Area libraries join online reference desk

What if Google, the Internet’s favorite answer-bot, was made of flesh and blood?

With “Answers Here and Now,” it almost is.

The new online service, launched here last month, lets local library patrons use their Web browsers to pick the brains of reference librarians in Amherst, Bedford, Merrimack and Milford, among other places. The idea, which already involves some 400 libraries around the country, combines the instant gratification of a search engine with the benefits of being able to communicate with a real, live person.

“People think like the Google approach, where you can get an answer right now even if it’s not always the best answer, but they also like the editorial process, the common-sense aspect,” said Sarah Leonardi, reference librarian at the Amherst Town Library.

Common sense is key to “Answers Here and Now,” which lets patrons of 12 public and

academic libraries in New Hampshire log on, any time of day or night, to get an instant response from a reference librarian somewhere in the country.

“We can ask clarifying questions – ‘When you say ‘Indians,’ do you mean ‘Native Americans’ or the baseball team?’ – and we can ask, ‘How much information do you need, a Web site or a magazine article?’ ” Leonardi said.

Reference librarians, whose work involves fielding queries out of left field, know that clarifying questions make all the difference – something software has yet to learn.

“Most people don’t really ask the question they really want to know the first time around,” said Deb Spratt, reference librarian at Milford’s Wadleigh Memorial Library. “It can take time to figure out what people really want to know.”

The service is just getting started in this region and isn’t very busy. Spratt usually fields only a couple of questions per one-hour session, but already she can see that online questions seem likely to cover the same gamut as the questions that get asked as she sits at her desk: How do I get the Fleet Bank stock price in 1999, before it was called Fleet Bank, or what is the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act, or how can I find my maternal grandmother’s maiden name?

“They aren’t going to be more absurd – or less absurd,” she said. “It’s really not any different from what we’re already doing. It’s just a different format.”

The service, operated through regular Web browsers, allows instant-text chat between the patron and the librarian on duty, and in some cases “co-browsing,” in which the librarian can also see the Web page at which the patron is looking and remotely guide the cursor.

The service uses software developed by a Los Angeles-based nonprofit called 24/7 Reference. In return for taking a turn staffing the service 10 hours a week, plus providing access to their online subscriptions and databases, the local libraries get access to other institutions’ databases and information, including obscure academic journals, as well as providing full-time reference help for patrons.

“I think it has a lot of promise,” Spratt said. “It really meets today’s market.”

The company 24/7 Research first developed this software in 2000 for the California library system. It has since expanded it to more than 400 public libraries in the United States, with some in Great Britain expected to join soon. It also runs a separate cooperative involving more than 100 academic libraries in the United States and Canada.

The basic product is well established, but as in any software, updates are always needed, said Carol Bonnefil, director of training at 24/7 Reference.

“The biggest issue is firewalls and other (computer security measures),” she said. “We’re always having to modify the software, to keep abreast of that type of development.”

The Web site includes instructions about how to reconfigure software firewalls so the service will work better. Firewalls often prevent librarians from “pushing” a Web site across and helping people guide them.

24/7 Reference recently merged with the much larger Online Computer Library Center, another nonprofit that runs a similar service called “QuestionPoint.” The two products will be combined.

“Answers Here and Now” was purchased not by the individual libraries but by the Greater Manchester Integrated Library Cooperative System, or GMILCS, a consortium of 12 public and academic libraries in Southern New Hampshire. GMILCS is known by patrons, if it is known at all, only because it lets them check out books at any of the member libraries using their hometown library card.

GMILCS, which is paying about $5,000 for the first year, agreed to staff the service 10 hours a week. Librarians sign up to work different times – Lonardi is on Thursdays from 8-9 a.m., Spratt on Tuesdays from 10-11 a.m. – while 24/7 Research hires some librarians to work the overnight and holiday hours.

The result is you’ll rarely find your local librarian at the other end of the keyboard. But that hardly matters, because whoever’s there will be a trained replacement who knows how to handle even the most outrageous of queries.

And they get outrageous. Spratt’s favorite was a question from a Manchester City Library patron who wanted to find traffic laws on New Hampshire books that applied to interstellar travel.

“With this (online service), it’ll be easier to keep a straight face,” she said.