Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Questions and Quirks

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Questions and Quirks

Article excerpt

Managing an Internet-Based Distributed

Reference Seruice

The Internet Public Library (IPL) opened to the world in March 1995, with a mission to provide library services to the global Internet community. We are an entirely virtual operation, located on the Web at http://www. More than 10,000 patrons from all over the world visit the IPL and make use of its services and collections every day. At the same time, the IPL serves as a laboratory for librarians and library students to experiment with new tools and environments in order to advance both their own skills and the profession as a whole. We think of the IPL as a "teaching and research library," the way that many university hospitals are teaching and research hospitals.

The IPL is hosted by the University of Michigan School of Information. where it grew out of a seminar taught by assistant professor Joe Janes in the winter term of 1995. With a directive to "challenge the nations of what libraries are and should be in a distributed world, and to demonstrate the value of that perspective in a chaotic, dynamic, but exciting and liberating environment, 35 library students and two computer science students set out to build the first framework of the library. Since that time, the IPL has dramatically expanded its operations, added more projects and resources, and involved hundreds of students at Michigan and other library schools, as well as librarian volunteers from around the globe.

IPL Reference Center

The students who comprised the original IPL Reference group decided right away that interactive services were essential to supporting the mission of the IPL, and that we could not call ourselves a true public library without them. Venturing into the uncharted territory of electronic operations, we kept as our anchor the well-understood process of running a traditional reference desk: providing a visible contact point at which patrons can obtain help in navigating the library's spaces, finding answers to their questions, and evaluating resources. Our conclusion was (and is) that these services are as useful in a virtual environment as in a physical one, and that to fulfill our mission we would provide them to our patrons as far as we were able. The result: The IPL Reference Center.

Because our interaction with IPL patrons is mediated solely by electronic networks, we never "see" them except as electronic mail messages and Web server log entries. We needed to find out how to use the methods we had available to us to maximize communication in the absence of face-to-face interaction. As reference librarians, we do our best to share our expertise with people who need it; part of our reason for creating the IPL Reference Center was so that we could professionally express ourselves, and let people know what kind of work we do.

We receive questions from patrons of all ages and from all walks of life. As an unexpected bonus of our operation, the questions that we have received have proven to be a close reflection of public expectation regarding the Internet. Given that the overwhelming message being broadcast via commercial channels is "it's all out there," many of the questions we have received are pleas to the effect that "I know what I'm looking for is there somewhere. I've tried and tried, so why can't I find it?" Through the process of answering these varied questions, we have gotten a better sense of what kinds of content and search engines will be needed to improve the Internet, and how to try to educate the public about its limitations. Finally, just like a "landed" library, we use our reference division to exercise and add to our collections. We will often evaluate for inclusion to our collection the new resources that we've found in the course of answering questions, and we see which sources within the collection get more of a "workout."

How the IPL Reference Center Handles Questions

The operation of the IPL Reference Center is a highly collaborative process, involving many volunteer librarians and library students who are willing to contribute their time to answering questions for people whom they never see or meet in person. …

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