January was a busy month at the Thomas Ford reference desk, as we had our second highest count of reference transactions ever. Most of the count is still people coming to the desk to ask us for help or calling us on the telephone. Our Internet-based reference did well as well.
The trend I see that surprises me is email reference. For years we have been touting that we would answer reference questions by email, but we rarely were asked. Into 2003, it was so rare to get an email question, that I did not even track them as such. That fall I noticed our email was picking up so I started counting.
In 2004 we had 164 email reference question. In 2005 we had 293. In January 2006 our one month total for email was 61 questions!
If you follow conversations in virtual library circles, you often hear that email is dead. That is not what I am seeing. There is a portion of the library public that follows pretty far behind the cutting edge of technology. With them, email is just now coming in to its own.
The questions vary from easy to involved. Some of our clients are asking if we can identify books and reserve them. Some want to know about community events or local history. A few want help with their academic research. Many are asking for obituaries.
At Thomas Ford, we are trying to get the questions any way we can. Our instant message reference is steady, but it could be bigger if we monitored IM more of the time. Our virtual reference count is slipping, but we are about to be absorbed by the new State of Illinois virtual plan; I have no idea whether that will be the kiss of death or revive the service. Whatever, email will hang in there as a part of our plan.