MassAnswers, a 24/7 ref project, answers my question sort of

Again, I say I feel odd commenting on the work of other librarians, so I’ll let this one mostly speak for itself. I had a friend who works in Boston who had a reference question “How many pre-1900 cemeteries are there in Massachusetts?” I thought I might be able to get this one with a quick Google but I was mistaken. So I decided to try out a service I was curious about: MassAnswers.

You know how Home Depot in every state says “[your state name]’s Home Improvement Warehouse”? MassAnswers is just a rebranded 24/7 Reference project. So while the main page strongly implies you’ll talk to someone local (and I did), they also note that your question “may very well be answered by one of these Massachusetts librarians, or it may be answered by a librarian from California, Florida, North Carolina or some other community who contributes to the 24/7 service.” I decided to try it out, and I went there from the main page of Boston Public Library, where I have a library card. I use chat all the time, every day, a lot. I was curious to see how chat reference worked in a 24/7 environment. MassAnswers says this on their how does it work page.

You will communicate with the librarian using chat software accessed using your internet browser. You will type in questions to the librarian, and read their responses. Chat combines the immediacy of the telephone with the preciseness of a written e-mail. As you get into this form of communication you will realize that the pace of a chat “conversation” is a bit different than you might expect. You will put in a question, and then go off and do something else on the computer while the librarian picks up and formulates a reply. There will follow periods of rapid interchange of messages interspersed with longer pauses. During the pauses it is best if you open a complete new browser window if you want to do other web-browsing. That way you will not inadvertently drop the 24/7 connection.

It’s an interesting way of explaining chat, and yet read in a really odd stilted way, don’t you think? Once you get to the login page, you also read this:

Please do not try to bookmark (add to favorites) or print anything during the session! At the end of the session, you will receive a list of live links, which will allow you to go back and visit all of the pages the librarian showed you. You can bookmark anything you want at that time. If you try to bookmark during the session, you may experience a disconnect.

So, I will be shown websites which relate to my query and yet I shouldn’t be bookmarking them, adding them to my favorites, or printing them? Wasn’t one of Ranganathan’s five laws “Don’t make the user’s computer act differently from the computer they are used to”? If not, perhaps it should have been. Sarah Houghton has talked a lot about what needs to be fixed in QuestionPoint new interface but I’m pretty sure I was using the old interface. Stephen Francoeur has also discussed what he’d like to see fixed or improved. I’ll briefly talk about my experience.

Here is my transcript from which you can glean a lot. An interesting thing to note is that while the librarian I was working with was designated by her location and her initials, the transcript I received merely called her “librarian.” Also interesting is that the realtime transcript I was seeing had no timestamps on it while the transcript that was emailed to me clearly did. My reference transaction took 37 minutes and at the end of it I had the name of a book to go look in and a number of a librarian to call. My question was not answered, though to be fair it may have been a tough one.

A few things to note from the transcript:

  • the first link I was given was a) one that I had found in my own 5 minute google search and b) unhelpful because it had no date information. I’m sure there are many people who don’t know what the heck they want when they’re in this sort of situation, but I was not one of them. My question was clear. This web site did not answer it.
  • There was clearly something wrong with either her software or her understanding of it (I am assuming this was a woman I was dealing with) if you’ll note the times I got an address or a book title pasted eight times (twice)
  • The narrowness of the browser window — which is adjustable, but I used the default settings — means two things 1. all the cites she pasted for me were horribly formatted and hard to read 2. all of the websites we co-browsed were horribly formatted and hard to read
  • At the end of it all, she looked up a book for me in an OPAC though she admitted that there might have been print resources that would be helpful. She was clearly not in a library. I understand this is how these systems work, but it seemed like if she had had the book in front of her that she might have had a chance at helping me with my question.

The MassAnswers site spends a lot of time saying “librarian … librarian … librarian…” over and over again like a mantra, but I think it’s a valid question “Just how useful is the librarian outside of their library?” I feel that I’m pretty useful on Ask MetFilter and on these silly IM reference hunts, but honestly when we tell people we’re providing them with librarians but what we give them are MLS-educated people with access to the Internet (same as the asker in this case), what are we providing? What are we telling them? I’m pleased that the person I worked with tried so hard to help me out, but what chance did she have? I answered the follow-up survey I got honestly, and OCLC swears “Your answers and comments will help us to better tailor the system to your needs.” but I doubt it, I really and truly doubt it.