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QuestionPoint Marks New Era in Virtual Reference
Posted On June 10, 2002
In the history of computing, the date to remember is the one when IBM produced the first PC. In the history of the Internet, future historians may note the date when Mosaic became Netscape or perhaps when Bill Gates finally decided Microsoft would recognize the Net. It's not the originating date, it's the maturing date. The Virtual Reference Desk movement may have reached such a juncture with the launch of QuestionPoint by OCLC, the world's leading library vendor, in a joint project with the Library of Congress, the world's largest library. The production model of the service should go online June 23.

QuestionPoint ( stems from an arrangement between the Library of Congress' Public Service Collections Directorate and OCLC to provide libraries with access to a growing collaborative network of reference librarians in the U.S. and around the world. Library patrons can submit questions at any time of the day or night through their local library's Web site. Initially (except for after-hours service) the referral of the questions will go through librarians.

The service operates at two levels for subscribing libraries. It will support local libraries that set up their own live online reference arrangements (sometimes called "Ask-a" services) by tapping their own internal staff or reference librarians from regional consortia. At the second level, questions go to the Global Reference Network, an international group of libraries led by the Library of Congress' own service. Institutions may choose to participate in one or both.

The Library of Congress and OCLC signed an initial cooperative agreement in 2001 to develop a prototype for a new reference service based on the Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS), a pilot project begun in early 2000 by the Library of Congress and 16 partner libraries. QuestionPoint marks the official launch of a service growing out of CDRS. "The service is built by librarians for librarians and is facilitated, administered, and maintained by the Library of Congress and OCLC working together for the best interest of libraries," said Frank Hermes, vice president of OCLC Cooperative Discovery Services.

"QuestionPoint is about redefining the role of the library and the librarian in the digital age," said Diane Kresh, director of public service collections at the Library of Congress. "The technology enhances the services we are able to provide to our traditional users. It will also enable librarians throughout the world to collaborate with their colleagues and work with new audiences in creative and exciting ways." According to Kresh, participants in CDRS advised the addition of major new features that appear in QuestionPoint, such as an extensive online knowledge base archive, automatic routing, and a chat feature. The CDRS program, which will now be closing its doors, had reached 260 participating libraries. Kresh says that fewer will belong to the initial QuestionPoint service.

Basic features of QuestionPoint's technology include the following:

  • Filing, tracking, and managing Web-delivered questions from patrons
  • Linking tools for insertion on local library Web sites for customizable, locally branded access to the QuestionPoint service
  • Web-based question-submission forms, e-mail interaction, and live chat service
  • Automatic routing of questions using a request manager to other library staff locally, to other libraries in consortia or cooperatives, and/or to appropriate libraries in the Global Reference Network
  • Identification of appropriate library strengths for such routing through matching metadata on questions with automated profiles of library resources, expertise, availability of staff, etc.
  • Integration of QuestionPoint services with alternative service providers and the resources that local libraries use
  • Construction and sharing of a global knowledge base of asked and answered reference questions with full, maintained sourcing
To join QuestionPoint, librarians fill out a subscription order form on the site using either the individual institution or group member form (for consortia participants). The form will ask the librarians to make a commitment to the service that, at the least, includes knowledge base editing and, on the higher level, asks them to commit staff to answering questions.

The service costs $2,000 for individual institutions, but members of participating consortia may pay less than that, according to Chip Nilges, OCLC's director of new product planning in reference and resource sharing. This low price covers unlimited access to all the features of the service and network. The amount contrasts sharply with the pricing of commercial virtual reference vendors such as LSSI and Reference 24/7. Steve Coffman of LSSI told me that his company typically charges $9,000 for an installation plus $6,000 per seat (or simultaneous online librarian).

Coffman said that his experience has taught him that introducing effective virtual reference requires a lot of training, mentoring, and marketing. "You're not only selling software, you've got to show them how to use it, stand behind them while they use it, and help them sell it. Partnering means performing tasks worth their weight in gold. And if you don't do it that way, you end up with libraries that have the technology but don't know how to take advantage of it in the fullest sense." Coffman cited cases in which hands weren't held and services ended up running 10 to 30 questions a week, while committed, fully implemented services averaged 150 to 300 questions a day.

The arrival of QuestionPoint on the exploding scene of digital reference services could bring the ferment of issues—opportunities and dangers—to a boil. Some librarian listservs have begun to hum with debate about the advisability of reducing the need for patrons to come to the library. However, Kresh points out that even the world's largest library, her own Library of Congress, has noticed a marked drop-off in walk-in traffic over the last few years.

Already QuestionPoint's developers promise to consider and add new features. OCLC has announced an arrangement with Convey Systems ( to introduce components of Convey's OnDemand software to provide advanced Internet communication features, specifically voice and video. As the knowledge base of paired questions and answers grows, the URL sources listed will need monitoring. According to Kresh, this will involve automated checking of URLs and the discarding of dead ones. Nilges said that the service may use OCLC's experience with CORC and NetFirst to build ways to not only find bad URLs but to locate replacements. QuestionPoint also has alternative Web question-submission forms under development, especially to grapple with the problem of automating the reference interview stage. Plans are even afoot to link to future online tutoring and distance learning services.

Sourcing brings up another consideration. Librarians like to use published, high-quality sources, but digital versions of these products usually entail copyright and licensing restrictions. How will publishers and database aggregators react if digital reference takes off and the material sold or licensed to one library ends up serving the patrons of many libraries? What if the popularity of answers acquired through the network eliminates the perceived need to buy them from content providers? On the other hand, Kresh points out that the sourcing mandated by QuestionPoint will emphasize library services and support the public's perception of its need for libraries and librarians—a perception that serves both librarians and their vendors. In time, QuestionPoint will probably include links to "appropriate copies" held by a library for its patrons and possibly even refer to commercial sources for users who do not have library digital holdings.

According to Vince Price, manager of ProQuest's product line, aggregators and publishers are monitoring developments in the virtual reference area. They recognize that librarians want to offer remote access to patrons and that vendors want to support the service. However, Price pointed to the varying policies of vendors when it comes to expanding the concept of interlibrary loan into a digital collection. Many publicly supported libraries, according to Price, have insisted on clauses that cover walk-in usage as necessary to comply with mandated access. He expects that many librarians will treat the "digital walk-ins" under that clause. On the other hand, if virtual reference services start to reduce vendor or publisher revenue, access problems will arise. For now, however, Price said: "We intend to support efforts of libraries to integrate our products, including with live reference services. When it comes to external service, we'll have to figure out how."

The problem of access to digital collections and databases hits close to home. Together with contributing libraries, OCLC has built WorldCat, the world's largest database of bibliographic information. Now, the ability to locate library materials for patrons would seem to be a basic feature that end-users would expect from such a library-focused service as QuestionPoint—particularly as one of the primary goals behind the service, according to both OCLC and Library of Congress executives, is to promote library usage nationwide. However, OCLC has always restricted WorldCat access to members only, and QuestionPoint does not require OCLC membership. At this point, arrangements to open approved access to WorldCat—as well as to other OCLC reference databases—by all participants in QuestionPoint remain under discussion.

Speaking of access, commercial virtual reference services such as LSSI wonder how tight the relationship between OCLC and the Library of Congress will prove to be. As Coffman pointed out, LSSI too would like access to the Global Reference Network for its Virtual Reference Desk clients. In this regard, Kresh stated that the Library of Congress would consider proposals from any service and hopes to partner widely. In fact, it might want to talk to any number of librarians, including information brokers who are perhaps looking to referral services with the Association of Independent Information Professionals.

All the people I interviewed referred in one way or another to issues of "scalability," if and when the product takes off in the public consciousness. Nilges fantasized about the day librarians will take their place on Google's home page. One fact clearly emerged from interviews. As Kresh said: "The next 6 months should be very exciting. We're just beginning."

In the press release that announced QuestionPoint's launch, the Library of Congress proclaimed that its popular Web site ( handled over a billion hits last year. Impressive, until one realizes that a billion hits still represents less than one week's work for Google. However, the fact that the nation's leading librarians do realize that fact may make QuestionPoint's launch a defining moment for libraries and librarians everywhere.

Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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