Librarians offer reference chat

Seattle Public Library Live Help

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The Seattle Public Library, faced with an ongoing decline in its walk-in reference business, has installed an online "chat" service its patrons can use to get real-time help from library staff using computers at home, school or work.

The service, called Live Help, was created as part of a three-way partnership among the library system, the University of Washington Health Sciences Libraries and the King County Law Library. Its launch was paid for with a $30,000 grant awarded through the1996 federal Library Services and Technology Act, which funds special projects in libraries.

"These kinds of chat services are becoming very popular with libraries around the country," said Craig Kyte, manager for general reference services at the Seattle library. "People are more and more doing their research online, and our younger patrons in particular go to the Internet in preference to using books or visiting the library in person."

However, the library also has been receiving an increasing number of complaints that its patrons can't find what they need via the Internet or that the results of online searches are too confusing, he said. "So it seemed a natural extension of the services we offer to be online to help people with this."

The service also provides a link to the other two libraries, which offer more specialized services. Staff members at the University of Washington's library, for example, found that people were coming in with general inquiries on health that they weren't equipped to handle. In such cases, they often referred people to the Seattle library. Now, university staff members can sit visitors down at a computer and link them to the Seattle library staff via Live Help.

Conversely, people who come into Seattle library branches with questions too technical for the staff to answer can be linked with the university's librarians.

The King County Law Library's primary duty is to serve those in the legal profession, but it also has a little-known mandate to be a public law library also, Kyte said. It has had a lot of trouble advertising that fact to the general public.

"Over the years, we've referred a lot of business to the law library, and it feels Live Help will be a great opportunity for it to do a better job serving the folks it is intended to serve," he said.

The initial grant project runs through August, according to Kyte, and then the three partners will see what can be done about getting other libraries involved and to extend the hours Live Help is available.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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