I wrote just yesterday that there’s not much digital reference work going on in Europe. Well, I take it back. I saw a post to the Dig_Ref listserv just this morning about the People’s Network Enquiry Service, a pilot chat-based reference service in England, staffed by public librarians. A few points of interest that I’ve gleaned from the service’s site:
- The service had a “soft” launch in November/December 2004. Training happened in July 2004. This is the public launch of the pilot service. The pilot service will run until November 2006.
- Some good basic ideas about skills and competencies are provided for the staffing librarians.
- The use of IM jargon and abbreviations is discouraged.
- They’re using Questionpoint.
- 29 participating libraries.
- By February 2006, the plan is to incorporate all 149 Library Authorities in England, whatever a Library Authority is. Presumably the equivalent of a county library system?
- Hours of operation Monday-Friday 9-6, with more hours & weekends to be added as the service scales up.
- An out-of-scope question is defined as one “in which staff do not have the expertise or resources to respond satisfactorily.” Those questions will be referred to other services.
- They’re promising to strip “all identifying and personal information” from transcripts after 30 days.
- A follow-up survey may be sent to users “within the subsequent 30 days, as a measure of quality assurance and your satisfaction.”
- They’re building a knowledgebase of de-identified transcripts. They will retain demographic data and also maybe server log data.
- The service is managed by a group called Co-East, which as far as I can tell is a consortium of library authorities, so a non-profit, not a commercial entity.
- The service is funded by money from the National Lottery, through a program called the Big Lottery Fund, which from what I read on that site is a government granting agency that funds “charities and the voluntary sector and health, education and the environment” and projects “intended to regenerate and revitalise communities.” What a brilliant use of lottery money! If there’s going to be a tax on the innumerate, that money should at least get plowed back into educational and socially conscious programs. I suppose state lotteries in the US do this too, but not in such a large way, not that I’m aware of at least.
- After the pilot period, the service will be supported by the participating libraries themselves.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about statewide reference services, so this is an interesting comparison. Bailey-Hainer (2005) suggests that virtual reference is cost-effective only at the statewide scale; it may not work for individual services going it alone. So what about at a nationwide level? I suspect this will be sustainable in the long term. My question is, where between individual library and statewide is the tipping point for sustainability of a virtual reference service? (According to the CIA World Factbook, the UK has a land area slightly smaller than Oregon, but has a population slightly greater than California and Texas combined. So it’s the equivalent of one hell of a densely populated state?) More interesting to me though will be to see if & how their policies morph over time as the service scales up, and what sorts of evaluations they do with all that data they’re collecting. So far the People’s Network has done a very nice job of evaluating the impact of its other programs.