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Abby S. Kasowitz is coordinator of the Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) Project at the Information Institute of Syracuse. In her two and a half years with the Institute, Abby has also worked on the KidsConnect question-answering service. Abby is co-author of the _AskA Starter Kit: How to Build and Maintain Digital Reference Services_ and is currently writing a book on helping K-12 students use the Internet to enhance information problem solving skills. Abby earned a B.A. in English and American Literature from Brandeis University. She received an M.S. in Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation and a Master's in Library Science from Syracuse University. She is certified as a school library media specialist.

I want to talk about a project and some services that are different from the telementoring projects that you have heard about today. We will talk about another way to use the Internet to connect people, specifically experts to students, but in less of a long-term mentoring role. These are more experts who serve to answer questions primarily on a one-time basis.

I am one of the coordinators of the Virtual Reference Desk Project that operates out of the Information Institute of Syracuse at Syracuse University. The Information Institute of Syracuse is an organization that also runs the Eric Clearinghouse on Information and Technology. Is anyone familiar with the Eric system? It also runs the Ask Eric question and answer service. Do you remember Kirk Winters earlier today talking about the GEM project? That is another project that runs out of our office. We have a lot of exciting things going on; the Virtual Reference Desk Project is just one.

Today, I want to talk about digital reference services, which are these Internet-based question-and-answer services. We will talk about the Virtual Reference Desk Project, where we are and where we are going. We will also talk about ways that digital reference and telementoring can work together.

One way to think about where digital reference fits into the grand scheme. By the way, we are calling these services "aska" services - that stands for "ask a scientist," "ask a librarian," or "ask a plumber", whatever. We shorten this to "aska." This continuum represents the level of time commitment and instruction that goes on with Internet-based communications. Telementoring is more of a long-term commitment and usually involves a little more instruction. On the other side, we have homework help services, which primarily answer questions with a really quick turnaround. You might send a question that you need help with the next day, and they will send you an answer. In between, there are some "aska" services that might give responses that involve a little bit more instruction. For example, they will help you learn how to find information on your own. I will talk a little bit more about that when we talk about different types of "aska" services.

Digital reference services are Internet-based question, answer and referral services. They connect people with experts and are to answer questions and/or instruct users on developing skills, like information problem-solving skills or math skills. They are referred to as "ask an expert" services, or "aska" services for short. They represent a wide variety of contexts and subjects. That is really important because right now I am talking about services in a K-12 education context, but, as you might realize from the term "digital reference", this comes out of library reference services. So, there are a lot of libraries, public libraries, academic libraries, that are starting to use this model of electronic reference. Businesses are also starting to use Internet-based question answering for customer service. Government agencies are also using this type of communication. So, we are hoping that what we are doing with this project can apply to contexts other than K-12 education.

The services that we have seen operate using either asynchronous technology like e-mail or the Web. Mostly what we have seen is that services use e-mailed questions coming in or web-based using a form. Some are starting to experiment with chat technology. The advantages of this are you can conduct that reference interview that is really important. That is, a discussion to really pinpoint the user's question. That does not happen so easily in a Web or e-mail environment, where you have to send a follow-up question if you do not understand the question, or if you need to narrow the focus. Sometimes you loose people that way; they figure it will take too long. So, we hope there will be more of this chat, instantaneous discussion going on.

There are a couple of different ways to distinguish the different types of "aska" services:

  • There are information referral services which primarily refer people to other information sources. For instance, Ask Eric, one of the services that runs out of Syracuse University, will, in response to questions about education research and practice, will not send you an answer, but a long list of resources that you can go find yourself.
  • Internet Public Library, which runs out of the University of Michigan, also has a strong library reference background and will refer you to sources.
  • KidsConnect, which is from the American Association of School Librarians and used to run out of our office, focuses on helping K-12 students find and use information sources. They will also respond to a student with a list of resources and will instruct the student on how to find the resources. For instance, they will say how they searched the Web to find a certain group of sites.
  • Other services are subject specific. They use experts from a certain field. For instance, Math Sciences Network, which is out of the University of Washington, I believe, will answer questions on a variety of science topics.
  • Ask Dr. Math, obviously, focuses on math.
  • Ask Shamu is from Busch Gardens Seaworld, and they will answer questions on marine mammals, as well as other types of animals.
  • The National Museum of American Art Reference Desk out of the Smithsonian will answer questions on American Art.

Having said that, each service on this list, whether or not they are considered information referral or subject specific, might answer the other type of question also. For example, when KidsConnect is answering a simple factual question, they can just give a simple answer, rather than sending kids on a wild goose chase to find some, but they will give a citation. I used to answer questions for KidsConnect, so I can think of a specific example: A student might ask, "What is the state muffin of New York State?" And there is a state muffin! It is the apple muffin. In that situation I would say, "The answer is the apple muffin. I found it on such-and-such website; I found that website by searching AltaVista. . ." That kind of thing.

On the other hand, subject-specific services might be able to give factual answers, but also they can provide people with additional resources so students can learn to do research on their own.

I have a list of issues that digital reference services face, and I want you to think of how some of these issues also come up in telementoring. I thought there were some similarities:

  • Message components. Depending upon the policy of a service, there might be different types of things to include in a message. In telementoring, there might be certain types of discussion that are encouraged. For instance, in the KidsConnect service, all volunteer library media specialists who answer the questions were expected to say somewhere in their message, "Don't forget to ask your school librarian." This is depends on your policy, your sponsors, etc."
  • Quality control. Services deal with this in a number of ways. How important is it for a service to keep tabs on how well an expert is answering questions. This relates a lot to training programs as well, but I will talk about that in a moment. Some services will check every single message before it goes out, although this can be rather time consuming. Some services have spot checks. Some will not let their experts write directly to a student until they answer a few sample questions successfully.
  • Age-appropriateness. When you have experts who are adult professionals who are not necessarily trained in education, is it sometimes a bit difficult for him or her to communicate with a student in a way that they will understand. So, that can be covered in training.
  • Privacy. This comes into play lots of times when you are thinking of putting question and answer exchanges on the Web for others to see. Some services will not do it at all because it is too time consuming to go into each message and strip out the identifiers. Some will just put everything right on the Web, along with a disclaimer on their website saying, "When you ask a question, you are agreeing to publicize your information."
  • Turnaround time. This varies widely with digital reference services. Some will answer questions within 24 hours; some will take several weeks; and some will say, "If we get to your question, great. However, we cannot guarantee it."
  • Expert competencies and training. Services deal with training in a variety of ways, also. Some will simply give their experts a manual or a document and say, "Read this, and then you are ready to go." Others will give sample questions and make sure that their experts can successfully answer them. So, there is a wide range there. It also depends on the service policy.
  • Technology. This is an issue with which a lot of services are struggling. A lot of organizations that want to start services will not do it until they know there is a piece of software that they can easily plug in and go. Some services start with Unix-based e-mail packages and are perfectly happy with that.
  • Volunteers. Most services use volunteer experts as their base. Others, like Ask Eric, actually pay their staff to work full day to answer questions, but most run with a volunteer base. Whenever you work with volunteers, you have to think of ways to motivate them. Internet Public Library gives out T-shirts. Even these little things can help. Recruiting volunteers is also an issue. How do you get people excited about doing it? Virtual Reference Desk Project, the project that I coordinate, is sponsored by the Eric Clearinghouse in Information and Technology, which is part of the Department of Education's National Library of Education. It gets support from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Our main goal is to build a national collaborative digital reference service. We are not trying to build one big, huge "aska" service. We are trying to build a support system to help existing services with their processes and to help create new services in areas that they are needed. The main purpose for that is to connect the K-12 community - parents, students, teachers and others - to experts over the Internet. We also provide resources and support to "aska" services for training manuals, even sharing some of their questions. We are also trying to set standards for this digital reference field, which is becoming bigger and bigger every day. We are trying to set standards in technology and quality criteria.

So, what can we offer the K-12 community right now? We have something called the "aska" locator. It is a web-based collection of about 75 "aska" services for the K-12 community ranging from Ask an Amish Expert to Ask a Dentist to several Ask a Librarian sites. Each service listed in the locator has a detailed description, and going back to the GEM project, each record for a service is written using the GEM profile, their metadata. So, all of our "aska" services in the locator are also in the GEM database, along with the lesson plans and other curriculum materials, because the services are a resource, just like any other educational resource.

We have part of our website called The Learning Center, which contains some resources to help educators and students use "aska" services in the classroom, and to use them within the context of the larger information problem solving structure. It includes tips on asking questions; for instance, a tip for teachers is, "Don't use an 'aska' service as e-mail practice for your students." This is because 90 questions come in that do not necessarily need answers, but are just so kids can practice using e-mail. People forget there are volunteers on the other end who are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.

Finally, what we are hoping and planning to provide beginning next year is this collaborative service. So that students, teachers, who is interested, will be able to send a question to us, whether or not it needs to go to a scientist, a mathematician, or an historian. Without having to know which service to write to, the person can write to us as a central access point, and then we can take care of it from our central location.

Things that we can offer "aska" services are this:

  • Instruction and Support. As mentioned, we have a manual called the Aska Starter Kit which can help organizations with questions such as these: What kind of service should I provide? How do I train my staff? How do I publicize my service? How do I evaluate my service? We have a resource that we hope can help services with these issues.
  • We can provide training sessions and consulting services. Most recently we are planning conferences. We are planning one that will happen just a few weeks away in Boston, which is mostly for the library community that is interested in starting digital reference services. We have a lot of exciting things planned.
  • We are working on software development for a few different areas. We would like to come up with an individual piece of software that organizations can simply download and build up their services from scratch. We have had a lot of problems trying to get to this point, and we are open to any suggestions you may have.
  • Metatriage. That is our term for a system allowing us to distribute questions to different services. Currently we are using e-mail. We would like to build a web-based system. We are also trying to build a structure for representing questions and answers on the Internet using metadata. We have something called QUIP, which is Question Interchange Profile. We are trying to come up with a way to describe question-answer interchanges as they travel from one place to another so that important information about the interchange can be recorded.
  • We offer ways for "aska" services to communicate with each other through a discussion list called DigRep. We have about 1,500 subscribers, and if you are interested in joining, there is information on our website.
  • We have an "aska" consortium, which includes "aska" services, but also organizations that are interested in our goal and interested in sponsoring different aspects of the project. We can also offer services exposure in our "aska" locator. While we think this is a great idea, and most services think this is a great idea, every once in awhile we get an e-mail from a service saying, "Please take us off your site. We are getting way too many questions." That is just a symptom of a problem we really need to work on providing resources to these services.
  • The services can participate in this collaborative network that I will talk about right now.

Right now we are in pilot phases for this collaborative network. We have 16 "aska" services participating. I will tell you what that means in a second. We have about 50 information professionals; these are mostly school and public librarians, library students who help with distributing the questions and also answering any overflow questions that we cannot distribute to other services. After each pilot test - there will be two - we will debrief and implement the changes. Now what does it mean to participate in this collaborative service? What happens is "aska" services that are participating can send us their out-of-scope questions - for example, if a math services gets a history question - for redistribution. Also, overflow questions can be sent to us. Some services will only answer a certain number of questions per day or per week. We negotiate to take some of those questions, which we then reroute to other services in our network, or we have one of our volunteer information professionals take care of it.

The benefits of participating to "aska" services are these:

  • They can send us the questions that they do not want to answer or cannot answer.
  • They can assist in shaping standards in Internet-based question answering.
  • They can be part of our consortium.
  • The benefits of participating to users are these:
  • Users are guaranteed that their question will be sent to the most appropriate place, and that they will receive some sort of response.
  • The good thing about this whole system is that the student will send us a question, but he or she does not need to know that we will send it to Mad Scientist, who sent it to Dr. Math. All of this will happen behind the scenes.

For the information professionals who participate in our service, the benefits are these:

  • Training and experience in online question answering.
  • Other benefits such as the feeling of being part of a community, the satisfaction of helping someone from another part of the country or another country.

So, we see the future of our project as follows:

  • Obviously to build this cross-service knowledge base and to provide this collaborative service to the public. We hope this will happen early next year. One we get the technology in place for this, we will be golden.
  • Developing this question answering management software, which we have been in the process of for some time. We have worked with vendors who develop help desk software. While that is similar to what we are doing, all we have seen so far are big mammoth system, and we are looking for something easy, something lightweight.
  • We also need to recruit new services and experts. There are many services out there that concentrate on sciences. We are looking for others in the humanities areas.
  • We are also looking for individual experts who are interested in answering questions.
  • We hope also to be able to implement something called a match-making service. Once we have several services in place, if someone writes to use and says, "I am a music teacher and I would really like to be able to answer questions," I would hope to be able to put that person in touch with a bigger service that concentrates on that.

Ways that I think digital reference services and telementoring services can work together are these:

  • Obviously in the process of communicating, telementors can always use "aska" services as resources, just as they would tell a student to go check an almanac, an atlas, or an encyclopedia, they could encourage him or her to use "aska" services to answer questions. I know when I worked on Kids Connect, we would get some questions that really were aiming towards telementoring relationships. Then we would say, "Check out this website or these services that are available."
  • We may be able to share volunteer expert bases. There might be some telementors who might be interested in answering questions every once in awhile, and vice versa.
  • We might be able to work together in setting standards for Internet-based communications in K-12 education and other contexts.
  • In technology, perhaps there is some software that can benefit both groups.
  • Perhaps we can work together in developing quality criteria, which is something we have been working on for a long time and which we are still having trouble nailing down.


Building A Network of
Expertise for K-12 Education



Internet Communication Continuum

AskA Services
Telementoring-Homework Help


Digital Reference Services

Internet-based question/answer and referral services:

  • Connect people with experts in order to answer questions and instruct users on developing skills.
  • Referred to as Ask An Expert or AskA services.
  • Represent a wide variety of contexts and subjects
  • Can operate using asynchronous (e-mail, Web) or synchronous (chat) technology


Service Types

Information Referral

  • Aska ERIC
  • Internet Public Library
  • KidsConnect

Subject Specific

  • MAD Scientist Network
  • Ask Dr. Math
  • Ask Shamu
  • National Museum of American Art Reference Desk


Issues in Digital Reference

  • Message components
  • Quality control
  • Age-appropriateness
  • Privacy
  • Turnaround time/accessibility
  • Expert competencies/training
  • Scaling up/growth
  • Technology
  • Motivating/recruiting volunteers


The Virtual Reference Desk

Sponsored by:
ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology
U.S. Department of Education's National Library of Education
With support from White House's Office of Science & Technology Policy


Project Goals and Objectives

Creating foundations for national, cooperative digital reference service:

  • Connect K - 12 community to experts through the Internet.
  • Provide resources and support to AskA services.
  • Set standards for digital reference.


Components for K - 12 Community

  • AskA+ Locator http://www.vrd.org/locator/subject.html
  • Learning Center http://www.vrd.org/k12/k-12home.html
  • Collaborative Digital Reference Service - Launch 1/2000


Components for AskA Services

Instruction and Support

  • AskA Starter Kit
  • Training Sessions
  • Consulting
  • Conferences

Software Development

  • AskA software
  • Meta-Triage
  • QuIP

Idea Sharing

  • Dig_Ref Discussion List
  • AskA Consortium Membership

Exposure in AskA Locator

Participation in Collaborative Digital Reference Service


Collaborative Digital Reference Service

Pilot Test Fall 1999

  • 16 AskA Services
  • 50 Information Professionals
  • Process - participation, debrief, implement changes


Network Triage Process

  • AskA services send out-of-scope and overflow questions to VRD
  • VRD re-routes to more appropriate service or question is answered by a volunteer information professional



AskERIC: starfish

  • - Ask Shamu
  • MAD Scientist Network: lesson plan on edible plants

  • AskERIC
  • MAD Scientist Network: fossil worms

  • Dino Russ's Lair
  • IPL: American artist

  • National Museum of American Art Reference Desk
  • SLIDE 13

    Pilot Debriefing Issues

    • liability/advise questions
    • response rate
    • scope - topics and age range
    • archiving responses

    SLIDE 14


    AskA services

    • Forward out-of-scope and overflow questions to VRD to be answered by appropriate services or experts or VRD information specialists.
    • Assist with shaping standards in online Q and A.
    • VRD Consortium membership


    • Questions are forwarded to the most appropriate experts.
    • Reliable service: All questions receive responses from subject specialists or general information specialists.
    • Seamless transfer of original question, resulting in less waiting time.

    Information Professionals

  • Training and experience in online question-answering
  • SLIDE 15

    Future of VRD

    • Public access to "VRD Central"
    • Cross-service knowledge base
    • Development of QA management software
    • Recruit new services and experts - matchmaking

    SLIDE 16

    Working Together


  • Refer users to AskA services and telementors as appropriate
  • Sharing volunteer/expert base
  • Setting standards for Internet-based communications in K - 12 education and other contexts.

  • Technology
  • Quality criteria


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