Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Public Libraries Corner: Ask A Librarian

Sarah Ormes reviews the online reference query service that EARL has developed which draws on the cooperation of 40 libraries around the country.

How much do you think it would cost to provide the nation with a free 24 hour reference query service? Millions of pounds? Hundreds of thousands of pounds? Surely not less than hundreds of pounds? Well Ask A Librarian has done it for an amazing start up cost of only £40.

Ask a Librarian is a new online service developed by EARL [1]. The service is very simple in concept. It is a reference enquiry point for anyone with access to the Internet. If you have a reference query that needs answering you simply need to visit the Ask A Librarian webpages [2] on the EARL server and complete a short form detailing your query, your name and e-mail address. Ask A Librarian will try and get the answer back to you via e-mail within the next two working days. The service is available 24 hours a day and is completely free to use.

The brains behind the Ask A Librarian service is Sheila Harden, Librarian at Richmond Upon Thames, co-compiler of the UK Public Libraries page [3] and EARLWEB [4]. She felt that there was a need for public libraries to develop networked services which are aimed at the public instead of other librarians. She also wanted to develop a service which would involve a large number of front line staff in order to raise the profile of the Internet with them.

“Many of the very interesting and valuable research projects that are currently being pursued involve only one or two large authorities at most and to be honest, I suspect that for the most part they have little impact on the day to day lives of working librarians. To spread the word about the benefits of networking these librarians needed to be able to contribute their skills in a networking environment.”

Ask A Librarian therefore involves the front line staff in 40 public libraries across the country. The scheme operates through the free collaboration of these librarians and their library authorities. The libraries take turns in answering the queries that are received though Ask A Librarian. By means of a rota each library is responsible for answering queries for a particular day. When a reference query form is completed it is automatically e-mailed to the library on duty for that day. As there are 40 libraries involved in the service each library is only on duty roughly once every forty days. The time commitment that each library is asked to provide is therefore kept at a manageable level.

This high level of collaboration was also an aim of Sheila’s.

“We wanted to show that public libraries and public librarians, though often deprived of opportunities for investment, can develop major initiatives by working collaboratively. Even now I find it difficult to bring to mind any other major project of this type which involves 40 public libraries across the nation working together for no reward other than the satisfaction of taking part.”

Service Reception

The service has been successful and since its November 1997 launch has received over 1632 visits to the website’s main page, 584 accesses of the reference query form and over 220 queries. On an average day about four queries will be received. The majority of these questions are from people in the UK but others have been received from people in places as far flung as the USA, Singapore and Australia.

Users of the service often send in very favourable comments after they have received the answer to their query. People have been particularly impressed by the level of cooperation that is taking place between geographically dispersed librarians around the country. Response within the profession has also been very positive - messages of support and admiration have even been received from librarians in the USA.

The reference staff involved have been very positive about their experiences. What could have been a potential drain and unwelcome distraction from their more immediate duties has proved to be both enjoyable and challenging. It has also led to some of the librarians developing informal contacts with other participating librarians. This communication also takes place through the bulletin board that EARL maintains for the librarians involved.

Types of Questions

The majority of questions Ask A Librarian has received have been straightforward queries, for example Who founded the dance theatre of Harlem? What is the recipe for Hasty Pudding? The resources used to answer these queries are the same as the ones which are used to answer the more traditional face-to-face reference query i.e. standard reference texts, CD-Roms and the Internet. The reference service being provide has not changed, it is the means by which it is delivered that has altered. In effect the service brings the resources of UK public reference libraries to people’s desktops which is especially useful at times when their local reference library is not available or not accessible online.

Some questions which have been received have caused problems. Some of the questions require indepth research in order for them to be answered properly, the classic example being, Are counselling and psychotherapy effective, or do they, by and large, do more harm than good? Staff involved have been slightly concerned as these queries have proved more time-consuming than anticipated and in a number of cases could only be answered by a referral to a specialist library or collection. The aim of the service is not to be an indepth research bank but to help the average home computer user with their everyday information needs.


As mentioned before the budget for this service was only £40. The service has been provided at such low cost due to the participants willingness to collaborate for free. With the libraries providing their time for free, EARL providing their technical expertise for free and Sheila Harden providing her time spent on managing the service also for free the budget remains an impressively low. The money which was spent went on the postage charges incurred for the distribution of posters and information packs to participant libraries.

Future Plans

Ask A Librarian was initially planned to run for six months. In March/April this year all the participating libraries will be surveyed in order to both evaluate the success of the service from the librarian’s perspective and establish the its future direction. Sheila has plans for its future

“I hope and expect that they (the participating libraries) will want to continue the service. I would like us to develop the collaborative element and draw into the scheme specialist libraries to support the generalist public reference libraries.”

Ask A Librarian is a marvellous example of how effective collaboration and cooperation between public libraries can be. This very simple collaboration has lead to the development of a national (if not global) service. It is a wonderful example of how public libraries can utilise very simple networking in order to create an imaginative new service for the public. At £40 it is a true bargain.


Many thanks to Sheila Harden for her help with this article.


[1] EARL is a UK public libraries Internet initiative which aims to make the advantages of the Internet available to all library users and other members of the public. The consortium members consist of over 60% of UK public library authorities and many other interested organisations. More information is available at http://www.earl.org.uk/

[2] Ask A Librarian, an online reference query service.
Owner/Maintainer: EARL
Available from http://www.earl.org.uk/ask/[16th January 1998]

[3] UK Public Libraries Page, links to UK and European public library networking resources.
Owner/Maintained: Robert and Sheila Harden
Available from http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/square/ac940/ukpublib.html [14th January 1998]

[4] EARLWEB, EARL’s ready reference to key information resources on the Internet.
Owner/Maintained: EARL and Robert Harden
Available from http://www.earl.org.uk/earl/earlweb/index.html [14th January 1998]

Author details

Sarah Ormes,
Public Libraries Officer,
Email: lisslo@ukoln.ac.uk