Faster Facts

Faster Facts

The Library of Congress tests its virtual reference network


Not long ago, a patron of the Morris County, N.J., public library needed a transliteration of a Saudi place name. Local librarians couldn't help, but they referred the question to the Collaborative Digital Reference Service.

The question went through a CDRS server in Washington at the Library of Congress, where a software agent matched it against a database of participating institutions. The query traveled to the University of Wisconsin, which was listed as having Arabic expertise, and the New Jersey patron received the transliteration in a matter of hours.

CDRS, a Library of Congress virtual network of reference services, makes experts in various fields available to patrons around the world 24 hours a day. In its third and final pilot phase, CDRS can call on more than 80 institutions, such as national libraries of medicine and agriculture in the United States; national libraries in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands; and other libraries and universities around the world.

'Eventually, the service will be direct to the end user, sitting at home or at a terminal at the library,' said Diane Kresh, director of library service collections. 'But the process of coding a question right now is a little too arcane.'

Join 'em, then beat 'em

The service arose partly as a response from the world's librarians to the challenge of the Web, whose search engines cull information from millions of sites. To remain relevant, the librarians decided to fight fire with fire and use networking to improve their reference desks.


face="Arial,Helvetica,Geneva" size="2" color="#FF0000">The Library of Congress' Diane Kresh wants to deliver data from experts over the Internet instead of looking things up one by one.The idea was born at an international symposium in Washington in 1998, Kresh said. Proposals for a centralized reference network came up at a 1999 American Library Association meeting in Philadelphia, and the first pilot began in February 2000. It tested the routing of scripted questions based on profiles of 10 participating libraries.

Library of Congress staff routed the questions by e-mail and later by Web forms, and answers came back the same way.

In the second phase, which began last June, request management software routed the queries posed to librarians at 16 participating libraries. Questions and answers remained in a library's queue on the central server, and e-mail messages notified libraries of the waiting material.

The final pilot began in November, using Remedy Help Desk from Remedy Corp. of Mountain View, Calif., as the request manager for submitting and routing questions.

An unanswered question

Remedy Help Desk resides in Washington on a Sun Microsystems Inc. server running Solaris. The help desk software was reconfigured for the project, and its scalability will be tested as the project ramps up. About 600 libraries will participate by year's end. Most have agreed to refer 10 CDRS requests per week, but that volume will increase as librarians become more familiar with the system.

CDRS so far is a shoestring operation using donated services and products, Kresh said. The question of how to finance a production system remains unanswered.

Participating libraries fill out an online profile of their expertise in 28 fields and their hours of operation. The Library of Congress staff manually enters the profiles into a Sybase Inc. database management system.

The Remedy request manager accesses the Sybase database to make routing decisions.

The Online Computer Library Center of Dublin, Ohio, is developing a new profile database for CDRS, and it also is working on a knowledge base of automatic answers to common questions.

The librarians need little training, Kresh said, but the system is a bit kludgy in its present form. Phrasing a query that Remedy understands well enough for proper routing takes patience, she said. Even phrasing the query so that the expert doing the research at the other end will understand can be tricky.

Take, for instance, the question, 'Can birds fly?' Most but not all of them can. But what if the patron's real question is about whether he can take a pet canary on an airplane?

'We're thinking about opening up a chat function' so that librarians can discuss and clarify the questions, Kresh said.


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