Thursday, August 26, 2004

Virtual Reference and the deep Internet

The State of Ohio is funding an expanded virtual reference service that starts up on September 7th. Under the name KnowItNow anyone can engage in an online chat session with a real librarian to help them find information from a wide variety of sources. This service is in place at some libraries already, but is being expanded statewide, with access offered twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. During the day individual librarians working from libraries all of the state will be tied together in a virtual call center. At night, free-lance librarians will work with patrons from their homes.

Certainly these librarians will use traditional print sources like reference books and Internet tools such as Google to answer the queries, but there is a deeper Internet that many people aren't aware is available. I am referring to the online database available only through subscription.

Ohio public libraries spend approximately $5,000,000 per year for "premium" content that they access over the Internet. These sources include general reference and magazine titles. One such service called EbscoHost is available today from the OPLIN (Ohio Public Library Infromation Network) web site. EbscoHost has the full text and often PDF images of over 2000 magazines and journals. With sophisticated indexing and output options it offers authoritative articles not often found through a simpel Google search. The back files aren't as extensive as what most libraries have, but most tiles go back at least three years and others go back considerably longer.

Other databases offer access to materials ranging from poetry to physics and from auto repair to alternative medicine. OPLIN has scores of databases available for searching and many individual libraries have even more to offer. I often tell people that these databses are the biggest secret libraries have.

Virtual reference service help libraries exploit these databases for patrons. Using sophicticated "co-browsing" technology, librarians can do more than chat with someone online, they can also take them to the sources, showing them the databases, the search strategies, and e-mail them the resulting documents. If necessary, the librarain will scan from a traditional reference book and email the scanned pages.

The Dayton Metro Library will be going through a learning curve during the early part of September as its reference librarians become acustom to providing virtual reference at the same time they are answering traditional telephone reference calls. One of the biggest hurdles is getting used to multi-tasking. They may be finishing up a virtual reference session with one patron, taking a phone call from a second patron and seeing a new virtual query come in from a third. This may seen daunting at first, but as other consortiums have found, the collective force of networked reference librarians can keep up with the demand.

Oh by the way... Do you need an opinion on that next novel to read? Try ReadThisNow to chat with a reader's adviser.


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