Monday, November 22, 2010

Time to move from a reactive to proactive online reference service?

I've just read that the AskNow virtual reference service will close on the 17th December 2010.

Excerpt from the email notice from the State Library of Queensland:

As a consequence of declining demand and the need to respond to changing patterns of library use, the AskNow service will close on 17th of December 2010. This decision was made following an eighteen month review by the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand, and state and territory libraries in Australia.

One of the key reasons for the closure is the change, since the launch of Ask Now in 2002, in the information landscape. In a Web2.0 environment the evidence is that people are engaging with libraries in new ways and they are taking advantage of different service opportunities.

While AskNow has had many satisfied customers over the years, chat is a resource intensive service and decisions about its continued operation have been made in the context of significantly declining usage over the past five years. It is also acknowledged that the collaborative approach to staffing the service has been confusing for those people who expect to be chatting with a librarian at their local library.

I wonder if this is a good opportunity for the AskNow partners and participants to consider the idea of a proactive online reference service for Australians, that takes into account the changes in online behaviour and information seeking that has led to the decline in use of AskNow.

In brief, online services like Facebook and Twitter, and specific answer services like Yahoo Answers are filled with people asking their friends, families and followers all sorts of questions. Some of these questions aren't appropriate for a response by a library, but many are.

At my place of work we have been playing around with Twitter as an online information service. While we now use it to push information, our original intent (and still a core practice) was to watch, listen and search Twitter for questions about our local area, or topics that we could answer. Our hunch that some people were asking their friends and followers questions that could easily be answered by a public library was quickly confirmed, and so we replied to their tweets with information and links.

I realise that this service model is entirely different to AskNow, and that different software, techniques, policies etc would be needed. But what AskNow seems to have been very successful at is the collaboration of some serious library muscle to share the task of answering questions. Perhaps that muscle could be re-engineered into a proactive online reference service for Australians who are making the most of the opportunities and connections afforded by social networking sites and mobile devices.