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Magazines > Online > May/June 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 3 — May/June 2003
O'LEARY ONLINE
QuestionPoint Fortifies Libraries in Internet Age
By Mick O'Leary

The 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 resource—as 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 applications

• The collective expertise of members' reference staffs

• Most of all, the great, long-standing tradition of libraries helping each other to do the best job for their patrons

USING QUESTIONPOINT

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 time—all standard elements of a good reference interview—to 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 database.

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 QuestionPoint—the skill and helpfulness of its reference librarians—are 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 age.


Mick O'Leary [harmonyrd@yahoo.com] is library director at Frederick Community College in Myersville, MD. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@infotoday.com.
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