The Internet Public Library (IPL) is an online public library serving the Internet community by providing resources and reference services through the use of freely available websites. Reference services are offered via email, utilizing a standardized form to elicit patron input, which attempts to perform some of the functions of the traditional reference interview. Research and responses are contributed by mostly volunteer librarians or library students working at the IPL as part of a class project. During the 2008 Spring Quarter I volunteered as part of my Principles of Information Services course. In previous library positions I had the opportunity to answer questions predominantly in person or on the phone, but seldom through email, so I looked forward to this assignment with anticipation and a little anxiety.
The IPL structured response format provided a helpful framework for answering questions, along with a sense of how far to get into a topic in the initial response. The patron submittal form also offered an opportunity for people to provide the extra information often lacking when an email question is sent to a library reference email address. These two features helped me to feel confident that I was searching on the topic that the patron really wanted, as well that I was answering the question fully. I learned, over the course of my eight required questions, to successfully utilize resources freely available over the internet for almost all the queries. Several questions were best answered by referring the client to a valuable resource located at a library in their area, as well as online sources. Through the process I gained substantial experience locating and sifting through diverse web resources, finding reliable and relevant information to address people’s information needs.
The combination of detailed submission form and response policy employed by the IPL could go a long way toward improving email service and general reference in many settings. In situations where I have since had the opportunity to interact with patrons in person, on the phone, or via email, I have incorporated more meaningful questions into the reference interview process and emulated some of the response format I learned through the assignment. I can carry this experience to new service opportunities in my professional life, whether when interacting with library users or by advocating policy changes and web-form modifications to better capture information for improved service. As an information professional, I will now have the confidence to use all tools, whether familiar or new, to communicate and delve into user queries and engage people where they are through the most effective means for each situation. My sense of purpose and excitement for continuing to learn and grow in assisting people with locating, making sense of, and utilizing information sources is stronger as a result of the IPL service opportunity.