Maryland state officials have turned the traditional public library information desk into a virtual forum where students can chat with librarians about their research questions in real time via the internet—24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Librarians staffing the online research service, called AskUsNow!, guide students and other users to pre-selected web sites, databases, and other digital resources. Using any internet-connected computer, students can log onto the service for help with their research papers or homework—even in the middle of the night.

“This is more of a reference service than a tutoring service,” said Joe Thompson, project director of Maryland’s virtual reference service.

AskUsNow! started last year as a joint project between Baltimore County Public Library and Harford County Public Library with a $70,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education. On March 17, it was expanded to a round-the-clock program serving all counties in the state, thanks in part to a $155,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Many students use the internet for research, yet it is so vast and sometimes full of inaccurate content, Thomspon said. AskUsNow! saves students time because they don’t have to stumble around online to find what they need.

Students can access the service through the AskUsNow! web site or through a link on their library’s home page. Once students log on and type in their questions, almost immediately librarians will start chatting with them to provide an answer. The user and the librarian are able to see the same screen at the same time.

“We give anything [users] would ask for at a public service desk in a library,” Thompson said. Librarians can eMail students full-text articles or other resources from a variety of electronic services that the state’s public libraries subscribe to, including newspaper and magazine databases, encyclopedias, and criticism of various published works of art.

The user is sent a full transcript of the chat session—including all links and conversation—via eMail so he or she doesn’t have to take notes. The system also keeps a record of each question it receives and how long it took the librarian to answer it.

Thompson said the librarians currently receive about one question every 45 minutes. “Each one takes 20 to 30 minutes to answer,” he said. “It’s a much more time-consuming process answering questions online.”

Teachers who lead online courses have had to learn to use new teaching strategies—and so do virtual librarians, Thompson said: “You don’t have all the visual clues that you have in person.”

Maryland is the second state to set up such a statewide system, Thompson said. New Jersey has had a similar system for more than a year.

In Maryland, librarian staffing will come from 20 public library systems, five academic libraries, and the Maryland Law Library. The participating academic libraries are Anne Arundel Community College, Baltimore City Community College, Loyola/Notre Dame, Villa Julie, and University of Maryland College Park.

The system reportedly will be part of a larger library consortium that will enable librarians from Massachusetts and California to help Maryland residents in the middle of the night.

“This is really the next big leap I’m seeing in providing information online,” Thompson said.

The computer software that is being used by the state is called 24/7 Reference, which is available through a licensing agreement with the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System of Pasadena, Calif.

New Jersey first started making librarians available online from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. in October 2001. In that first month, librarians fielded 240 questions, said Peter Bromberg, program development coordinator for the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative.

But when the service went 24/7 in January 2002, Bromberg said the amount of questions went up to 100 a day—and demand has continued to rise. Last January, the program, called “Q and A N.J.,” received nearly 5,000 questions.

Some of the most popular inquiries relate to health, law, genealogy, and business. Students working on research papers also reach out often to the nocturnal librarians, Bromberg said.

The longest wait for help is between three and five minutes, Bromberg said, and usage goes way down at night.

Bromberg also said the online service has enhanced residents’ understanding of library services. The service has been praised highly by elderly and disabled New Jersey residents.

“We know that we’re reaching people,” Bromberg said. “We know that we’re making a difference.”

Links:

AskUsNow!
http://www.askusnow.info

Baltimore County Public Library
http://www.bcplonline.org/askusnow

Harford County Public Library
http://www.harf.lib.md.us/HCPL/askusnow/main.htm

Institute of Museum and Library Services
http://www.imls.gov

Q and A N.J.
http://www.qandanj.org