talk: adventures in virtual reference

I went out to Oregon to give a talk to the people who staff L-net, the 24/7 virtual reference service for the state of Oregon. They have a yearly conference which is a lot of fun. Video from the talks will be available at some point, but I figured I’d link to my talk now. I talked about Ask MetaFilter and a little bit about what we do there and how it is and is not like other forms of virtual reference. Lots of stats. Lots of anecdotes and sample questions. The Slideshare version doesn’t seem to have the notes attached and functional (attached yes, accurate, no), so while I hammer that out from them, you can also go to the talk’s page on librarian.net and download whichever version you want. Thanks to all who attended on Friday.

What happened to NJQ&A and why?

NJLA issues strong statement on NJ State Library/QandANJ, for more information read Peter Bromberg’s backgrounder post on what happened to this service and who made the decisions and why. Official statement by the NJ State Library is here.

new Q&A site for librarians? What about the old site?

A few folks have been buzzing about the proposal over on Stack Exchange to build a stack overflow-type site for library Q&A stuff. I was wondering about this, since we already have Unshelved Answers. A little Googling and I figured out that the software they’re using won’t be available to them after 4/11 [irony!], so they’re trying to get people together to support a hosted model. Go vote!

where else besides the library can I ask a question online?

Brian has a few suggestions for other places to go online to ask questions or read other people’s answers. As you probably know, I work for Ask MetaFilter and I’m pretty happy with how it all works out, getting people answers to their questions. I’ve asked thirty questions there myself. Here’s a screenshot of what I think is a pretty usual list of questions.

php for librarian

donnagirl asks MetaFilter: “I have two weeks to learn PHP. Help me make a plan! Because my library job is ridiculously awesome, I’m being given two weeks to devote myself to learning php.” Good advice follows from the hive mind.

a librarian’s worst nightmare?

I don’t know about you, but my worst nightmare is more along the lines of someone vomiting (or worse!) in the overnight book drop, but Slate has an article about Yahoo Answers and how librarians hate it. Of course the writer doesn’t seem to have talked to any librarians, he just likes to rail against the wisdom of crowds — with some valid points, certainly — and make fun of stupid answers on YA which is of coruse the opposite of what any decent librarian would do. There is a lively back and forth in the disucssion section which is hard to follow and hard to find but if the topic is as near and dear to your heart as it is to mine, I suggest you dig it out. I commented. [thanks alexandra]

nownow.com/nownow answers by email… NOW

I am intrigued by nownow.com, Amazon’s answers-like service that allows you to ask questions via your phone [or other web enabled device] and they’ll email you back three answers, fast. Looks like the answers come from people working for mturk.com and, if I’m not mistaken these answers generally take a minute or two and answerers get paid a few cents. The answers I’ve seen are your standard concise copy/paste web answers, they seem pretty good for factual type questions. Here are some examples

Is faceted indexing the future of social tagging?
What fast birds start with the letter A?
Where is the closest public bathroom to 3 Hanover Square NY NY 10004….um like NOW!

At some level it’s like being able to email someone to have them do a web search for you, I bet it becomes very popular and I’m curious to see how it fits in with Amazon’s other qanda product, Askville.

Contrast this to library email reference. In this example (which coincidentally came in to my inbox this week for an unrelated reason) where someone is trying to remember a book from their childhood (which, as we know, is a really typical reference query). The librarian, while excruciatingly thorough with the resources, does the standard librarian thing and teaches as he or she tries to answer the question. For an opening line to a response to a “what’s this book” question, this one is sort of…. daunting?

Fiction is usually cataloged by author and title, not by subject or plot line, which makes identifying books by their plot an often difficult endeavor. One of the best ways to find books for which you know only the plot is to ask other knowledgeable and well-read people for help. There are several resources you can consult to do this.

The answer is amazing if, like librarians, you look up books for people as your job. However, telling someone to subscribe to a listserv just to answer a “what’s this book” question seems a bit like overkill. Telling them to ask knowledgeable people seems to pave the way for the response “isn’t that what I just did?” In any case, names have been removed and this is not a “tut tut” post, just an interesting observation on the divergence of serious ref and ready ref.

askville, questiontown, referenceland, infoworld

Amazon.com is getting into the community Q & A game with their new website AskVille. It’s in limited beta right now, but feel free to IM me (US and Canada only) and I’ll be happy to spot you an invite. My first impressions? Slick and pastellish with some neat features, but seems like it’s going to go more in the Yahoo Answers direction [high noise, low signal] than any other more authoritative AskA sites. I’ve asked a question and answered a question, but so far I’m not feeling real compelled to go back.