From Reactive to Proactive Reference Service

Warren Cheetham ponders the demise of AskNow in Australia and offers some insights into his view of the future of reference:

I wonder if this is a good opportunity for the AskNow partners and participants to consider the idea of a proactive online reference service for Australians, that takes into account the changes in online behaviour and information seeking that has led to the decline in use of AskNow.

In brief, online services like Facebook and Twitter, and specific answer services like Yahoo Answers are filled with people asking their friends, families and followers all sorts of questions. Some of these questions aren’t appropriate for a response by a library, but many are.

At my place of work we have been playing around with Twitter as an online information service. While we now use it to push information, our original intent (and still a core practice) was to watch, listen and search Twitter for questions about our local area, or topics that we could answer. Our hunch that some people were asking their friends and followers questions that could easily be answered by a public library was quickly confirmed, and so we replied to their tweets with information and links.

I realise that this service model is entirely different to AskNow, and that different software, techniques, policies etc would be needed. But what AskNow seems to have been very successful at is the collaboration of some serious library muscle to share the task of answering questions. Perhaps that muscle could be re-engineered into a proactive online reference service for Australians who are making the most of the opportunities and connections afforded by social networking sites and mobile devices.

I appreciate Warren’s thinking. It’s in line with my own thoughts about moving from sitting behind a reference desk waiting for questions to a much more active role. Can we find a meaningful way to be a part of folks’ information steams and question space? This would make for a fascinating LIS class: designing services via a proactive model.