Library unveils e-reference service

PSU’s Millar Library launched a new electronic reference service yesterday that will allow students and staff to consult with librarians from remote computers. The service is similar to the in-person reference desks, and will allow students greater flexibility in doing online research.

“Ask a Librarian” is a new feature on the library’s Web site, Clicking on the link on the top of their home page will take you to a form where you can submit questions to a reference librarian. Kim Willson-St. Clair, a humanities technician in the Millar Library and part of the group that created the new Web site, says that librarians will respond to questions within 24 hours or on the next business day.

The primary mission of “Ask a Librarian” is to assist students in finding materials to help them do research from remote locations, Willson-St. Clair said. She clarified that the new service is not a virtual reference desk because answers will not be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Librarians will only respond to e-mails during normal business hours. The electronic reference service is not designed to give students answers to all their questions, but rather to guide their own personal research.

“We won’t necessarily be giving out answers, but you will get at least a response from a librarian,” Willson-St. Clair said. “We start running into copyright problems if we quote directly from sources, but we can give people direction for their research and help them develop search strategies, similar to the existing reference librarians.”

The “Ask a Librarian” Web site says students can “use this service for any question you might ask in the library, such as completing a citation, obtaining bibliographic information, selecting an information resource, or guidance with your research process.” Though submitting a question requires students to input their e-mail address, Willson-St. Clair said that personal information is not stored and all responses will be kept confidential.

The project has been under development since January 2001. The library wanted to implement an electronic reference service for a long time and finally got the backing they needed from the university early this year. A work group created the Web site, and it went online Tuesday morning.

Many public and university libraries around the region have full-blown virtual reference desks, and PSU is just starting to catch up with them. “Multnomah County, Lewis and Clark, most universities and colleges have them, but we’re just getting on the bandwagon now,” Willson-St. Clair said.

Though “Ask a Librarian” is not available continuously now, Willson-St. Clair said that the service is just the first generation of services the library intends to provide over the next several years.

“We eventually hope to have a virtual reference desk that’s available 24-7, and become part of a virtual academic consortium,” she said. The library will reorganize its technology model this fall, and will work on developing a virtual reference desk after the reorganization is complete.

For more information on “Ask a Librarian,” check out the Millar Library Web site at The link on the top of the Web page takes you to the form. For more information, contact Kim Willson-St. Clair at (503) 725-4552 or [email protected].