Two of the nation's leading virtual reference services have merged. The Metropolitan Cooperative Library System (MCLS; http://www.mcls.org), a 32-member library consortium based in southern California, has transferred the assets of its popular 24/7 Reference operation to OCLC (http://www.oclc.org), the world's largest library network. OCLC already administers QuestionPoint, a virtual reference service developed in cooperation with the Library of Congress. Both services currently offer an infrastructure of software and communication tools as well as collaborative network arrangements with participating libraries. A new, improved platform of software and services that combines the best features of both systems is being developed. Subscribers to both services should see the new suite of tools early in 2005. Current contracts will remain as is until then.
The 24/7 Reference service had expanded rapidly and earned many loyal adherents, but its fast growth had become more and more difficult for MCLS to sustain. OCLC has vast resources and connections. It provides support services to some 50,000 libraries in 84 countries and territories. It owns the world's largest shared catalog, WorldCat, and has begun promoting access to a subset of that database via Google and Yahoo! Search through its Open WorldCat project. Moving to shared reference services is a logical expansion of OCLC's services in supporting and promoting libraries and librarians.
Currently, QuestionPoint is used in more than 1,000 libraries in 20 countries. More than 7,000 question-and-answer pairs fill a growing Knowledge Base built from reference transactions. The 24/7 Reference service serves some 500 libraries. Representatives from OCLC and 24/7 Reference acknowledged some overlap among participating libraries; in fact, some libraries use both services, combining features and capabilities already. Of the two services, QuestionPoint has stronger reference management and administration, as well as the Global Reference Network. 24/7 Reference, on the other hand, has strong cooperative reference support. The goal of both is to support effective, efficient, on-demand service operating 24/7/365.
According to Pat Stevens, director of OCLC's cooperative initiatives, the full staff and contracted support staff currently working with 24/7 Reference will transfer to OCLC. Susan McGlamery, 24/7 Reference project director, will become global program manager of cooperative reference services. Carol Bonnefil, 24/7 Reference client support specialist, will also become an OCLC employee. Stevens looked upon the acquisition of this talent as the happiest element of the acquisition for her, speaking as a manager. "They're all fantastic people. We have a wonderful team," said Stevens.
OCLC has inaugurated an advisory committee as a transition task force to gather ideas and information from users of both services and to help determine the features and functionalities of the new platform. The task force consists initially of McGlamery, Jeff Penka (QuestionPoint program manager), Diane Kresh of the Library of Congress, and two user representatives, one from each service, who will co-chair the committee. The two user representatives are Nancy O'Neill, head of reference services at Santa Monica Public Library, and Nancy Huling of the University of Washington library. The first task of the co-chairs will be to recruit a total of six to eight users for the committee, according to Stevens. Output from the committee should be announced at the November 2004 Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) conference, according to McGlamery.
Advocates of virtual reference services saluted the merger immediately. David Lankes, director of the Information Institute of Syracuse and the VRD Project that runs the VRD conferences, said, "OCLC rules the world! OCLC has a specific agenda of linking as many library networks as possible for QuestionPoint's set of software and networks." Lankes looked at 24/7 as having had growing pains in "maintaining a large distribution network of services while evolving software in the soft money world of grants and government funds." He evaluated the move as indicating an expansionist vision of virtual reference by OCLC. "They want to be the biggest network around and have done a brilliant job in taking over almost every virtual reference activity out there." Lankes even pointed to the support role OCLC now plays in his VRD conferences.
On the other hand, he had no worries about a market-restricting monopoly. "Tutor.com and other services are still out there," as Lankes pointed out, "and any library with text messaging or e-mail accounts can start a virtual reference operation." Basically, he considered it a very good move for everyone involved. "Everyone loved 24/7, but they started in Los Angeles, quickly expanded to all of California, and then faced the nation and the world. They simply realized they didn't have the resources to meet that kind of growth in the world with only California money." The new ownership will give OCLC a burst of talent and great networks and will give 24/7 and virtual reference a solid foundation and infrastructure, according to Lankes.
Pat Stevens independently echoed Lankes' remarks, referring to the acquisition as expansionist in OCLC's virtual reference strategy. McGlamery also echoed Lankes' observations, saying she now felt that the merger was inevitable: "I feel we made a great start, but to expand and provide a sustainable service, it was inevitable that we needed a bigger infrastructure." Personally, McGlamery looks forward to her new role. She felt that it would "give her breathing space" and allow her to "focus on the more interesting phases." She felt that, as a non-profit organization like 24/7 Reference's owner, MCLS, OCLC had a "similar outlook and sense of mission." She was "excited about their Global Reference Network, their strong relationship with LC, and their sustainable infrastructure."
QuestionPoint has strong administrative tools for managing reference transactions, such as routing questions through a hierarchy, as well as providing statistical reports that support management decisions, funding studies, and user satisfaction surveys. Its Global Reference Network builds on the resources of the Library of Congress, the world's largest reference service, and specialists at member participants around the world. The QuestionPoint service allows participating libraries to select different levels of involvement and has a low price based on the type of institution, its resources, and its commitment to the collaborative network, rather than numbers of seats, accesses, or budget dollars. As to how pricing for 24/7 participants, who had probably paid more than QuestionPoint users, may change with the new platform, Stevens said that they are evaluating pricing and there may be some changes.
The 24/7 Reference service works with both academic and public libraries. Its software package builds on commercial tools customized to the needs of librarians and library patrons and operates off each library's Web site. Its software supports real-time chat and allows collaborative browsing where librarians can search along with the patron's computers, simultaneously looking at Web pages and transmitting files. It also supports online meetings and networking local with remote experts. Its After Hours Service Libraries provide a cooperative service that can supplement local resources to provide round-the-clock live reference service.
A lot of work lies ahead for OCLC and its new 24/7 Reference team, as well as for virtual reference operations throughout libraries. As Stevens put it: "No one has got it right now, but we must prove ourselves and our service to people who don't come into the library. Cooperation among libraries is essential to provide affordable and effective reference service." McGlamery anticipated that the "synergy between 24/7 and QuestionPoint and OCLC will do so many things to help virtual reference itself. It will energize groups."
[Not everyone holds such a positive view of the future of virtual reference. Steve Coffman and Linda Arret have written two rather negative articles on the subject published in the July-August and September issues of Searcher magazine, available online at this Web site (http://www.infotoday.com/searcher). In the course of researching this NewsBreak, I learned that the Coffman/Arret articles have stirred up considerable opposition. In fact, Lankes, McGlamery, and O'Neill have all volunteered to write a refutation, which should be available in the January 2005 issue of Searcher. As Searcher's editor, I can only salute the wise advice given to me decades ago by Information Today, Inc.'s publisher, Tom Hogan Sr.: "Heat sells better than light." The topic has certainly warmed up my editorial calendar.]