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Now the puzzled here can e-mail a librarian

July 16, 2001

Rochester's downtown library will soon answer reference questions via e-mail, joining libraries across the world that are embracing the Internet as a way to connect with the public.

The Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County plans to launch the "Ask a Librarian" feature on its Web site ( when school begins.

The e-mail service, which was designed by the library staff, will be simple: When people submit their question they will also be asked a few questions such as where they live and whether they are an adult or child. The staff of 33 full-time and eight part-time reference librarians will respond as quickly as possible during regular library hours.

"We did walk-up questions and then telephone questions and now e-mail. It makes sense to be online and available," said Chris Doyle, spokeswoman with the central library, which includes the Bausch & Lomb Public Library and Rundel Memorial Building downtown.

E-reference, the term used to describe a library's connection with the public through computers, has grown because of the increasing popularity of the Internet. Libraries recognized that the Internet provides millions of Web sites, fee-based services and sometimes unreliable information.

Today libraries have snapped up the opportunity to re-educate the public about their role as the preeminent informational resource in a community.

"More and more people are seeing the benefit of using a librarian because they are the experts in managing and disseminating information," said Larra Clark, a spokeswoman with the American Library Association. "We like to call librarians the ultimate search engines."

E-reference is not new.

Catherine Friedman, the head of the Dewey Library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and past president of the Reference and User Services Association, estimated that more than 50 percent of public libraries offer some kind of e-reference service. For the last seven years the central library has offered MEDIREF -- an e-mail service that focuses on medical inquiries. And town libraries in Fairport, Gates, Greece, Ogden and Webster offer e-mail service.

The cutting edge in e-reference, Friedman said, is 24-hour, seven-day-a-week "chat reference" -- where people can use their personal computers to chat in a text format with librarians no matter what time of day. The Cleveland Public Library debuted the first such service in the country on June 11.

"We've had a terrific response," said Nina Fried, the head of general reference at the Cleveland library.

The library has received 1,810 questions via its Know It Now program ( so far. Reference librarians respond to questions asked during regular business hours and a private company, Library Systems & Services, handles the questions during off-hours.

"Is 24-7 needed? Maybe for students and academic libraries it makes sense, but for public libraries?" Friedman asked. "That's still a question we haven't answered."

Terri Bennett, who works in the library automation services at the central library, said the e-mail service may be the first step toward a local 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service. But librarians want to see the response to the Ask a Librarian effort first.

"We don't know what to expect," Bennett said about the potential response.

The Cleveland Public Library, which also operates an e-mail service, receives four to five questions by e-mail each day. Last year, the Rochester library answered 309,021 walk-up, telephoned and mailed-in questions.

May Paynter of Greece, who visits the Gates Public Library twice a week, said she expects many people will take advantage of the e-mail service.

"I think it's an excellent idea," she said. "E-mail would be useful because you're not tying someone up on the telephone."

Jeff Baker, a manager in the literature and media division at the central library, warned that some questions would too complex and may require a trip to the library.

So there is no worry that e-reference will make the library obsolete. "Digital reference and e-mail reference will not replace what we do," Friedman said. "It's just another type of service we can provide."

By Rick Armon, Copyright © 2001 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.


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