“My research on the economics of information showed that whenever information is imperfect, in particular when there are information asymmetries—where some individuals know something that others do not (in other words, always)—the reason that the invisible hand seems invisible is that it is not there. Without appropriate government regulation and intervention, markets do not lead to economic efficiency.” Joseph Stiglitz, Making Globalization Work, W. W. Norton, 2006, quoted by Andrew Leonard, "The perfect imperfection of markets", How the World Works.
This quotation and the rest of that post got me thinking about how asymmetric information might apply in libraries - seeing that the exchange of information is what libraries are about.
1. When the librarian has information which the library user lacks
This is both commonplace and normally a no brainer - in this situation the librarian's job is to make sure that information flows freely to the user. When somebody asks how to use a particular database or how to find a book in the library catalogue, the correct answer is not "that's for me to know and for you to find out."
But sometimes there are complicating factors. For example, if a student comes to me wanting all the answers for a research assignment, I am not going to spoon-feed the answers. I will give appropriate information and advice about how to find the information required by the assignment. Still sometimes it's a murky area because I would like students to learn that librarians can help them find things, but I don't want librarians to be expected to all their work for them (undermining the whole point of the research exercise) and be everybody's underpaid uncredited research assistants.
2. When the library user has information which the librarian lacks
Librarians are trained about their role in the reference interview, but library users are not. Sometimes people only want to provide the bare minimum information, which they think will be enough for the librarian to work with. Sometimes this can work, but other times it can waste everybody's time.
What seems most relevant to the user is not always what is most helpful to the librarian in developing a strategy for finding any given information. This is the reason why librarians need all those extra questions, which sometimes may seem nosey or even judgmental. It is not meant to be an intimidating process - but I can understand how people think that it is. If a librarian asks whether you know a particular piece of information about your search topic, and you don't have this information - remember that we ask these questions not to form opinions about you but to simply do our job, of helping to locate the information.
This aspect of asymmetric information is more acute with faculty, who might have extensive, amazing knowledge of a particular subject area, but only scant knowledge of current research processes. One way around this problem is for the librarian to obtain more knowledge of the actual subject, but that will only alleviate, not remove this knowledge differential. Another option would be for the information to flow in the other way - the general research skills from the librarian to the subject specialist, but this is often complicated by the fact that there is usually a power differential between the librarian and the member of faculty.
3. When a library vendor has information which the librarian lacks
This may shed some light on the seemingly irrational outcomes which happen in the library services marketplace. In my work, I don't have much direct contact with vendors, so I can only think of two examples of this.
When a database vendor knows more about a how library uses its database than the library. If the usage is low, the vendor will be reluctant to reveal this information. But I am guessing that if the usage is high, the vendor will look into ways of getting more value out of the library - whether by raising prices, reducing services or cross-selling or up-selling additional products.
When libraries are shopping for an ILS (integrated library system), they can never know for sure what they are buying. An ILS is not car which you can take out for a test drive. Even if vendors allowed libraries to have a real test of their software (wait, I imagine that Koha would), I can imagine that those test drives would be so traumatic that after a few of these, the library would have had 90% staff turnover and lost 50% of its users. So basically, the information which the libraries have access to is the marketing from the vendor and word of mouth. This is not a vendor bashing post, but no ILS vendor would be so stupid as to provide information which libraries really need to know - what sucks about your product and what sort of customers are not suited to it. Sometimes word of mouth can be effective and I hope that blogs can have a role here, described as "word of mouth of steroids". But sometimes I wonder how many people would be open about saying that their ILS is a total lemon, that they felt they were conned by the slick sales presentations and that their ILS is holding back their library like a ball and chain. Ranting like that is not going to to solve many problems, it's providing the details which is one way of removing this aspect of asymmetric information in libraries.