A need to know

Collaborative Digital Reference Service Web site

Most baseball fans know that New York Yankee Don Larsen pitched a perfect game—allowing no batters to reach base—against the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1956 World Series. Although the game has been well documented, one man walked into the National Library of Canada with a certified stumper: Did Larsen go to a "ball-three" count against any Dodger batter?

It's a reference librarian's job to try to find answers to patrons' questions, no matter how arcane. In this case, library staff members couldn't find the answer using their own print and electronic resources, so they turned to a new resource, the Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS), and waited for another library somewhere in the world to provide the answer.

CDRS, a question-and-answer system developed by the Library of Congress, is simple in its purpose: to notify reference libraries across the country or overseas when their services are needed. Doing so opens diverse worldwide holdings to librarians, giving them a better opportunity to answer questions after they've exhausted their own resources.

In the case of the Larsen question, the institution on the receiving end was the Santa Monica Public Library in California. The staff there couldn't find the answer in-house either, but the nearby Resource Center of the Los Angeles Amateur Athletic Foundation was able to help out, said Nancy O'Neal, principal librarian for reference services for the Santa Monica Public Library. The center faxed the library pages of a book containing at-bat details of the game, which revealed the answer: Just one batter, Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, got to a ball-three count before Larsen struck him out in the first inning.

CDRS is still under development and is the brainchild of Diane Kresh, director for public service collections at the Library of Congress. It makes creative use of customer relationship management (CRM) software to route patrons' questions or requests to appropriate libraries. A CDRS participating library that receives a request agrees to search for an answer and respond in a specified amount of time. By pooling diverse resources, the system is breaking new ground, Kresh said.

"It's never been done before," she said. "It is a unique service in that it is entirely networked, and we have reference librarians serving patrons beyond their constituencies."

The idea for an around-the-clock reference service was hatched during a 1998 LOC conference addressing the impact of digital information on the library profession, Kresh said. Librarians wanted to find a way to remain relevant in the world of Internet-based "ask it" services, such as Ask Jeeves (www.ask.com).

By customizing Remedy Corp.'s Action Request System CRM tool—which LOC had long used to manage help-desk requests—Charles Shellem, a computer specialist at LOC, created a high-tech algorithm for routing questions to libraries' old-fashioned but rich holdings and expertise, and CDRS was born. The first request, from a patron in Great Britain looking for information about Byzantine-era cuisine, was submitted in July 2000.

"We're trying to give people more refined information than you get from those question-and-answer systems," Shellem said. "It's very difficult to take a question and provide accurate answers."

Take, for example, the question: "Are soldiers' families still notified by telegram when they are killed in battle?" When typed into the Ask Jeeves Web site, most of the responses deal with family issues—family trees, family laws, family relationships, etc. Through CDRS, however, the question was routed to a U.S. Army library, where a librarian easily found the answer: Until 1965, families were notified by telegram. Since then, notification must be made in person by a service member of equal or higher rank than the deceased.

"If you look at all the information that's out there in the world, less than 20 percent is digitized," said Ellen Melle, Remedy program development manager, citing an LOC presentation on CDRS she attended. The remaining 80 percent "is sitting in libraries," she said. CDRS "helps those reference libraries get at and find all that information that's not directly available on the Web."

CDRS—"the most unique use of our product I have seen by a customer," according to Laurie Cowan, a Remedy account executive—runs the Action Request System on IBM Corp. RS/6000s servers using the AIX Unix-based operating system. When the system receives a request from a participating library, structured query language procedures developed by LOC match details about the question—subject area, geographic region, languages involved, how soon an answer is needed (from two hours to seven days)—with a database of libraries that have indicated they have similar information. CDRS then sends an e-mail message to the library it deems most likely to have an answer.

The chosen library uses the same CDRS log-in Web interface as the requester to access the question. If the library can't provide an answer or decides not to, it can return the query to the system for another match. If two libraries reject a request, it is assigned to an LOC on-call librarian for manual assignment, Shellem said.

Libraries join CDRS by completing a Web-based profile form that's managed by the Online Computer Library Center Inc., Dublin, Ohio. New or updated profiles are sent to LOC each night. In May, a reference team in Hillsboro, Ore., became the 100th CDRS participant, joining institutions across America and in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Hong Kong. LOC is aiming for 600 participating facilities by the end of the year. More than 100 expressed an interest in joining during last month's American Library Association conference in San Francisco, Kresh said.

CDRS participants say that, so far, the system is performing well.

"It's working out better than I ever anticipated," said Santa Monica's O'Neil, who was involved early on in the development of CDRS.

"We've been real impressed with the turnaround time," said Paula Saitis, head of the General Information Services Division's Information Center at the Chicago Public Library, which joined CDRS in late April.

There have been concerns about the system's ability to find the most appropriate library to answer a question, and LOC officials are addressing that issue. For instance, a professor at the University of Washington wanted to know how he could get access to sound recordings of Vienna-based essayist Karl Kraus, who died in 1939, reading his work. Nancy Huling, head of reference and research services at the University of Washington Libraries, referred the inquiry to its Germanic librarian and also submitted it to CDRS. When the system referred it to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, "I thought, "Oh, great,' " Huling said.

But the Hong Kong library was able to help. The staff performed a search on the Google Internet search engine in German, an idea that had not occurred to researchers at the University of Washington. The results, coupled with the university's own findings, gave the patron what he needed.

"The professor was absolutely astounded and off and running again with some more ideas," Huling said.

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