Jonathan Cowley, Cardiff University
First published in 1996 and now in its seventh edition, Successful Enquiry Answering Every Time by Tim Buckley Owen (Facet Publishing, 2017) remains an indispensable guide for information professionals.
The author states that the book first appeared “when the internet was little more than a demonstration project, and the fax and microfiche were far more widely used than e-mail or the cloud”. As technology has rapidly progressed, so have the skills needed to answer research enquiries, and this is reflected in the book’s content.
Improvements in speech recognition software mean that searches on mobile devices can be made faster than ever. The author highlights that far from making the roles of information professionals worthless, this raises the skill stakes: “We now use the same tools as our users – so our job is to use these tools much more efficiently”. This means increasing our skill set, thinking analytically and creatively about research queries and providing a value-added answer.
Buckley Owen provides a clear framework to follow, guiding the reader clearly through each stage of answering a research enquiry. This starts with clarifying exactly what information the person needs and when they need it by – and how to ask the correct questions to get this information. Although this step may seem obvious, it is surprising how often even the researcher is not sure exactly what information you are looking for. As the author emphasises, the possibilities of going off on an incorrect tangent are endless and can result in wasting both your time and that of the enquirer.
The book then moves onto strategies for thinking in depth about the enquiry. This thinking and planning time is crucial to avoid fruitless searching using unsuitable resources. I found the advice to visualise the perfect answer in your mind’s eye particularly useful, as this really helps to narrow down the options of where to begin looking.
A further strategy discussed is smarter searching – maximising your search efficiency and making sure your sources are reliable. The author includes useful strategies for skim reading to find pieces of relevant information for your enquiry. A useful chapter on lateral thinking provides advice on how to proceed with complex enquiries where you reach a dead-end and need a “Plan B”.
Once you have answered the enquiry, the book looks at how to communicate your results in the most effective manner, creating a well-presented answer which is clear and concise. As the author states, this added value when presenting your answer will inspire confidence in your abilities and demonstrate your professionalism.
A number of enquiry examples are used consistently throughout the book, which help to illustrate how the techniques work in practice for a wide variety of questions.
The book provides invaluable guidance for staff answering enquiries in public, school or academic libraries. The research skills highlighted would also be applicable for resolving issues in a wide range of other roles, from small specialist organizations to large scale contact centres.
Successful Enquiry Answering Every Time
Tim Buckley Owen
Facet Publishing, 2017
K & IM Refer 33 (3), Winter 2017