ASK 24/7 database open to students

There is good news for those students so addicted to Instant Messenger that they put research off until 2:00 in the morning.

Now, through the Williams College Libraries’ ASK 24/7 database, research and instant messaging can be done simultaneously, and at any hour of the day. The ASK 24/7 is an online database which enables students to receive the assistance of librarians at academic institutions around the globe.

The ASK 24/7 website, which has a link on Williams College Library site, was implemented in October for a 2-year pilot run with nine other colleges of the Boston Library Consortium, but has only recently begun to receive attention.

Christine Ménard, the librarian responsible for bringing the program to the College, attributed the program’s initial lack of publicity to the fact that the librarians needed time to “make sure that everything worked.”

Ménard, along with three other librarians whom she trained to use the program, represents Williams online every Thursday morning at Sawyer, where she sends research information to inquiring students using ASK 24/7. She said her decision to implement the program at Williams followed her observation that “less students had been asking questions in person at the reference desk” and noted that librarians “aren’t always up when [students] are.”

The service was started by 24/7 Reference, a non-profit California-based company that created the program for use by the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System. While search engines such as Google offer similar reference services, students can use ASK 24/7 for free, which is one of the reasons that Williams decided to implement the program.

Unlike AOL chat, the service offers a number of unique features that are specific to research-oriented interaction. One such feature allows librarians to “push” web pages to students, meaning that students can click on the links sent to them and navigate through sites on the left side of the screen, while continuing their dialogue in the window on the right.

Those familiar with Instant Messenger will recognize the concept of ASK 24/7 immediately. To log on, one must only specify his college on the dropdown menu. Including an e-mail address is optional, but is the only way to receive a transcript of the chat session when it is over.

The service also supports “co-browsing,” which gives students the ability to monitor a librarian’s examination of a site or database, and vice versa. Though this feature still does not run very smoothly, Ménard described it as a useful tool for helping librarians to realize if students are overlooking valuable information and to guide them through sites where the information is not readily available.

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