Sad Times for Virtual Reference
Upon graduation from the iSchool in June of 2009, I became an Intern with askON (a part of Knowledge Ontario) providing virtual reference support to university students. Throughout September 2009-April 2010 I volunteered my time weekly to answer reference questions from any student, from a participating university, in Ontario. Not only was this valuable professional experience for me, I believe that each week I provided meaningful assistance to multiple students. It was not unusual to spend upwards of half an hour assisting a student with a research question and walking them through the process of creating effective searches within relevant databases. Often times students used the service in times of great need as they had a paper due the next morning, their own university library wasn’t open, and they just needed some guidance. That is what askON is there for.
It is disturbing to find out that Knowledge Ontario will receive no funding from the province this year to support its digital services and products. Read more here. The loss of this funding has serious implications for askON, as in, there will be no more askON. Unfortunately this appears to be some what of a trend. BC’s version of askON, named AskAway, has come to halt. Gordon Campbell’s 2004 planning document titled Libraries Without Walls, enthusiastically supported such digital technologies and access to information but appears to not resignate when the province is facing financial difficulty. You can read more here.
What I find interesting about the article discussing the end of AskAway is the idea that social media is some how able to replace a virtual reference service. I love social media. I use Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc daily. However, I don’t believe that these methods of communication come close to providing the level of service that virtual reference can accomplish. Yes you still email the library and yes you can tweet a question. But it doesn’t replace real time interaction where a librarian spends the time with a customer walking them through how to answer a question themselves. Virtual reference is another way of providing information literacy skills, and I do not believe that you can translate these skills through social media.
I do hope that Knowledge Ontario secures bridging assistance so that they can at least keep their programs running until the school years end of 2011. And hopefully during this time the government will decide that it’s too valuable of a service to give up on.