Questionpoint’s “Ask a Librarian” is operated by OCLC, Inc., based in Dublin, Ohio, which also maintains WorldCat, the largest online public access catalog (OPAC) in the world. OCLC began in 1967 as the Ohio College Library Center and has grown and grown. Through WorldCat, people can locate books, whether popular or rare, in libraries anywhere in the world. One librarian told us they had a patron from Virginia who was visiting friends in San Diego come to the San Diego County Law Library to see a book that was available in only four libraries in the world. This was the only copy in the United States.
The California county law libraries became involved in online reference and chat in 2002 when the Judicial Council of California, Administrative Office of the Courts began its self-help website and gave 24/7 Reference a link on it. The early funding was provided by the Federal Library Services and Technology Act and was hosted by the Los Angeles County Law Library.
Any county law library which provided staffing for the online service could add a link to the service on its own library website, which is how ours got there. At the beginning, six law libraries participated and they were asked to provide a minimum of 3 hours of live chat a week. When there was no librarian available, the questions were referred to a mailbox and any of the libraries could then answer them via email. Over its years of existence, librarians have been very careful not to provide legal advice. They refer “chatters” or “e-mailers” to books, libraries, websites or other information sources which may help them, but explain that by law they cannot provide legal advice or tell them which specific codes, forms, etc. they need.
The program quickly took hold, especially after the icons were placed on all the county law library websites. Librarians could chat with one person at a time or balance 1-5 depending on the needs and abilities of the librarians doing the chat. Soon court officials and clerks were referring people to the sites.
As the California program and other programs expanded, OCLC became involved and took over the program, changing the name of the service to Questionpoint and opening it up to libraries around the world to provide 24/7 reference.
The Alameda County Law Library, because of reduced staffing, no longer participates in the online chat portion of the service. We do still answer questions via email being careful not to give legal advice.
Anyone is able to use it. Try it out. Look it over. That’s why it’s there!