LSSI (Library Systems and Services, Inc.) has sold its Reference Division to Tutor.com, an online homework help and educational service. The acquisition includes LSSI's Virtual Reference ToolKit, Web Reference Services, and Integrated Reference Management System with RefTracker. LSSI's Arthur Brady has become vice president and general manager of the new Tutor.com Reference Division. Steve Coffman will serve in an advisory role to Tutor.com as vice president of strategic development, while retaining his position as vice president of business development at LSSI.
LSSI Virtual Reference ToolKit supports round-the-clock professional reference and search assistance services. The integrated, e-mail-based reference request management system for libraries, RefTracker, integrates virtual, e-mail, phone, and desk reference services. Librarians can track and route questions automatically and save those they want in a searchable knowledgebase. RefTracker automatically collects statistics on reference activity at all service points.
Founded in 1998, Tutor.com provides one-to-one, online tutoring delivered via its proprietary Online Classroom, using a network of tutors supported by administrative and reporting tools. The Tutor.com Online Classroom enables learners and tutors to interact in a variety of ways, including speaking to each other live, using whiteboard technology, sharing documents, chatting, and browsing the Web together. Each day, over 1,000 tutoring sessions take place in the Online Classroom. Tutor.com currently provides tutoring services for more than 500 public libraries and education organizations nationwide, including the Boston Public Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, Queensborough Public Library, Cincinnati Public Library, Nashville Public Library, San Francisco Public Library, et al.
The move will broaden Tutor.com's service offerings to the library community, an institutional market segment that has reportedly proved more remunerative than individual sales of instructional services. The announcement of the acquisition indicated that Tutor.com's new Reference Division aimed to serve library users working from libraries, homes, schools, or workplaces.
George Cigale, Tutor.com's CEO, stated, "This union provides Tutor.com with the opportunity to enrich our commitment to public libraries and their patrons by making it easier for Live Homework Help customers to enhance their core information services by adding round-the-clock access to reference professionals."
Large public library systems, regional networks, and statewide consortia that have already implemented both Tutor.com's Live Homework Help and LSSI's Virtual Reference ToolKit include the CLEVNET consortium of 31 library systems in 9 counties throughout northern Ohio; Q and A NJ, a service of the New Jersey Library Network; the King County Library System in Washington; and Multnomah County Library for the Oregon State Project.
Carol Nersinger, director of development for the New Jersey State Library, commented: "It's exciting to see these two companies come together and offer solutions that our libraries and our patrons need. We have found that offering both virtual reference and one-to-one online tutoring increases the use of both services while the academic support helps introduce the under-18 market to the library and its resources."
As a result of the acquisition, LSSI has become a minority shareholder of Tutor.com. Other terms of the transaction were not released. LSSI has supplied its Virtual Reference Toolkit as the underlying technology supporting Tutor.com's Live Homework Help. The online tutoring service targets students in 4th through 12th grades, with experts in mathematics, science, social studies, and English offering sessions lasting up to 20 minutes. LSSI also offered Live Homework Help to its own clients.
David Lankes, director of the Information Institute of Syracuse and a leader of the virtual reference movement, mused as to what this shift might mean to virtual reference. When QuestionPoint, the joint offering of OCLC and the Library of Congress, entered the virtual reference arena with a low-priced product, the pressure on LSSI's much more expensive product grew. Lankes told me when he hears complaints about virtual reference costing too much, the complainers usually turn out to be using LSSI.
And the problem of low usage statistics continues to plague the field, Lankes indicated, with a few notable exceptions, such as Boston and Cleveland. Still, Lankes feels that the field is in a process of transformation and Web-networked digital reference is evolving into a basic reference tool. "Ask-A" services such as Lankes' own AskERIC continue to receive heavy usage. "We [AskERIC] answer 700 live questions a week, 45,000 e-mail questions a year," said Lankes. "Some libraries have seen Web reference usage top walk-ins. The field is still evolving."
The strongest use for virtual reference seems to come from public libraries with strong service offerings to schools and students. If Tutor.com can help more libraries find the funding they need to support the services, they may have a winning combination.