I’ve been reading about telephone reference recently. Why? Well, before that I was reading about chat reference services that have failed (Coffman & Arret, 2004a, 2004b; Horowitz, Flanagan, & Helman, 2005), to name a few. And these articles inevitably mention telephone reference as an alternative medium for reference that’s coming back into fashion. If you can call reference fashionable, by any meaningful definition of the term.

And an idea occurred to me. Individual libraries offer telephone reference, & some even have toll-free numbers for their reference service. The 2-1-1 initiative is a public service that you can call to get information about community services, like 4-1-1 for directory assistance. (Though a friend of mine in college once called 411 & asked how to cook a hamburger. He was serious, too, he really wanted to know, he wasn’t just jerking the 411 operator’s chain. The operator asked him how he wanted it done. This was of course in the days when you still got a human being when you called 411. But that’s what I call an information service.)

Anyway, I thought, why isn’t there a comparable service for library reference? A central number to call to be connected to your local library’s reference service? I mean, what are the chances the average user is going to either (A) know their local library’s phone number offhand, or (A’) have it programmed into their cellphone, or (B) bother to look it up?

Here’s how I envision this working. I call 1-800-LIBRARY. (And look, it’s even the right number of digits! It was written.) I’m connected to a phone tree. I’m asked to press or say my zip code. The system then searches the American Library Directory or some such database & locates the library or libraries nearest me, say within a 10-mile radius of my zip code. The system could provide the option to expand or contract the radius, or to limit the type of library, or whatever. Then when I select the library I want to call, the system would give me the number or it could dial the number for me, like 411 will for an extra 75 cents or however much it is.

How great would this be as a marketing vehicle for libraries? “Have a question? Call 1-800-LIBRARY!” Ok, so marketing slogans aren’t my thing, obviously. In a cellphone culture, it would be anytime, anywhere answers.

Getting carried away with this idea, I actually looked into its feasability. The toll-free prefixes in use these days are: 800, 866, 877, & 888. I read on a few sites that 855 will be launched “soon,” but everything I read about that was from late 2002, and there was no indication of when “soon” would be. As far as I can tell, 855 still hasn’t been launched. I tried dialing all toll-free prefixes-LIBRARY, & here’s what I got:

800: The NY City offices of Imaging and Document Solutions, Computer Telephony, Teleconnect and Call Center Magazine, Telecomm Books, Computer Telecomm Expos, & a bunch of other things.

866: The Talk Line, whatever that is, & I was told some other phone number to call.

877: The only number where I got an actual company that I can find some evidence of online: Vanity800, a company that claims to “broker” toll-free numbers.

888: Phone sex. “Hi guys, and thanks for calling. You won’t be disappointed…” (Heaven help me now that I’ve used the word “sex” in a blog post. I only hope authimage is up to the challenge.)

I’ve also learned that it is not legal to buy & sell toll-free numbers, though I’ve come across several “brokers” online that do precisely this. The legality of this is not something that I’m qualified to evaluate. If you want a toll-free number, you request one through your local carrier & presumably they assign you one at random out of a block that they’ve been assigned. Basically just like IP address blocks.

There are of course several problems with this idea. (1) It would be quite expensive to buy any of the 1-8xx-LIBRARY numbers. According to Vanity800’s FAQ:

How much do vanity numbers cost?
800, $25k+
888, $10-25k
877, $5-15k
866, $2.5-15k

(2) It would presumably be expensive to maintain this service. As I understand it, all calls to a toll-free number are charged as long-distance calls.

(3) There’s the issue of increased volume of questions coming into the reference desk. This is an issue with every new medium for providing reference. It was an issue with phone reference back when those started in the ’30s, it was an issue with email reference in the late ’80s, & it’s an issue with chat reference now. Librarians seem to have a phobia of being swamped with reference questions, as if it would be a bad thing for users to be asking more questions.

So all of this adds up to why no one has ever set up a service like this. Still, it seems like a good idea to me, at least in principle. Maybe if someone were to write a grant proposal using all of the words in Erica’s list, one could get funding for this.