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Monday, 4th September 2006

Ask A Question: Virtual Reference for Non-Librarians, What is It and How to Access These Services

In another post today, we wrote about ChaCha, a new and free question and answering service. Unlike other services, ChaCha allows you to "chat live" with someone (we had issues learning the qualifications) to help answer your question(s). I used the service yesterday and my results were mediocre at best, even with very basic reference queries. Since then, the site has gone offline because of overwhelming demand.

It's just a bit funny (maybe a little sad, too) when a new live Q&A service launches and then soon goes offline because of high demand. ResourceShelf's point has always been that these and other services are not bad or should be taken offline (hardly), but rather the public, the academic community, the corporate employee, etc., should also know that librarians have been offering and powering these types of services for years. It's also about asking the question to the right person or people and in some cases a virtual reference service via a library is the place to turn. Remember, many are 24x7 and can be accessed from any web computer.

So, one more time, here's a quick look at AR. Let's call it Virtual Reference for Non-Librarians. Access to these services are available at no charge.

Libraries have been offering virtual reference services long before computers. To this day, many libraries will answer basic reference questions by phone or email. The NY Public Library Telephone Reference Service is legendary and once had some entertaining questions and answers published in a book. Btw, the NYPL also offers chat and email reference services.

In the web age, question-answering help has also moved online, often in chat form. Of course, email and phone reference also go on. Many libraries (either individually or by state or even nationally) offer virtual reference services. One source to learn more is Bernie Sloan's Collaborative Live Reference Services Webliography.

We don't plan on listing each and every virtual reference service. You can go online and find your library's home page or just pick up the phone (old school?) and ask. Btw, two excellent directories for library web sites are:

+ Peter Scott's Libdex
+ Marshall Breeding's lib-web-cats

To give you a taste (and a small one at that), here are direct links to a few of them. Many, but not all are powered by OCLC's QuestionPoint or Tutor.com. It's hard to generalize but in some cases you don't even need a library card to access. That said, getting a library card (free) can give you so much. These days, you can even download ebooks, audio books and, in more and more cases, movies. Also, this list does not include the thousands of Q&A services available from university libraries and corporate libraries.

By State
+ California (Statewide): AskNow
Questions asked and answered 24x7x365.

+ Colorado (Statewide): AskColorado

+ Indiana
Live homework help via Tutor.com
Marion County Ask A Librarian
Carmel Clay Public Library Information

+ Maryland (Statewide): AskUsNow

+ NY Public Library offers a massive set of homework resources including online chat options.

+ Oregon: Oregon L-net

Outside the U.S.
Australia's AskNow!
Btw, this service also offers a database of asked and answered questions.
THE list of ask and answered questions does NOT come from AskNow! but is rather a set of ask and answered questions from the National Library of Australia. Both services are of extreme value and are worthy of your attention. Apologies for the confusion our error might have caused.

Toronto Public Librarian, Ask a Librarian

UK's Enquire
24x7x365 chat.

Many of these services also offer co-browsing (work together and see the research process) and also can help direct you to the fee-based databases that many libraries license and offer to users for free from home or office.

More Examples
1) Library of Congress Ask a Librarian
National. Some chat, some email. Go directly to subject experts.

2) AskA+ Locator.
As we said earlier, one of the most useful and important things about the web is using it to get to an expert. The AskA+ Locator helps find these services. A random chat of the list showed that some are offline but others are still going strong. Take a look. We think you'll be amazed.

Finally, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Go ahead and explore. In some cases, others might work better for you. Remember, our goal here is simply to alert you to these types of services.


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