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Virtual Reference Service From GPO and Depository Libraries—GIO: Ask a Librarian
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Posted On February 21, 2008


A formal agreement between the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO; www.gpo.gov) and a network of 20 depository libraries has relaunched and expanded the scope of a virtual reference service called Government Information Online: Ask a Librarian (GIO; http://govtinfo.org). Be careful about using the dot-org. Typing "govtinfo.gov" will switch you to the USA.gov site. That may not be too much of a mistake in time. One of the primary strategies of the GIO service is to promote its existence through links from other leading dot-gov sites, such as USA.gov and Thomas. The engineering of such linkages falls mainly to GPO. The depository library participants, led by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and managed by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC; www.cic.net), will handle providing the free chat- and email-based virtual reference service.

Reference librarians from 20 academic, state, and public depository libraries will be available to direct users to information from government agencies, in particular federal, but state, regional, and local agencies as well. The federal government coverage should be consistently strong, as all the libraries involved are federal depositories. Coverage of state and local collections will vary, along with other expertise. John Shuler, project manager and bibliographer for urban planning and government information at UIC, describes the expertise of participant library collections and staff as stretching outside the GPO collection. "We draw on multiple sources and all levels, including specific local expertise. While all have generalized expertise for the federal government, some have specific expertise for other areas, for example, foreign or international. Users simply ask questions."

At present, the site lets users aim their questions at specific libraries. Though the names of the libraries provide a clue to geographically defined expertise, the site offers no background on any other subject expertise. Shuler says, "We are learning as we grow on how people select libraries. There has already been some discussion in management groups and among participants on how to structure a subject or expertise framework."

The GIO site offers two modes for asking questions—online chat and email. You can email questions any time, and the site promises an answer within 48 hours. Chat, however, is restricted to Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Central Standard Time. I asked Shuler about the restricted hours, considering that participating libraries were coast to coast—even asea, in the case of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. (Only the Mountain time zone has no libraries participating in the project at present.) He pointed out that the decision is based on past experience. Usage over the more than 3 years of the initial project measured only 1,700 transactions, though the project had been dormant for much of 2006. However, he reported that just the few days after the issuance of the announcement had seen 50 interactions. He had also received calls from five more depository libraries looking to join the project. "We haven’t reached critical mass yet for a global enterprise. We do plan to bounce to the larger OCLC cooperative which has the ability."

Shuler described the origin of the system. "It’s based on an ongoing experiment going on over the last 3.5 years. It began as a cooperative effort between the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Illinois State Library, and OCLC, who donated the software. It started in 2004. We suggested it as an experiment with the new role of depositories. We wanted to take it national and reach out to all libraries, not just depositories, with an expertise in government information. We recruited around 30 libraries in three phases over 2.5 years. By the end of 2006, OCLC wanted to move to full implementation, which would have meant we would start paying for their software. By late 2006 and early 2007, we realized that if we went national, we would have to be self-funding. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation agreed to help manage it." (The CIC is a consortium of 12 research universities, including the 11 members of the Big Ten Conference and the University of Chicago.) Shuler pointed out that though GPO gave "advice and pointers throughout all phases" of the former service, participants wanted something more formal and put in a bid to GPO for partnership to which the GPO agreed in late 2007.

The newly formalized relationship with the GPO stems from its commitment to exploring how federal depository library reference services could be extended via the web. The depository library program at GPO dates back almost 150 years and currently includes some 1,250 libraries nationwide. Ric Davis, acting superintendent of documents at GPO, says, "In the last few years, as GPO has moved to a more electronic base and digital content, the role of depository libraries has changed from collection management to a heavy emphasis on service. This is important at GPO as well. We get inquiries from the public. We have help desk software through which users can contact us. When we get general reference questions, we try to forward them directly to member institutions of the GIO project."

Davis confirmed that GPO had been monitoring the previous beta project closely, but considered that CIC’s involvement "had produced a management structure with consistent policies and procedures that took it out of beta, making GPO more interested in signing on with a formal Memorandum of Understanding." The other role GPO planned to play for GIO was as liaison in promoting it with other federal agencies and getting them more involved. Just putting the link up with GPO Access (www.gpoaccess.gov) could have a big effect on visibility. According to Davis, GPO Access gets "34–45 million customers per month." They’re also promoting it to federal agencies by distributing a circular letter and having conversations with federal agencies.

One expert on virtual reference services, Steve Coffman, vice president of product development at LSSI, the large library outsourcing service, stated that neither chat nor email has succeeded in building usage, except in rare cases. Coffman advises installing a telephone access route and expanding hours to increase user volume. Davis pointed out that it was "important to be responsive to the American public." The GPO Contact Center offers Monday through Friday service, 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., which includes toll-free telephone service. According to Davis, the GPO had the same 48-hour or less turnaround on email inquiries. As to whether GIO should add telephone service, Davis "didn’t know if they were planning it, but in the network of over 1,250 libraries in the depository program, most have phone assistance." Shuler stated, "Use of phones, at this stage of the project, is left to the individual participants to decide on how to deploy in order to answer, or in some cases, receive questions. Central phone service through the project’s framework has not been discussed."

One thing the service has going for it may prove of advantage to all parties—users, depository libraries, and GPO. Reference librarians traditionally do not confine their source selections to their own collections. They will use any reliable source to answer a question. These days government document librarians know that much electronic documentation of government activities and "e-provision" of government information occurs at individual agency websites—not necessarily with the benefit of GPO clergy. As Shuler describes it, "We are not limited to government supplied sources. We will advise users as to other sources and point out how official, credible, or reliable they are. We will also use all kinds of government information, both GPO and other sources, e.g., the Library of Congress’ American Memory collection, Google Book Search, Internet Archives, institutional collections. As librarians we do not restrict ourselves to formats or issuing agencies. We use our professional judgment to identify the appropriate source."


Barbara Quint is contributing editor for NewsBreaks, senior editor of Online Searcher, and a columnist for Information Today.

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