As part of our coursework for my advanced reference services class we worked with the Internet Public Library (IPL2) to answer incoming reference questions. Reflecting on the experience helped to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of the system
My experience with the IPL was generally positive, although I feel like certain parts of the set up are somewhat contrived. My greatest difficulties and frustrations with IPL stemmed from the categorizing of the questions. There were multiple instances where questions (including one that I answered) were improperly labeled as ready reference or research. While this isn’t an issue that affected how much effort I put into answering the question it did create some issues since IPL has different standards for the number of sources required for proper responses to ready reference versus research questions.
I answered a question about Apple stock profit margins that looked like a copy and paste homework-type question that very much should have been marked as ready reference. However, since it was categorized as research I didn’t really have an option but to give the client much more information than they wanted in order to satisfy IPL’s requirements. If this patron was in fact a student who simply needed a homework question answered then the time and effort that I put in to answering a ready reference question to the specificity of a research question resulted in wasted time and resources that could have been put towards answering a more detailed question.
Working with IPL definitely helped improve my online searching skills and also taught me about how to find good and reliable resources outside the parameters of proprietary databases and academic questions. One of the things that surprised me the most was how many questions were mirror images of things we had talked about in class as far as common question topics. Although I only answered five questions (six including my practice question) I spent quite a bit of time trawling QRC, reading the questions and sometimes even doing a preliminary Google or other simple search to see what sort of information is out there. I was bowled over by how often there were requests about house or property history or for obituaries. I couldn’t believe how many research questions seemed to be copy and pasted homework assignments and essay prompts. One interesting thing that I learned about myself is that I found myself getting emotionally invested in some of the questions I chose to answer, working extra hard to find resources for the woman looking for information on how to find a good nursing home and other eldercare options for her aunt, as well as for the patron who is potentially moving to South Korea for his job. Learning new skills and about myself as a reference provider really helped a lot.
Considering that it’s an organization run by volunteers the IPL does a pretty good job, however it could benefit hugely from a little more attention to detail. Ensuring that questions are properly labeled as research or ready reference will guarantee that the precious time of their volunteers is being put to the best use. Additionally, there could be better mechanisms for clarifying questions considering some of them are quite obtuse. If there were some level of reference interview conducted by an IPL administrative volunteer before the question was put into QRC for answering this could be a way to clarify poorly constructed questions and help to streamline the process. Since volunteers can only have one question claimed at a time this dissuades asking patrons clarifying questions since a volunteer can then get trapped with a question awaiting a response.
For how it is structured and run IPL does a good job, however as searchers get more and more web savvy the IPL will be forced to adjust to be able to answer the questions of more sophisticated searchers. Putting in a little more time and effort into each question will result in a lot of value-added for the users of the IPL service.