Connect all state residents to reference librarians
"Each Ask-WA library addresses QuestionPoint in their own manner. ... It really integrates with all the resources you are able to provide as a library."
Online Resources Consultant, Washington State Library
More than 55 unique libraries and library systems—including those at large state universities, smaller 4-year colleges, and technical and community colleges as well as tribal, rural and urban public libraries—participate in Ask-WA, Washington's state virtual reference service. Because each library's users may have very different needs, finding one system that works for everyone could be a challenge.
However, QuestionPoint® allows the libraries to be flexible in how they help library users through Ask-WA. "Different libraries in our system treat QuestionPoint differently," said Nono Burling, Online Resources Consultant at the Washington State Library. For example, the academic and public queues of QuestionPoint help librarians answer questions from users of specific library types. "That is a really big strength of QuestionPoint," Nono said. "There are very different skillsets that are needed [to support reference in academic and public libraries]." Although questions in the academic queue usually relate to a student's school work, questions in the public queue are more diverse, often asking for help beyond traditional reference.
Virtual reference is a "brilliant tool for helping people use e-books," commented Nono. She remembers logging into her public library's chat specifically for help with downloading an e-book after regular library hours. "Even if the library was open," she said, "without that chat service, I would have had to unplug my desktop computer tower and take it to the library. And that wasn't going to happen!" She also noted that a lot of libraries in Washington are rural, may have limited hours and serve a population that lives up to 30 miles away. Through Ask-WA, "if those patrons want to download an e-book, they can get help from a distance."
"It's available anytime, anywhere and on a whole variety of devices. You could be on a safari in Africa and, if you had a question and Internet service, you could get help."
The ability to interact from a distance or from the comfort of home isn't just a benefit for library users. "We have a lot of librarians who have been doing this for a lot of years and who are really good virtual reference librarians," Nono said. One Washington librarian moved to Germany, but continues to support QuestionPoint. This allows her to contribute a few hours that are overnight in Washington but mid-morning in Germany. Nono also recalls contributing on holidays when the library was closed, which she covered from home in her pajamas. Since all QuestionPoint libraries cooperate, Washington library users can always reach a librarian even when Ask-WA libraries are closed.
Some of the large libraries in Ask-WA "scan for their patrons during all open hours," Nono explained. "Some libraries have their own queue, so they get their patrons first." Others, with fewer staff members, use Ask-WA as a backup to the reference desk. Some libraries choose to contribute evening and weekend hours, while others mostly contribute during the regular hours. Several include an Ask-WA chat box on the catalog webpage when a search returns no results. Some have used questions from transcripts to improve their website design. However a library chooses to implement QuestionPoint and participate in Ask-WA, they are helping Washington library users find the information they need. "They understand that, especially for that millennial generation, chat reference is the real key to serving their users," Nono said.
Services used by Ask-WA
- More than 55 academic, public and tribal libraries in Washington participate in Ask-WA
- Funded by participating libraries and the Washington State Library through a grant provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services
- Ask-WA libraries agree to contribute a certain amount of time each week to the virtual reference desk, based on the library's size and population served
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