Last week Jenny Levine of Shifted Librarian wrote about how disappointed she was by the answers given her by virtual reference recently. The virtual librarians gathered their data from free Internet resources via Google and Yahoo. Jenny had already done that. She was hoping for better information culled from fee-based databases.
Also last week Ross Singer of Dilettante's Ball wrote about the similarities between librarians and travel agents. Within his blog piece is a complaint about fee-based databases and how difficult it is to use them "for anything useful." I wish that he had been a little more specific, but I think he was referring to incompatibility with blogs, wikis, IM, and virtual reference.
I think these pieces go together.
I know I have had many bad experiences trying to pass database information through virtual reference. I always ask the client whether they received a readable page with the information they wanted. Often the answer is "no." They get no page at all or a page that asks them to sign onto a database service. I then resort to other means: pasting text into the chat box or email articles.
Another related issue is the availability of databases in the library community. Our virtual reference volunteers may come from large or small libraries and have a wealth or poverty of databases. The client never knows whether the luck of the draw will provide a librarian with optimal resources.
I am in a small library and do not have many databases to offer when I answer virtual reference requests. If Jenny had asked me her question, I might have disappointed her. I tend to use the free Internet resources and have what I think is a good rate of success. I use the resources that the client uses but I have more success in mining them. I pull books from the library and find answers if the client gives me time. I also do find a way to use the databases, but it is not easy.
I think we still have a lot of work to do to improve our library service in the virtual world.