Virtual reference desk is open

Librarians go where the public is — online

Government Information Online site

In San Francisco, a woman logs on to a Web site from her home computer and types a question: Where can I find the president’s 2006 budget request for NASA?

A librarian, who is also online, directs the woman to a link that summons information housed thousands of miles away at the Library of Virginia.

This unusual library visit is possible because of a national test program, Government Information Online (GIO), which will continue until November. The program’s sponsors are the Illinois State Library, the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

During the test program, more than 30 librarians in the Federal Depository Library Program will be available online to help people find government information. Government Printing Office officials, who administer the library program, have agreed to evaluate the program’s virtual reference desk.

For years, government information has been accessible via the Internet. With the GIO program, experts who can help people find and understand that information are also online.

The librarians direct patrons to sources, not answers. For example, if the San Francisco woman were to ask how the level of spending on moon exploration this year differed from that of a decade ago, the librarian would point the woman to appropriate links but would not type an answer for her.

As questions and answers accumulate, program officials will archive the exchanges in a repository that librarians refer to as a national cyber knowledge base. Since late last year, the GIO program has collected more than 200 e-mail messages and chat sessions and attracted more than 18,000 visitors.

GIO was largely the idea of John Shuler, associate professor and documents librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Shuler said creating a virtual reference desk requires library officials to set privacy policies, advertising guidelines and rotation schedules for librarians.

“We’re still working on who has access to the questions,” Shuler said. For now, people pose questions through either e-mail or scheduled chat sessions. Librarians view the questions and pick one from a queue on a first-come, first-served basis.

Public awareness of the GIO program is still low, said Anne Craig, associate director of automation and technology at the Illinois State Library. But library officials plan to promote GIO through a variety of means including radio spots, e-mail lists and links on GPO’s and OCLC’s Web sites.

GIO’s organizers recognize that the Internet is the best way to reach their audience. “Our users are on the Web,” Craig said. “They are not always coming through the door anymore. We need to meet them where they are. We need to be relevant.”

For the GIO pilot, OCLC officials donated a subscription to their QuestionPoint virtual reference service software. An annual subscription would cost about $14,000 for 30 libraries. Academic and public institutions worldwide use the software to manage reference traffic.

The GIO test is running smoothly, said Tom Miller, senior product training and implementation specialist at OCLC. But the program’s future beyond November remains unclear.

“This is a pilot project,” said Veronica Meter, a GPO spokeswoman. “We will be evaluating the outcome once it is completed.”

Librarians in cyberspace

An experimental online library program lets users ask a federal depository librarian for help with finding government information. The following libraries are among the more than 30 institutions participating in Government Information Online:

  • Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records:
  • Boston Public Library:
  • Library of Virginia:
  • Northwestern University:
  • Portland State University:
  • State Library of Pennsylvania:
  • University of Illinois at Chicago:
  • University of Missouri–Columbia:
  • University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill:
  • University of Virginia:

    Source: Government Information Online

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