A national digital reference service for the U.S.

imageLast Sunday morning, during the Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association, a group of librarians gathered in a room of the San Diego Convention Center to discuss the idea of developing a national digital reference service for the U.S.  Susan McGlamery, the senior product manager of OCLC’s QuestionPoint reference service, did a great job of laying out the facets of this opportunity and of facilitating the lively discussion.

The conversation ranged widely, as initial conversations are wont to do, touching several times on the idea of a national reference service as the cornerstone for the public services component of a national digital public library.  Content and services will comprise the public face of any national digital public library, and reference service is the quintessential library service.  A host of things, including funding, governance, management, metadata, hardware, software, and networks, will support that public face, which will smile on the online communities of users.

Although McGlamery emphasized that a national reference service would not be an OCLC project, OCLC clearly is interested.  Chip Nilges, OCLC’s VP for business development, entered the meeting after it had begun and left early, but stayed for most of the discussion.

Based on some survey research conducted for OCLC in November 2009 by Harris Interactive, most people who use non-library online Q&A services are searching for an answer to a question, but they do not necessarily ask a specific question that they articulate.  They mine previous answers.  This could be an important finding for a national library reference service, because in addition to a staffed desk we will need to develop or import a knowledge base.

imageThe U.S. would not be the first to develop a national digital public library reference service.  Enquire UK is a group of public libraries in England and Scotland who provide a real-time online reference service.  They have partnered with Yahoo!Answers to help people find them.  Seventy-seven percent of users have voted Enquire’s answers the best answers for their particular information need.

Not all national virtual reference services have survived.  The AskNow service in Australia started back in 2002, but closed down last month, citing a steady decline in usage.  Evidently, the fact that most users of the service were looking for homework help was disconcerting to the service providers, too. 

Back in the U.S. there already are a number of statewide online reference services that could form a national confederation, as well as a few multi-state services, such as My Into Quest, which could be beefed up to serve as a true national digital public library reference service.  My Info Quest, however, is strictly an SMS-based text reference service, and everyone agreed that a national virtual reference service would need to offer more than just one channel.

This is a huge topic and opportunity, which I plan to continue exploring here at LibraryCity in future posts and discussions.  The group that met last Sunday plans to continue the conversation (Twitter hashtag is #nationalvr, and a Facebook page is planned), and welcomes others to join in the discussion.

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