Jessamyn West has an interesting post about MassAnswers, the statewide virtual reference service for Massachussetts. It says a lot of the things that have occurred to me during the last three months, but I'd like to see more discussion about the answers piece.
During the last few months, I've used a virtual reference service three times. This is after my battles two years ago just to access one, log in, and connect to a librarian. At least now, I've been able to connect and ask my question. I was looking for specific statistics each time. The first time, I was too lazy to run the search myself. The second time, I was under the gun and needed a number. I did some research myself, but only came up with websites and wanted a more authoritative source to triangulate the answer I had found. The third time, I did some research but quickly gave up, thinking someone who does live reference could get to the answer faster. When asking each question, I made sure to note all of the sources I had already tried, in the hope that the librarian wouldn't have to duplicate any effort and would automatically try the next level of resources.
In each of the three instances, the librarian came back with a URL from the top five results of a Google search. Clearly. There wasn't even a pretense of anything else. If you can believe it, one of them even unkowingly sent me a link to a friend's blog that referenced a report that mentioned a potentially useful statistic. I thanked the first librarian, disconnected, and spent my time doing the research myself. But the second and third times, I really needed the librarian to find an authoritative answer, so I kept asking for more. In one case, I had to actually ask, “Don't you have databases you can search that are more authoritative that Google?” At which point, the librarian sent me a link to my home library's list of databases. Talk about not understanding the concept. In another case, I was given a URL to a list of reports and told one might have what I wanted. When I pointed out that none of the titles seemed relevant to my specific request, a further search of the web ensued.
Even worse, after a half hour of trying to answer my question, one of the librarians had to “hang up” and disconnect because the virtual reference software was causing their computer to freeze. The person offered to email an answer to my question the next day.
I kept asking myself why these virtual reference transactions were different than if I'd approached the physical desk in person. None of the questions I asked were as difficult as Jessamyn's, and I know each had a viable answer. None of the librarians did a reference interview, and only one of them asked at the end if what they had found answered my question. In person, they wouldn't have asked about my home library. I try to imagine walking up to a desk and being handed a URL or told to go back to my home library to search its databases, without so much as a divining question or a specific answer (or even the promise of one).
So like Jessamyn, I wonder what value we are providing to people when we promote these services but then just offer Googled results. As pointed out in the comments on her post, sometimes that is helpful to some users. But at what point should the virtual librarian begin to look somewhere other than Google for an answer? Why do we know when to do this in person but apparently not online? What is a virtual librarian and what value does she add? [The Shifted Librarian]