Monday, November 22, 2010

Time to move from a reactive to proactive online reference service?

I've just read that the AskNow virtual reference service will close on the 17th December 2010.

Excerpt from the email notice from the State Library of Queensland:

As a consequence of declining demand and the need to respond to changing patterns of library use, the AskNow service will close on 17th of December 2010. This decision was made following an eighteen month review by the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand, and state and territory libraries in Australia.

One of the key reasons for the closure is the change, since the launch of Ask Now in 2002, in the information landscape. In a Web2.0 environment the evidence is that people are engaging with libraries in new ways and they are taking advantage of different service opportunities.

While AskNow has had many satisfied customers over the years, chat is a resource intensive service and decisions about its continued operation have been made in the context of significantly declining usage over the past five years. It is also acknowledged that the collaborative approach to staffing the service has been confusing for those people who expect to be chatting with a librarian at their local library.

I wonder if this is a good opportunity for the AskNow partners and participants to consider the idea of a proactive online reference service for Australians, that takes into account the changes in online behaviour and information seeking that has led to the decline in use of AskNow.

In brief, online services like Facebook and Twitter, and specific answer services like Yahoo Answers are filled with people asking their friends, families and followers all sorts of questions. Some of these questions aren't appropriate for a response by a library, but many are.

At my place of work we have been playing around with Twitter as an online information service. While we now use it to push information, our original intent (and still a core practice) was to watch, listen and search Twitter for questions about our local area, or topics that we could answer. Our hunch that some people were asking their friends and followers questions that could easily be answered by a public library was quickly confirmed, and so we replied to their tweets with information and links.

I realise that this service model is entirely different to AskNow, and that different software, techniques, policies etc would be needed. But what AskNow seems to have been very successful at is the collaboration of some serious library muscle to share the task of answering questions. Perhaps that muscle could be re-engineered into a proactive online reference service for Australians who are making the most of the opportunities and connections afforded by social networking sites and mobile devices.


Ellen said...

It is an opportunity. It may take a series of partnerships, not even on a state basis, but on a library by library basis, and across states. A (library) crowdsourced solution seems to be what you are suggesting, and I think it would be very interesting to try.

Libby said...

Thanks for your ideas on where reference is heading – it is exactly this kind of thinking that has been the focus of discussions within the NSLA Virtual Reference Project Group. As you say, online behaviour is changing rapidly, and the traditional methods of offering reference service (i.e. “one to one” and “you come to us”) are no longer adequate. When AskNow started, chat was a new medium, but it is now only one of many ways that people communicate and seek information. You have probably been watching the development of Trove, which is beginning to incorporate blogs, user forums, customised lists, text correcting, and other methods of crowd-sourcing to help people find and use the information they need. By allowing AskNow to come to a natural conclusion, we hope to redeploy our ‘ library muscle’, as you say, in ways that are better adapted to how people engage with libraries these days. NSLA Virtual Reference Group members continue to meet by teleconference on an occasional basis - which means there will be an opportunity to consider your comments in the context of discussion about future reference directions. Keep the ideas coming!

Libby Fielding, AskNow Coordinator, Queensland

Bill Pardue said...

First, a word from my soapbox...

It's unfortunate that use of AskNow was declining. In our own US library, chat levels are at record highs (we'll hit almost 400 chats this month, for a community of 76,000). I think many libraries using chat never placed the service well on their sites, making it hard to find. I expect that's true in Australia, as well as the US. If the service isn't visible on almost every page of your site, it's doomed to failure.

That said, I do think there's promise in monitoring Twitter, Q&A sites and hyperlocal sources for questions (and other opportunities for reference librarians to chime in). It's the core idea behind the "Slam the Boards" concept ( If there's a downside, it's the amount of work and mining that needs to be done to actually get to the relevant questions. When a chat comes to your site, you know that the user has a real question and means for you to answer it. In the social networking realm, you need to find needles in haystacks. It can be very rewarding and have some real benefits, but it has its limits, at least so far.

Still, I hope some Australian librarians take the plunge into "proactive reference" and also tweet their activities (use the #slamtheboards hashtag).

ahniwa said...

Proactive services are great, but it’s really hard to offer them locally. Services like Twitter and Facebook make it too complicated to view JUST the content from your service area and, for good or bad, most libraries aren’t interested in serving people outside of their service area. Even sites like Yahoo! Answers don’t provide any localization, even on the state level where a cooperative service like Ask-WA could step in. The only case I know of where this really works is in the UK where they have a national reference cooperative and, as such, a strong proactive reference presence on the national (UK) version of Yahoo! Answers.

In the U.S., though, we remain segregated, despite efforts and committees designed to help bring things together. The fact is, though, as long as our funding sources are local, our primary service will be local, and if libraries aren’t able to proactively serve on a local level, I don’t think they’ll bother.

guybrarian said...

Take a look at the books section in QuestionLand, a feature of Seattle's "The Stranger" alternative newsweekly. Some of us Seattle librarians have started plying our trade there, both as a way of raising awareness of the kind of reader's advisory they can get from local librarians, and as a legitimate way of providing service. We're fortunate to have this locally-oriented site, and I'm not sure we could argue for doing the same thing on sites with a more national or international scope, although I suppose locally-oriented questions could be targeted on more broad-based sites.

Then again, maybe we need a national network of librarians all working together to NAIL as many questions to the wall, no matter where they're asked - a vast shadow library consortium in which the huddling survivors of our wrecked and smoking profession tap out messages to each other, doing good work in reference and advisory in ways that reflect well on public libraries in general.

Anyway, I'm curious about getting expert status on Facebook. Has anyone here done this? In the meantime we'll be helping out on QuestionLand, and I urge any Seattle areas librarians to go and do likewise.