How Can I Get Research or Reference Help Online?

May 8, 2009

in Internet

by Gabe Goldberg

Generational difference exist in attitudes about libraries and librarians. My school-years experience visiting the library for research and asking librarians for reference help is likely less common in the age of available-everywhere Google for searching and Wikipedia for research. So today’s youngsters may miss out on a treat, since it’s hard for solitary PC keyboard tapping to replace the friendly neighborhood librarian.

But fortunately, many public libraries now offer both automatic online services (catalog searches, inter-library loans, database access, etc.) and human assistance (staff available by instant chat, email, etc.). It’s now easy to search one’s own library system for desired books, not only determining whether they’re in stock but if they’re on the shelf (and if so, in which library branch). And if checked out, they can be reserved with automatic notification of availability.

Books not owned locally can usually be fetched via inter-library loan. Library cards are often available to people working locally, even if not residents. And library systems may offer reciprocity, so one library card is accepted in many nearby library systems.

Library help online

Library help online

Online database resources vastly exceed what I years ago found in my branch library. Checking what’s available in my library system finds resource categories from biography to science, including such material as consumer and genealogy references.

Many normally expensive databases are available free, for the price of a library card. For example, automobile recall notices and service bulletins (information sent to dealers about known problems with specific car makes/models), normally only available by expensive subscription, is available through my library’s Web site.

Many library services which traditionally required in-person visits can now be done online: requesting library cards, updating personal information, checking due dates, extending loans, and more.

The most engaging online service is the ability to “Ask-a-Librarian” by instant chat or email. This handles varied questions: general curiosity, homework-related, business research, etc. Librarians have helped me with many research challenges, including tracking down faintly remembered books and favorite short stories, using only vague clues. Don’t request medical or legal advice, though

In addition to accepting e-mail, libraries use Web forms for submitting queries, take questions via instant messaging, and offer interactive Web chats. Interactive instant messaging and Web chats allow quick\ conversations, often providing answers within a few minutes. Newer technologies such as VoIP (voice over IP, Internet telephony) and SMS (cell phone text messaging) may offer increased research availability.

Whatever you’re seeking, start by finding your local library’s Web site — by Googling your location plus “library” or linked from your local government Web site. Or searching for library questions provides many helpful sites. Then find links like “Ask-A-Librarian” or “Homework Help.” Link text and services will vary; when I click Ask-A-Librarian, I can choose between chatting, e-mailing, or (of course) actually visiting a library.

Finally, remember that in this difficult economic era, libraries are cutting back along with all other public services. So consider donating to groups or foundations which support them, to ensure that resources you’ll use, and that support education, are adequate and available.

Gabe Goldberg (, a lifelong computer pro and technology communicator, has written three books and hundreds of articles for audiences including techies, baby boomers and senior citizens. He enjoys sharing tips and pointers that help people use and have fun with technology.