Inconvenient truths, hidden signposts and red herrings: What can library and information professionals learn from the ‘Dodgy Dossier’?

Reading papers by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

In this second in a series of two blog posts to mark the publication of the 7th edition of Successful Enquiry Answering Every Time, author Tim Buckley Owen reveals the benefits of using strategic reading techniques to draft reports and briefings. 

To transform raw search results into actionable reports and briefings, there’s a crucial skill that library and information professionals need to deploy: strategic reading. 

Remember the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ that triggered Britain’s participation in the Iraq war? It holds a valuable lesson for the growing number of library and information professionals who are now expected to draft reports and briefings for their enquirers based on the documents they’ve retrieved. It can also forewarn academic librarians, supporting students who are probably struggling with masses of reading and rarely enough time to do it.

If you’ve ever done a speed reading course, you’ll recall that the techniques you were taught were probably designed to help you get through a document’s complete text faster. But strategic reading techniques don’t do that. 

They work on the principle that you’re reading at your normal reading speed, but being much more selective about what you read. The trick is knowing what to ignore – going immediately to the best bits of a document for your purpose, confident that you can leave the rest without risking missing something important. So where are the best places to look?

Begin at the end?

Abstracts are obviously a good place to try – particularly when you’re dealing with a lengthy academic or professional article. But many abstracts are written by the article’s author; they’ll no doubt be an expert in their field of study, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can write a decent abstract that succinctly tells you everything you need to know and leaves nothing crucial out.

Executive summaries can be more useful. But they reflect the agenda of the author of the original document, which may or may not be the agenda of your enquirer. They could even quietly ignore inconvenient truths that lie buried within the document itself. (That’s where the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ lesson comes in.)

Conclusions, Recommendations, Findings are likely to be the best place to discover what the document is saying, in a form succinct enough to be adapted pretty easily for your final report to your enquirer (or your student’s assignment). So valuable can such sections be that it’s worth looking for them before considering any other part of the document – so, counter-intuitively, perhaps, the best place to start looking in any document is often at the end.

Don’t be daunted

Sometimes, though, none of these places help you – and you can’t rely on the contents page, index (if there is one), the signposting (such as section headings) or an electronic document’s internal searching tools either. In these circumstances, rather than ignoring a potentially useful source, you may have no option but to skim through the actual text, looking for the nuggets of relevant information that you’re pretty sure must be in there. 

It may sound daunting, but there are ways of tackling this too. This time, though, it’s not a question of knowing which sections you can safely ignore, but which words.

You might try looking for significant words and phrases that could indicate you’re on the right track.  But the trouble is that, if they’re all in lower case, they won’t look any different to the eye from all the other text around them.
So instead, there’s a really good win-win technique that you can apply. The characters that are most easy to spot, because they stand out from the rest of the text, also offer the best clues as to the document’s content. 

Loosen your focus

So try loosening your focus a bit and looking, not for specific words, but for characters that are a different shape from the common herd – characters such as…

Capitalised words: These are the names of people, organisations, places, possibly even concepts. They’re the sorts of words that will indicate if you’re on the right track.

Abbreviations: These are shortened forms of the names of those organisations – or possibly concepts. So they offer similar clues to those provided by the capitalized words.

Numerals: Numbers, percentages, dates, monetary values can give you valuable clues as to the document’s relevance to your enquiry. When you spot a numeral, pause, cast your eye to left and right to see what’s being measured, and decide whether it’s relevant.

Words in non-standard typography: Text in bold, italic or small capitals is also easy to spot and may offer valuable clues. But be wary; unlike with abbreviations and capitalized words, the decision to emphasize something using non-standard typography is a subjective one made by the author and may be a complete Red Herring from your point of view.

Finally thought – a couple of first rate techniques for getting through longer documents really quickly…

Read the first sentence of each paragraph: If the paragraphs are reasonably long – say more than three sentences – it’s astonishing how easy it is to follow a document’s main argument by just reading the first sentence of each. You can get through an enormous amount of text extraordinarily quickly this way – in fact, you might even begin to wonder why all the other sentences are there at all. 

Look for hidden signposts: Besides helping you to get through lengthy documents at incredible speed (your students will love you forever if you introduce this technique to them), the first sentence technique can also help you to spot ‘hidden’ signposts – sentences and phrases that indicate the document’s structure or argument even though there are no actual headings or subheadings to break up the text. 

Does all this stuff work?  Yes, emphatically – but none of these techniques is a panacea. Everything works some of the time, but nothing works every time.  

One final warning. These techniques can become so ingrained that they ruin your recreational reading. You really don’t want to know right at the start that the butler did it.

You can also catch Tim Buckley Owen's earlier post on what library and information professionals can learn from journalists.

Find out more about Successful Enquiry Answering Every Time 7th edition from Facet Publishing