Are Your Clients Data-Intolerant?

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed as having celiac disease, which means he's gluten-intolerant. (Side note: there's even a t-shirt to raise awareness of celiac disease, with a picture of a goofy-looking yak—a silly-yak—and the motto, "Gluten free. Got a problem with that?") And in one of those odd connections of random thoughts that my brain is prone to, I realized that some clients of mine are similarly intolerant of large quantities of information; true, they don't suffer abdominal distress or anemia, but they do fail to "digest" the information if it's presented in a way that's unfamiliar to them or if it's just overwhelming in terms of amount or breadth.

I was puzzling through why some people, like information professionals, have such a high tolerance for being immersed in information and why many of our clients and patrons react to the same immersion by breaking out into the mental equivalent of hives. Then I heard a presentation on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument, and about the relative distribution of various MBTI types among the population and specifically among librarians and library school students. According to the speaker, almost half of library school students are either ISTJ or INTJ. These are Introverts, who are Thinking (as opposed to Feeling) and Judging (as opposed to Perceiving). INTJs are known as decisive, independent, sense-makers, and ISTJs are just-the-facts, thorough, organized people. Two personality types who handle large amounts of information well. (Note that these characteristics are used in a fairly specialized way—IxTJs aren't unfeeling and unable to perceive. It's a description of how they view the world, focus their attention, and take in and process information.)

Compare the 50% INTJ/ISTJ distribution in the library school population with the general population, where INTJs and ISTJs together make up between 7% and 15% of the population, depending on who's doing the measuring. No wonder it can feel like we info pros are talking to people who just don't think like we do—we are talking to people who don't process information like we do!

What that means is that we have to be much more aware of how the other 85% of the population thinks. A lot of them are information-intolerant; when we deliver 50 pages of material, or when we point them to ten information sources on the intranet, we're just overwhelming them. For us INTJs and ISTJs, it would be like being asked to make small talk and chat about our feelings for a few hours with 25 acquaintances. Sure, we could do it, but we would avoid anyone who would expect us to do this on a regular basis.

Info Pros may remember being in library school and assigned the job of developing a "pathfinder" on a topic. You had to find the key reference sources on a subject, the most up-to-date directories, a few good handbooks, the key publications, the relevant subject headings in the library's catalog, the call numbers most likely to have material on the topic, a few indexing and abstracting sources, the best full-text databases covering the subject, and pertinent email discussion lists and Web sites. Whew! As quaint as the idea of a pathfinder is, it was a tremendous tool for helping us INTJs and ISTJs present a wide range of information to our patrons in a format that didn't overwhelm and in different formats depending on how our patrons process information. Want a quick overview? Here's where to start. Want to browse the stacks? Start with the aisle over there. Want to see everything that's been written in the last two years on the subject? Here's the database for you.

Of course, building pathfinders on all the econtent we manage today—in subject areas that didn't exist ten years ago—is more challenging. We often don't have a physical collection we can direct browsers to. Good luck finding the standard reference books on a topic like nanotechnology or modern terrorism. And these days, our clients expect us to monitor Web logs and streaming media, regardless of the fact that the search tools haven't kept up with the information types available on the Web.

That's why our ability to be modern-day pathfinders is both essential and sometimes maddening. We sift through a wide variety of information sources, formats, and media. We try to put all of the best resources in the hands of our clients, so they can use the same tools we do. Microsoft has integrated access to Factiva, eLibrary, and Gale resources into its Office 2003 product suite. That means that our clients get hit with more information sources and options, even before they've ventured out beyond Office or Excel.

Thus, we're dealing with people already maxed out on information and, perhaps being somewhat information-intolerant, are looking a bit green around the gills. Our challenge is twofold: to help them build up their ability to sift through and evaluate information and for us to develop better-digested alternatives to information overload. And in the meantime, let's remind ourselves that many people don't think like us, and we're OK with that, aren't we?