From Reactive to Proactive Reference Service 8

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.

8 thoughts on “From Reactive to Proactive Reference Service

  • Rosario Garza

    In California we struggled with the same problem: declining use of our virtual ref service. Finally we shut it down as of 6/2010. Yes, being proactive will be a big challenge. It is something that many ref folks are not used to doing. I sometimes wonder if we haven’t already lost the war.

  • Andrew

    I absolutely agree that AskNow has been a great success as a partnership between Australian and New Zealand State and National Libraries.

    I also agree that being reactive is generally what libraries are best at. And a good thing too, as that’s what clients generally want – a response to their urgent need.

    However, I also feel that libraries prioritise reactive services over being proactive. Being reactive creates instant professional gratification, whereas being proactive requires a certain level of emotional energy investing substantial amounts of time into something that, however useful it may be in the long, may not be self-evident in its value at first.

    Which is absolutely a great thing, if you want innovation! However, you also need to have strong leadership with the vision to make it a reality. I think we’re part of the way there, but there’s still quite a long way to go to have innovative proactive services that emerge from a collaborative project across the state and national libraries.

  • Steve

    I think Cheetham has the right idea, using social networking as a way to listen rather than to push information. Sure, Facebook and Twitter are great for publicizing programs and developing a “fan” base and I’m not knocking those endeavors at all. But it appears to me that there are plenty of opportunities for public library reference services to become more proactive, and by that I mean by moving beyond their own physical confines and creating some business on their own. One interesting example of that is “community problem solving”, documented here:
    It’s not a question of whether we should get up from behind the desk, but also of how we can transform the perception away from a declining brand (i.e.- librarians wait to be asked for help) to something that demonstrates the value we add to our communities in a new and more tangible way (i.e.- librarians bring a high level of information and organizational skills to the community).
    I did a short lecture for my LIS Reference class called “The Post Google Public Library”, focusing on strategies for creating proactive services. I too would like to devote more time to it.

  • Bill Pardue

    A couple of points (which kind of duplicate comments I’ve submitted to the originating blog):

    1) At our own library, chat is certainly not dead or dying. We serve a community of 76K and will have almost 400 chats this month (an increase of about 68% over this month last year). I think many libraries never properly located their chat sites and many patrons never found them. We still probably have far more patrons using our sites than following out Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and this will be the case for some time to come. We need highly-visible live access points on those sites, whether it be collaborative services or in-house chat. Many users still expect to get to the library’s services via its own site…we need to be sure that avenue’s there.

    2) That said, I’m totally on-board with being more proactive. That’s the whole point of “Slam the Boards” ( When it started, the focus was just on the Q&A boards like Yahoo Answers, WikiAnswers, etc., but now legitimately includes looking for questions in Twitter, Facebook, hyperlocal sites (think’s Q&A pages), etc. The challenge with this is separating the wheat from the chaff. Not every tweet that mentions “Arlington Heights” is an answerable question. To do this successfully, we’ll need to figure out how to follow this in a way that’s efficient. Proactivity isn’t just limited to online activities, of course…there’s showing up at local Chamber of Commerce meetings, working with committees, “embedding” yourself in classes (for academics), setting up a special “boutique” reference service to meet an immediate need (think of the many libraries setting up “job search” help desks). Even something as simple as getting up from the desk and saying “Hi” as patrons enter your area is a form of proactivity that we’re just starting to realize is important. I’m glad to see so many of us thining outside the box!

    Oh…don’t forget to “Slam the Boards” on December 10!

  • ahniwa

    What Bill said. Also, some thoughts:

    Proactive services are great, but it’s really hard to offer them locally. Services like Twitter and Facebook make it too complicated to view JUST the content from your service area and, for good or bad, most libraries aren’t interested in serving people outside of their service area. Even sites like Yahoo! Answers don’t provide any localization, even on the state level where a cooperative service like Ask-WA could step in. The only case I know of where this really works is in the UK where they have a national reference cooperative and, as such, a strong proactive reference presence on the national (UK) version of Yahoo! Answers.

    In the U.S., though, we remain segregated, despite efforts and committees designed to help bring things together. The fact is, though, as long as our funding sources are local, our primary service will be local, and if libraries aren’t able to proactively serve on a local level, I don’t think they’ll bother.

  • Bill Pardue

    @Ahniwa, one thought might be for libraries to actually create the hyperlocal sites and discussion boards (or team up to create regional ones) that would justify keeping an eye on them. Some libraries have done this with Ning (although it costs now), but it could also be done with a tool like Drupal. That’s not to say this would be an easy proposition for everyone. You’d need to develop some expertise (and a plan) just to create and manage the site, and you’re still creating a resource that local users need to discover and invest the time to use, so there’s a marketing component. Still, it might be a good fit for some libraries.

  • ahniwa

    @Bill – I feel like creating our own answer boards would be like creating our own search engines. Yeah we could do it, and they might even be really good, but I don’t think that even with the best marketing we could pull enough people over to use them to make it worth our while.

    Luckily, with the rise of Foursquare, and subsequently Facebook Places and Google Places, etc – I think that location-based X is getting bigger and may, some day soon, give us a way to better identify and serve our service area via non-library sites.

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