The proliferation of virtual content is an important trend for libraries in recent years. It's instructive to recall your library of 15, 10, or even 5 years ago: a physical collection in a physical location. Now, almost every library has a Web site that offers a menu of full text content, on site and off. This has occurred during the growth of the Internet itself as a reference resource--as well it should, since the notion that "Everything is on the Internet and free" is still with us. Lately, this stubborn misconception has eroded, as the increasing commercialism of the Internet makes it harder to uncover good content, and the proliferation of illicit or merely trashy content puts people off. Libraries have wisely positioned Web sites as an attractive alternative to the public Web. Instead of the frustrations of generic Web searching, libraries offer large stocks of reliable reference and research information, powerful search interfaces, no public Web clutter, and no fees.
Libraries may be doing a wonderful job with virtual content, but what about reference, libraries' greatest service offering? Many libraries are providing virtual reference service through e-mail and live chat. Virtual reference is an enormous convenience to library patrons, especially in today's lifestyle, when time to go to the library seems harder and harder to find. As with virtual content, libraries are competing for reference service with the Internet. There are several "Ask-an-expert" models on the Web, some free and some fee-based. Compared with these, online library reference presents the same advantages as does online library content: It's authoritative, reliable, professional, and free.
However, many library virtual reference services are local projects. As such, these services have the shortcomings of a single facility, being bound by the limitations of time and expertise of the local reference staff. What's needed is a technology-mediated solution that engages the resources of many libraries. Libraries have done so with great success in cataloging, interlibrary loan, and content. Why not with reference service?
OCLC AND LC DO REFERENCE
In fact, it's already being done by QuestionPoint [www.questionpoint.org], a collaborative reference service developed by OCLC and the Library of Congress, with input from the Global Reference Network [www.loc.gov/rr/digiref], an international library group for the advancement of digital reference. QuestionPoint puts the collective expertise of libraries around the world at the service of an individual reference question. It promises to help libraries regain "information market share" from the public Web.
QuestionPoint is a successor to the LC-sponsored Collaborative Digital Reference Service, a reference consortium started in 2000. QuestionPoint itself opened in June 2002, with OCLC providing the technical infrastructure and management operations. The service is open to all kinds of libraries and now has over 300 members. Membership is based on association at three levels: local, regional, and global. Pricing is a multi-level structure based upon library size, network level, and degree of participation.
The design goal for QuestionPoint is to push the envelope of virtual reference service as far as possible. The project is based on three strong foundations:
* A powerful technical infrastructure employing the Internet and innovative information management applications
* The collective expertise of members' reference staffs
* Most of all, the great, longstanding tradition of libraries helping each other to do the best job for their patrons
QuestionPoint works through an ambitious and sophisticated infrastructure for receiving, manipulating, and responding to reference questions. It starts when the questioner links to a participating library's reference page and fills out the formatted QuestionPoint form (libraries can also use synchronous chat). …