This session was sponsored by the Reference and Information Services Section and was moderated by Joan Stahl, National Museum of American Art. In her introduction, Ms. Stahl discussed how public service librarians, used to answering questions on the phone, by mail, and in person, are now getting more and more queries electronically. This is due both to patrons who have web access and expect to receive responses electronically and to the greater availability of library e-mail addresses and web sites. The question posed and addressed by the four panelists was how is this new situation being dealt with at their respective "libraries."
The first speaker was Robin Summers, Coordinator of AskERIC Q&A Service (http://ericir.syr.edu/), the Internet service of the Educational Resources Information Center, based at Syracuse University. The service has grown tremendously since it became fully digital in 1992. They currently average 750 queries per week. Questions received are distributed to a clearinghouse, then go on to subject specialists for answering. A typical response includes a restatement of the original question, a listing of Internet resources, 10-15 citations from the ERIC database, and referrals to other libraries. The turnaround time is two working days. To better serve patrons aged K-12, they began KidsConnect in April of 1996. Ms. Summers stressed that it is still people answering the queries, that reference skills are paramount, but that technical literacy is more and more important, and that, of necessity, one must be an evaluator of the myriad information sources.
The next speaker was Nettie Lagace, Reference Coordinator of the Internet Public Library (IPL http://www.ipl.org/ref/). Begun as a project of graduate library school students at the University of Michigan, it now continues, with the help of a $200,000 Mellon grant, as a service to help Internet users around the world. They receive 30-35 queries per day. Questions received are acknowledged, then sent on to librarian and library school volunteers, within nine different subject categories. The service has a standard form for submitting questions, through which they hope to elicit more than just the query. They actually return about 40% of questions received, explaining why they cannot handle them and where the questioner can pursue the matter further. The questioners are generally looking to find answers on the Internet, and the service looks to find them there as well, going to regular libraries as a second choice. One problem is that patrons do not always clearly articulate their queries, which delays answering them promptly. One also does not know if they have already tried other sources, so one assumes they have not. IPL does not have a defined user community and is exploring ways to reach potential patrons, but anticipates that it may have to charge for the service in the future.
Ilene Frank, Reference Librarian at the University of South Florida, Tampa (http://www.lib.usf.edu/), was unable to be present due to illness. Janine Henri of the University of Texas at Austin read Ms. Frank1s paper. E-mail reference service at South Florida began in May 1994 in response to the University's push for improving remote services and because of campus-wide technological advances. Because of the small staff size, the library has not promoted this service actively. They treat e-mail queries in the same way as telephone reference queries, providing short answers and referrals and explaining the strategy used in responding. The service is open to all, but the university community is given priority. Because of the lack of promotion, the service averages only one query a day, though they do receive other e-mail requests from faculty that are not strictly within the parameters of the service.
The fourth speaker was Joan Stahl, Coordinator of Image Collections, National Museum of American Art. Their service was begun four years ago. Because of technological, financial, and geographical considerations at the time, the service was offered through America Online. (As of this writing, it is available through the museum's web site http://www.nmaa.si.edu/referencedesk/). The ground rules were to share the museum1s extensive resources on American art, to answer queries in a personalized manner, and, hopefully, to increase the museum's membership. Questions are routed directly to Ms. Stahl's mailbox. In contrast with in-person queries, users are more diverse, with broader age range, and are more computer literate. Sometimes, however, their manner of posing questions is too informal and vague. The service now averages about 350 queries a month, received from all over the world and from all age groups. It is limited to the subject of American art. In most cases the specific answer, as opposed to a referral, is provided. In answering, the question is restated, both electronic and print references are provided, giving complete bibliographical citations, and the questioner is advised that further questions are invited. A plug for museum membership is also included. Ms. Stahl saves all queries received, and is compiling a frequently asked question file. The sole respondent when the service was begun, she now has a part-time library student helper and also distributes some questions to other museum library staff.
Questions from the floor prompted the following responses. While the actual membership increase as a result of the service at the National Museum of American Art is not yet known, the service has prompted donations. Ask ERIC Q&A does get repeat questions. Though they receive too many to archive, the questions have led to the production of 150 information guides. IPL has a training program for its volunteer respondents and is looking at ways to keep them motivated. Ms. Stahl, in her introduction to the session, said that these four different services would perhaps serve as models for library reference in the future; that is certainly the case.
Philadelphia Museum of Art