again, it would be irrational if they did. Why continue searching when one has already found what is sought?

If the Google team does not deliver the answers, the Authoritative team gets to trot its horses onto the green. Should the Authoritative team then delivers the right answers, it will be crown champion. If not – that is, if the right answer is turned up by neither team – this will be considered a tie. In the case of a tie, the referee[2] will decide in favor of the Google team by default. Again, the Authoritative team cries foul for naught. As engaging with the Authoritative team requires more effort and yields no better result, it is inescapably the worse experience for the user. Hence, it loses.

Now to the hippodrome! First race: the title of the as-it-turned-out non-pornographic work that lies at the heart of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964).The Google team wins outright. Three clicks were all it took for the Google team to locate the bibliographic citation to the movie (Malle, 1958)[3].

Second race: the verification of Keller et. al (1961). This is a draw. Neither team was able to verify this title. Perhaps this could be blamed on the incompetent hockey[4]. Perhaps the title should have been verifiable. Nonetheless, as the same level of competency drove both teams, the draw is fair. In a strict application of the rules, the race is declared for the Google team.

The score now reads 2-0 in favor of the Google team. If there were only three races in total, then for the sake of efficiency, we need not run the third race. For whatever is its outcome, the Google team will come out triumphant. However, because we have four other race days – Assignment 3-6 – and because we concern ourselves with more than the final score, we will go ahead with the third race.

As if to build up the excitement for a climactic end to this series of races, the third race proves circuitous. Amazon, one of the race horses for the Google team, quickly locates several works in association with Funnyhouse of a Negro[5].However, short of either reading the returned results in their entirety[6] or having an actual user to inquire whether those results suffice for his purpose, the referee cannot judge whether Amazon’s run is considered a win. In consultation with the rule book and her own conscience, the referee ultimately decides that Amazon has not crossed the finish line. In fact, Amazon would not have been the jockey’s choice of horse to run for this race. Another stallion on the Google’s team, Google Scholar, is much more suited for the purpose. True to form, relying on Google Scholar produces several credible journal articles ((Brown, 1975; Curb, 1980; Curb, 1985; Wood, 2003)). The race stops here, as the referee is of the opinion that these articles are scholarly enough to satisfy a research request.

In the first day of racing, the Google team has trounced the Authoritative team, 3-0. However, was categorical judgment really needed or wanted in a comparison such as this? Can any categorical judgment be made in such a comparison? After all, reference work does not revolve around examining different sources, however intensely, and declaring that one source dominates over the other and hence will be used exclusively from the examination’s point forward. Rather, successfully answering knotty reference questions is a recursive and adaptable process. A reference says to himself and his user, “let’s try this. Here’s what we get. Is that good enough for you? If not, let’s try something else.” In this way, he may eventually empty his arsenal, but whatever the result, he is unlikely to decide in favor of one source over another in perpetuity. The races will be run again and more than once – Assignment 3-6 make four more races – and this jockey will keep riding her fillies. However, the conclusion that any comparison between different reference authorities yields definitive, applicable-to-all-cases-at-all-time, ordering of the sources may well prove a lame horse.

[1] Note that a search that begins at what is easiest is not necessarily one driven by bounded rationality or the principle of least effort. Those operators would be at play only if the user stops searching short of getting the “right” answers and instead settles for the “acceptably above a minimum standard” answers. Further note that this is not how the race is run; the Google team wins before the Authoritative team even gets onto the track only if the Google team locates the right answers.

[2] I am the referee (as well as jockey since I am riding and whipping both the Google and Authoritative teams’ horses).

[3] In the References section, I list the sites that I clicked through to verify the Google team’s answer. Note that the answer was verified in trustworthy sources (Gewirtz, 1996) and (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964) even though the answer is initially found on non-canonical, lead race horse for the Google team, Wikipedia (Wikipedia, 2012).

[4] I am the incompetent hockey. In fact, I am the only hockey, incompetent or otherwise, in this metaphorical race.

[5] Please see (Amazon, 2012).

[6] Note that reference librarians usually do not strive to read all the books to which they point their users. I suppose this is due to the impossibility of succeeding at the endeavor.

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