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  February 3, 2003

Library Now Offers Live Online
Reference Help Around The Clock
By Suzanne Zack

David McChesney sits down in his office, turns on his computer, and prepares to "face" library users who may be sitting at a computer in a their dorm room, or at a public terminal in the library. Welcome to today's academic library reference "desk."

Image: David McChesney demonstrates the online reference service.
David McChesney, a reference librarian in Homer Babbidge Library, demonstrates a new online reference service that provides assistance to users 24 horus a day.
Photo by Suzanne Zack

"Using the Web to communicate is pervasive in today's culture," says McChesney, a reference librarian in Homer Babbidge Library. "You have only to look at the popularity of 'instant messaging' to understand why online reference help is growing in use and why it is becoming an important complement to the more traditional on-site reference desk service we provide."

A year ago, the staff in Research and Information Services began to experiment with online reference help by offering a service known as "askHomer Live," through which a staff member communicated online, or "chatted," with a library user and sent or "pushed" web pages and images or links to a patron's computer. Although well received, the service was limited in operation to weekdays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

That changed in November, when the library began to participate in a round-the-clock online reference service provided through the Boston Library Consortium, an organization of academic libraries that UConn joined last September.

The Boston Library Consortium ASK 24/7 project offers longer chat hours to patrons and uses more sophisticated chat software at a reasonable price.

"It seemed like an opportunity we should pursue," says McChesney, who is coordinating the Libraries' involvement with the initiative.

The new service offers an academic alternative to commercial Web searches and search engines used by researchers and students working at odd hours of the day or night.

It also makes it convenient for users to ask a librarian a question when they're not near a phone, don't want to disconnect from the Internet to place a call, or don't want to give up their library workstation to go to the reference desk.

The service works from any Internet-connected computer, whether in a residence hall, at home, or elsewhere.

BLC ASK 24/7 is provided by Metropolitan Cooperative Library System, an association of libraries in southern California, to the Boston Library Consortium (BLC). It is a one-year pilot project, staffed by specially trained librarians from 10 institutions in the consortium.

Four librarians from each of the participating institutions cover a four-hour daytime slot in return for round-the-clock reference service. MCLS librarians cover the hours not otherwise covered.

For McChesney and the other librarians who field questions on BLC ASK 24/7, it means they will get questions from members of the other participating institutions. For example, Steve Batt, a reference librarian in Homer Babbidge Library, recently fielded a question from a student at Wellesley who was searching for information about generic drug pricing. After consulting with Sharon Giovenale, a pharmacy librarian at UConn, he was able to identify a source that answered the question and fax the pertinent pages to the student in Massachusetts.

"Our participation in BLC is already accruing benefits for members of the University community," says Brinley Franklin, director of University libraries. "We know that students, faculty, and staff may require reference help when our staff are not available. ASK 24/7 is responsive to that need."

UConn's membership of the consortium already permits use of the BLC Borrower's Card, which carries borrowing privileges at: Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis, Brown, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, MIT, Northeastern, Tufts, UMass, the University of New Hampshire, Wellesley, Williams College, Boston Public Library, and the State Library of Massachusetts.

Franklin says he expects participation in the consortium to yield additional benefits in the future.

To access the ASK 24/7 service, go to:

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