Fortifies Libraries in Internet Age
By Mick O'Leary
proliferation of virtual content is an important trend
for libraries in recent years. It's instructive to
recall your library of 15, 10, or even 5 years ago:
a physical collection in a physical location. Now,
almost every library has a Web site that offers a menu
of full text content, on site and off. This has occurred
during the growth of the Internet itself as a reference
resourceas well it should, since the notion that "Everything
is on the Internet and free" is still with us. Lately,
this stubborn misconception has eroded, as the increasing
commercialism of the Internet makes it harder to uncover
good content, and the proliferation of illicit or merely
trashy content puts people off. Libraries have wisely
positioned Web sites as an attractive alternative to
the public Web. Instead of the frustrations of generic
Web searching, libraries offer large stocks of reliable
reference and research information, powerful search
interfaces, no public Web clutter, and no fees.
Libraries may be doing a wonderful job
with virtual content, but what about reference, libraries'
greatest service offering? Many libraries are providing
virtual reference service through e-mail and live chat.
Virtual reference is an enormous convenience to library
patrons, especially in today's lifestyle, when time
to go to the library seems harder and harder to find.
As with virtual content, libraries are competing for
reference service with the Internet. There are several "Ask-an-expert" models
on the Web, some free and some fee-based. Compared
with these, online library reference presents the same
advantages as does online library content: It's authoritative,
reliable, professional, and free.
However, many library virtual reference services
are local projects. As such, these services have the
shortcomings of a single facility, being bound by the
limitations of time and expertise of the local reference
staff. What's needed is a technology-mediated solution
that engages the resources of many libraries. Libraries
have done so with great success in cataloging, interlibrary
loan, and content. Why not with reference service?
OCLC AND LC DO REFERENCE
In fact, it's already being done by QuestionPoint [www.questionpoint.org],
a collaborative reference service developed by OCLC
and the Library of Congress, with input from the Global
Reference Network [www.loc.gov/rr/digiref],
an international library group for the advancement
of digital reference. QuestionPoint puts the collective
expertise of libraries around the world at the service
of an individual reference question. It promises to
help libraries regain "information market share" from
the public Web.
QuestionPoint is a successor to the LC-sponsored
Collaborative Digital Reference Service, a reference
consortium started in 2000. QuestionPoint itself opened
in June 2002, with OCLC providing the technical infrastructure
and management operations. The service is open to all
kinds of libraries and now has over 300 members. Membership
is based on association at three levels: local, regional,
and global. Pricing is a multi-level structure based
upon library size, network level, and degree of participation.
The design goal for QuestionPoint is to push the
envelope of virtual reference service as far as possible.
The project is based on three strong foundations:
A powerful technical infrastructure
employing the Internet and innovative information management
The collective expertise of members'
Most of all, the great, long-standing
tradition of libraries helping each other to do the
best job for their patrons
QuestionPoint works through an ambitious and sophisticated
infrastructure for receiving, manipulating, and responding
to reference questions. It starts when the questioner
links to a participating library's reference page and
fills out the formatted QuestionPoint form (libraries
can also use synchronous chat). In addition to the
query itself, the form requests information on the
patron's education level, previous research, and needed-by
timeall standard elements of a good reference
interviewto help reference librarians shape the
response. Librarians use well-crafted QuestionPoint
software to receive, track, and respond to the query.
If the query is beyond scope for the receiving library,
it can engage QuestionPoint's powerful collaboration
features to refer it throughout the membership. If
the library is part of a co-operative or consortium,
it can refer the question to another that can handle
it better. Or, it can let the QuestionPoint system
software direct the query into the entire network.
Member libraries create self-profiles listing their
subject strengths, language facility, and turn-around
time. An automated routing manager will send the query
to the best potential responder, based on the best
match between query and profile. The tracking system,
which is accessible to the patron, provides up-to-the-minute
status of the query's pathway through the service.
QuestionPoint also has an enhanced module that enables
video, audio, and interactive communication.
QuestionPoint even has an "institutional memory" in
the form of Knowledge Base, a database of completed
Q&As. Libraries can contribute the full text of
Q&As that may recur elsewhere. Each Q&A is "cataloged" with
descriptive information, including keywords and education
level. When faced with a tough question, reference
librarians can search or browse Knowledge Base to see
if someone else has already done the work. It's similar
in principal and operation to OCLC's wonderful cataloging
system, which has created the masterful WorldCat bibliographic
DOES IT WORK? WILL IT WORK?
The big question is, "Does QuestionPoint work?" The
answer, based on a few early returns, is, "Yes." I
used the reference service and spent a few hours browsing
Knowledge Base. I concluded that QuestionPoint shows
every likelihood of fulfilling its promise.
I sent three typical reference questions to LC and
one each to a large university library and a large
urban public library. All five responses were excellent,
containing specific answers, as well as references
to other sources and links to appropriate Web pages.
Browsing through hundreds of replies in Knowledge Base,
the Q&A archive, suggests that my successful experience
is representative. Knowledge Base contains over 3,000
Q&A sets, covering every type of question: school
kids needing help with assignments and papers; doctoral
students seeking esoteric research; entrepreneurs looking
for business start-up information; and even local history
and genealogy researchers. Responses are uniformly
thorough, accurate, and demonstrate a lot of diligent,
imaginative reference work. It shows that the two most
important foundations of QuestionPointthe skill
and helpfulness of its reference librariansare
rock solid. (Of course, libraries select replies to
add to Knowledge Base, so I did not see any failed
or misguided responses. A genuine evaluation of QuestionPoint
will await formal assessment studies.)
Even if QuestionPoint itself works well, other questions
await that will shape its future. Will it catch on?
Will it draw attention to itself amidst the clamor
of the Internet? Will it be effectively marketed and
promoted? Will its membership increase and will people
turn to it as their online question machine of choice?
I certainly hope that all of these questions will be
answered "Yes," because QuestionPoint is a superb tool
for keeping libraries vital and relevant in the Web
Mick O'Leary [email@example.com] is
library director at Frederick Community College in Myersville,
MD. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor