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'AskAway' Library Service Quits Answering Questions

Instant online reference source killed. Rural BC will miss it, says Fort Nelson librarian.

By Shannon Smart, 30 Jun 2010, TheTyee.ca

Red question mark on a keyboard

Answer providing program deleted by education ministry.

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This is the day B.C.'s libraries pull the plug on the AskAway! Program, which let patrons from all over the province ask questions of librarians online, in real time, and receive an immediate answer.

The provincial plan for libraries and literacy, set out in Gordon Campbell's 2004 strategic planning document Libraries Without Walls, was to bring the "world within the reach" of anyone with Internet access (and a card to a B.C. library).

Back then, Campbell was optimistic about the potential for digital technologies to promote reading in B.C. He described libraries as "the front lines in the effort to make British Columbia one of the most literate places in the world."

AskAway, launched in 2006, fit Campbell's stated overall goal for Libraries Without Walls, to "facilitate equitable access to information for all British Columbians."

"By putting the knowledge and resources of librarians online, said then Minister of Education Shirley Bond, "AskAway will help make B.C. the best educated, most literate jurisdiction in North America."

Four years and 130,000 questions later, the program will end today, June 30, due to a withdrawal of funding by the ministry of education.

School children used service the most

Those most affected by AskAway's closure likely will be B.C. school children in grades five to 12, who asked most of the questions fielded through the virtual reference service.

Ending the AskAway program also will change the way residents in rural B.C. access library resources.

Readers who can visit the many library locations in the Lower Mainland may not have been aware that AskAway even existed, but patrons in more far-flung regions of the province are more likely to miss it when it is gone.

At the Fort Nelson library, the northernmost branch in B.C., librarian Linda Novotny noted that "people were extremely grateful" for the "little lifeline" AskAway offered.

In that community of about 5,000 residents, the library has an impressive collection of 40,000 books. Even so, "we're fairly isolated," explained Novotny, and "AskAway gave another outlet, another resource" for patrons needing assistance.

Novotny, who answered questions and provided instant, remote assistance to library users from all over B.C., said that in Fort Nelson, where the next library is in Fort St. John -- 371 long kilometres away -- the "one-on-one help will be missed."

Students took advantage of the real-time homework help from a librarian the program offered, and adults also used AskAway, Novotny said.

The librarian used the service herself to get a second expert opinion to complement her own when faced with a particularly difficult or specialized question from a patron. AskAway connected readers and librarians, but also connected librarians with one another, Novotny noted.

'The world has changed'

But some say the rise of other social media tools have made AskAway less necessary.

Shelagh Flaherty, the director of the Central Library for the Vancouver Public Library, said "the world has changed since we started this program," and pointed out other methods by which patrons can connect with library staff.

While AskAway will no longer be available, questions can still be submitted and answered remotely by email or over the phone by librarians at any branch in B.C.

And libraries are working hard to offer other forms of virtual reference, Flaherty said.

Recently, readers have sent in questions through the VPL's Facebook and Twitter feeds, and most B.C. libraries have improved their websites since the launch of AskAway, Flaherty said.

When The Tyee checked the @askawaybc feed on Twitter this week, it was full of enthusiastic testaments to the usefulness of the program.

Said one: "[AskAway] helps me make the most of my time and exposes some of the wonders of the info resources in B.C. libraries."

Another post describes the value of the service to users outside of the Lower Mainland: "This week [AskAway] served callers from: Lwr Mainland, Van Island, Sunshine Coast, Thompson Nicola, Prince George, Okanagan, Dawson Creek, Cariboo."

And among the very last @askawaybc's Twitter posts was this one:

"It's official. *sniff* BC Public Library AskAway will cease on June 30 at 5pm. We'll sure miss serving you, BC."  [Tyee]

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