A majority of U.S. libraries provide virtual reference services through their individual library web sites using local library staff. Many libraries participate in regional or statewide collaborative virtual reference services, and many of those are members of the international 24/7 Reference Cooperative. But while many countries have national virtual reference services, the US does not. At ALA Midwinter 2011, we convened a meeting to discuss what a national 'ask a librarian' service could look like, and how it could be accomplished. The meeting was held on Sunday January 9, from 10:30 AM until noon. Over 40 people attended.
Why a national service? OCLC’s Perceptions of Libraries 2010 report (which had not been published at the time of the ALA MW discussion) and the earlier 2005 Perceptions report vividly illustrate the challenge library virtual reference services face today. Americans are online: the most widely used information sources in the U.S. are email (94%) and search engines (92%) [Perceptions 2010]; this is up almost 30% when compared to the 2005 Perceptions report. 66% of Americans use “social sites” (includes social media like YouTube and social networking like Facebook). But, no one begins their search on a library web page: 2005 Perceptions found 82% begin their search in a search engine, 1% begin on the library web site. The 2010 Perceptions study found 84% begin in a search engine, 3 % begin on Wikipedia and no respondents (zero!) began on the library web site. However, 33% (in both 2005 and 2010) do use a library web site at some point, and 6% use online databases.
More Americans are using “Ask An Expert” (question and answer) sites: usage increased from 15%  to 43% . This is particularly striking with young adults, whose use increased 350% in the five years between reports. But, Ask A Librarian sites have increased only slightly during the same period, from 5% in 2005 to 7% in 2010. Most libraries provide virtual reference services. According to ALA, 68.9% of libraries provide online reference: 62% use email/webform; 31.4% use chat; 19.5% use IM [Public Library Data Service 2009 Report. Chicago, Public Library Association, 2009]; the Perceptions 2010 reports 58% of libraries provide an Ask a Librarian service.
Susan McGlamery of OCLC QuestionPoint began the ALA MW discussion by reviewing a survey conducted for OCLC by Harris in December 2009. The survey reinforced the data presented in both the 2005 and 2010 OCLC Perceptions reports, illustrating that more consumers use social Q&A sites and search engines rather than library virtual reference services.
From the data presented in the OCLC Perceptions reports of 2005 and 2010, and the Harris consumer survey of 2009, it’s apparent that library virtual reference services are underutilized by consumers, despite the expertise of librarians and the convenience of virtual reference services (widely available through library web sites and some statewide portals). It was proposed that a prominent national “Ask” service would raise the visibility of library reference services and channel more reference activity to libraries. A national service would also allow for higher impact integration into popular social Q&A sites, to further increase the visibility of library reference services.
In addition to the survey data presented, McGlamery discussed examples of national and international collaborative virtual reference services. Tom Peters of My Info Quest discussed the collaborative texting service currently offered by 25 libraries nationwide [see My Info Quest site], as an example of a national ask a librarian service. Tom discussed the importance of texting as an information channel, providing examples of how text questions can be different from “typical” reference questions received at the desk or via chat. It’s important to make library virtual reference services part of the flow, and not something out of the ordinary.
Four options were presented for a possible national (U.S.) virtual reference serivce (with a 5th option: Other):
1. Promote “Ask” [like “Read”]:
2. Intelligent re-direct to existing services based on IP, geolocation, etc
3. Triage: National “Ask” handles “easier” questions, with referral to local or subject experts for more complex
4. Allow/encourage end-user participation
Regarding the models, Bill Pardue (the Slam the Boards founder, calling into the meeting via Skype) suggested that a national campaign (#1) without a national service wouldn’t have the impact of an actual national service. Rather than triage from a national service to local (#3), he suggest the reverse: start by sending everyone to a local service (#2) but if there is no virtual reference service at the local level, then send to a national collaborative (the national “ask” service). Ellen Meltzer (California Digital Library) suggested providing a Google Scholar plug-in for “Ask” services.
Continue the discussion through comments to this blog, or visit our new National VR page on Facebook!