Free Live Online Help with eReference

Did you know there are libraries with eReference sites on the World Wide Web where friendly people will help you find the answers for many of your questions while you are chatting with them online, and you don’t have to pay a penny?

Sometimes it seems that when you look for useful information on the World Wide Web, every place you go somebody is trying to sell you something, push their own social agenda, or gather marketing data. And when you do find information that just might be useful, most of the time a person can’t tell if it is garbage or if they actually have what they needed. Yet before the Internet became so entrenched in the culture, most people will recall the one place where they could always go to find answers to their questions, answers that were useful and answers that were always free.

That place was the library, and that place is still there.

Some people have noticed that several libraries have moved onto the web so that a person can browse the library’s online catalog, order books through inter-library loan, and find useful links to reputable websites. But hardly anyone knows about online reference, or eReference.

The reference librarian is the person who is trained to find accurate, useful, and reliable information for patrons. He or she resides in the library so they can help casual visitors, children and adults, as well as the serious researcher to find the answers to all their questions. Many reference librarians are available on the Web through the interactive tool of chat sessions and email.

With this tool, a patron (that’s you) can visit the library’s website, and begin an online chat with a real live person who is dedicated to helping you find whatever information you need.

And here is the really amazing part: they do it for free. After all, it is the library.

When a person surfs to one of these online libraries with an eReference option, often the librarian may not actually be at that particular library. The online reference services are often a collaboration or consortium of libraries within a large geographic area. There may be a team of reference librarians who manage questions that come across the Internet.
For example, the URSUS (University Resources Serving Users Statewide) system is a reference service within the libraries in the state of Maine. Different libraries monitor the eReference desk at different times so a patron may reach someone in Augusta on Tuesday, but chat with a librarian in Bangor on Fridays. Although the system is intended for the use of Maine residents, the librarians in Maine will usually answer questions from anyone, as time permits.

Many states and cities have an eReference option. It is usually found by following the “Ask a Librarian” link on most library homepages.

Let’s give it a try.

Suppose your child has to write a report about dolphins and he comes to you to find out how long a dolphin can hold its breath.

You can just follow this link to the URSUS page.

And click on the “Ask a Librarian” link at the bottom of the page.

Then click on the drop-down box for the library nearest to you.

Fill out the form with your name and email address, knowing that librarians are fierce defenders of a person’s right to privacy, so you know your information won’t be released without your permission (Unless the current administration decides to override the Constitution, againâÂ?¦)

Then somewhere inside that familiar building that is filled with books, a librarian will hear the computer beeping, walk over to her desk to talk to you on the computer, and begin to answer your question.

Near the lower right corner of the page you will find a chat box. If a person types a message into the chat box, it will appear on the librarian’s screen, as well as your own, in the area above the chat box.

As you watch, the librarian starts sending you information through the co-browsing window that takes up most of the page. Through this method, she or he can direct a person to reliable resources that can answer their question or lead to an answer.
Sometimes you will ask a question that a reference librarian cannot answer immediately. The librarian may ask for an email address so that he or she can send you the answer when she finds it. The librarian might ask you more questions before you get your final answer, and the answer may not be exactly what you are looking for, but it is much more reliable than just going to the first link at the top of a search engine listing.

Librarians enjoy finding answers to questions and helping the people who come to them and ask.

With the huge amount of mediocre material online, it is easy to become jaded and cynical with regards to the online community. All too often it seems people only use the World Wide Web to scream their own agenda, to entertain us with 2-minute films, and scam us for as much information as we are willing to give. There’s a certain reassurance, a level of safety and grace, knowing that the steadfast librarian from a simpler past is well-established in the electronic community and still happy to help you discover anything you want to know through the tool of eReference..

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