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Originally published in MOREnetworking Vol. 2 No. 5, Jan. 2006

Live online reference services expand patron access to libraries

In recent years, technology has transformed the “library experience” from one requiring travel to a specific building, to one in which a user can reach any number of information sources from a single location via a computer. But while access to information has increased, traditional services are still in demand, and often new technology­ augments and expands these services rather than replace them.

The library reference desk has long served as a source for information, whether by interaction in person or by phone. Now some Missouri public libraries have expanded reference desk availability by creating live online reference desk access.

At first glance such a service might not seem very different from a traditional phone call or even e-mail, but librarians see distinct differences.

“One advantage is that the user has some anonymity,” said St. Louis Public Library’s (SLPL) Katherine LaBarbera regarding the Ask a Librarian service. “Someone who might be intimidated at the thought of approaching the reference desk with an inquiry might be more apt to ask from their home computer. Another advantage is that users get the articles they need instantaneously. Instead of copying and mailing articles, we can guide them to the database to obtain the article right away.”

Lillie Brack, head of reference at Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), pointed out the ease of use for patrons with speech or hearing impediments. KCPL’s Ask Now! service, established in 2003, is used for much more than reference questions, she said. “Patrons also use the service to ask questions about different library services; about their library card accounts, the availability of materials, etc. Customers from around the country use the service to seek information about Kansas City history, places and people,” Brack said.

Instant, live access to professional researchers and their wealth of printed and library­-only materials can be beneficial even to those with strong online research skills. “Several times we’ve been able to provide patrons with information from a book in our collection that they couldn’t find online,” LaBarbera said. “For instance, a graduate student from Washington University needed to know which would have been more costly in Shakespeare’s time, red or rhenish wine. We located the information in a book on wine history.” Brack doesn’t mind sharing her lessons learned with other libraries. “It’s important that a new service like this have the support of admin­istration and that it is promoted to the community,” Brack said. She recommends that any libraries­ interested in implementing such a service train and prepare staff, establish specific guidelines of service, decide if there are limits on who can use the service (local­ patrons, or anyone in the world) and determine which departments will provide the service.

Susan Scupin, Reference Manager at St. Louis County Library, said their live service began in 2001, and has found a permanent place in the reference department’s ever-expanding inventory of tools to help patrons.

“This way of delivering reference services has become an integral part of how we do our job,” Scupin said.

hendersonl | Sunday, January 1, 2006 | |


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