Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Virtual Reference Fairies

So I just encountered the first pop-up ad that ever made me smile. I was trying to read a news story, and suddenly a cute guy in a white shirt with a short website name came up on my screen and briefly pointed out where to click for information on weather, sports, and the product he was selling via his shirt. Then he dissapeared.

I'm calling him the internet fairy.

He was a cute little guy that floated around on my desktop and pointed stuff out, with all respect to people who don't like to be called fairies, and to people who practice fairy worship as their relgion. How egocentric is it that I believed he was real for thirty seconds? This was great marketing, so direct, so friendly, so personal.

I want to be a cute little lady on your desktop that points stuff out. Not like the Microsoft Office Helpers though! Maybe I'd live in a little button on your favorites, or you could collect little fairies and check to see if your favorite one is "home" when you need help.

"Library fairy, how do I change the font size on my computer?"
The library fairy floats to the View link,
"Click here, then here, then there, you got it!"

"Library fairy, what books do you reccomend for an eight year old?"
"What does your eight your old like?"
"If you click here, and here, and here, there is a booklist of bug books for elementary school kids. Does your kid want books on any particular kind of bug?"

Would the user or the librarian design the avatar? Hmmm...then librarians could afford designer clothing, although I'd probably design a librarian that looked an awful lot like the guy in the commercial, a typical indie rock hipster type.

Pathetic, this is reminding me of the Japanese dating sim games. I suppose even I, noble librarian in training, would want to go there. If the librarian avatar was helpful I'd probably be falling in love, not with the person, but with the idea of the person.

Although the virtual girlfriend I found online while trying to find a link to a representatitve dating sim was just scary. Her voice is only slightly better than the Telecirc "robot" that calls patrons with overdue library books.

I've been playing, and I call it playing because it seems like a combination of being on Jeopardy and Loveline, on Yahoo! Answers this afternoon.

The Yahoo disclaimer:
"Yahoo! does not evaluate or guarantee the accuracy of any Yahoo! Answers responses. All questions and responses are provided by Yahoo! Answers community members like you. You agree that any use you make of such responses is at your own risk and that Yahoo! is not responsible for any losses resulting from your reliance on any Answers responses. Yahoo! Answers responses should never be used as a substitute for advice from a qualified professional"

So I asked a trivia question to my local virtual reference librarian and to Yahoo! Answers. The library has a 24/7 virtual reference chat service, "This service provides brief answers to factual questions and gives referrals to online or print resources or other agencies."

She got me an accurate answer from one of the databases the library subscribes to. A good experience, but having read so many papers on Virtual Reference services I felt obligated to participate in saying hello and goodbye, which is something Yahoo Answers doesn't bother with.

I have a whole list of questions about anonymity in using the virtual reference service. On Yahoo I know my Yahoo identity and avatar is visible. I felt apprehensive about the library's virtual reference service because I don't know how anonymous it is. If I don't give my real name they still get my library card number, or do the librarians not see the library card number unless the patron volunteers it? The first time I logged on it didn't even occur to me to give a fake name, I thought it was part of the authentication process to give a name that matches the library card, but I logged back in real quick to see if I could use a pseudonym and it worked. I've never recognized the names of the librarians working, and I thought it was because they might be from other libraries, but I found out they use pseudonyms (is this required? suggested? a good idea?) on the service.

Yahoo, my first correct answer came in 3 minutes, but the first with a citation to an official website came a minute later. Now I have to wait twenty-four hours to pick the best answer and someone gets ten points.

But by serendipity I came across the question from goobermandudeguysaweet "Is it mostly kids/teenagers with a lot of time on their hands who ask and answer questions on here?I know that's true in my case! But are there actually serious adults who ask/answer questions? If so, why? Don't you have anything better to do? Or are you a stay at home mom or something? Or are you a pervert looking for little kids? Or are you simply a person looking for answers? Tell me!! I NEEEEEED TO KNOW!"

Ah yes, librarians. Why be a librarian to the general public? Do public libraies want to really offer this service and all the attitudes that come with it? How do you filter out the babble of fake questions, resolve issues of privacy and anonymity, give accurate answers in the virtual environment?

Maybe Yahoo needs another level of expertise. Type in your zip code for a free connection to a virtual reference librarian who can help you with material from your local public library. It's not so much that Yahoo! Answers will win, but how long will it survive and will it evolve at all? There seem to be hundreds of AskA services on the web, right down to the amazing nature of list-servs and the accurate and fast answers, and opinions, I've gotten for years using them. I'm glad the list-servs still exist, but I fear my appreciation from them will soon be pure nostalgia in the face of wikis.

Most of all, do I believe in the Virtual Reference Fairy enough to become one?

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