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New software makes it easy for experts to establish Internet-based AskA services
New software makes it easy for experts to establish Internet-based AskA servicesSeptember 07, 2001Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
The Virtual Reference Desk at Syracuse University has developed a unique Web-based software program designed to make it easy for experts anywhere to share their knowledge with the world. Called Incubator, the software is available at no cost to nonprofit organizations that want to establish a digital reference service (AskA service) on the Internet.
“Incubator is for groups that have an interest in providing outreach digital reference services but who don’t have the expertise to get the services going,” says Blythe Allison Bennett, user services coordinator for the Virtual Reference Desk (www.vrd.org). “We provide the means that enable the groups to get their expertise out there to serve the public.”
The Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) is a project of the Information Institute of Syracuse, which is affiliated with Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the VRD is dedicated to the advancement of digital reference and the successful creation and operation of human-mediated, Internet-based information services.
Incubator enables groups to establish digital reference sites that take in questions from users, route the questions to experts registered on the site, automatically archive question and answer pairs, and develop a searchable database of the archived questions and answers. In addition, people who manage the site can do so without learning a computer programming language. The system was designed by Jeff Rubin ’95, president and CEO of Internet Consulting Services, in cooperation with the VRD. Rubin is an instructor in SU’s School of Information Studies.
In addition to providing the Incubator software at no cost, the VRD provides free server space to house the AskA sites and free training sessions to help groups get started. The software can be customized with an organization’s graphic and textual identity for a one-time fee.
Some 20 groups have inquired about Incubator and are considering using it for their organizations. Two organizations-AskAble (www.askvrd.org/askable) and Ask an East Asian Studies Librarian (www.askvrd.org/askeasl)-have developed digital reference services using Incubator.
AskAble, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, provides experts and other resources for faculty and staff in the University of Wisconsin system to help them provide a quality education for students with disabilities. Experts are available to answer questions about academic accommodations for students with physical and other disabilities, says Christine Varnavas, faculty development coordinator for the Teachable Moments Project at UW-Stout. AskAble is a project of Teachable Moments (http://uwstout.edu/stursv/teachable/index.html).
Ask an East Asian Studies Librarian, a joint project of the Council for East Asian Libraries (CEAL) and the North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources (NCC), is housed at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The Web site provides virtual reference support to isolated scholars, says Sharon Domier, who is the East Asian Studies librarian for a consortium of five Massachusetts colleges. The consortium includes UMass-Amherst, Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College and Smith College. The site supports scholars looking for resources from China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and Taiwan, and includes expert librarians from a number of universities, including Harvard and Brigham Young universities, the University of Washington, and universities in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Version 1.0 of Incubator has been available on a limited basis for about a year. The VRD is working on a new version that will simplify some of the administrative tools, add some new administrative features, and enable the VRD to manage more Incubator sites on its Web server, Bennett says.
“The administrative tools are user-friendly and based on a content-management architecture,” Rubin says. “It allows a non-technical manager to control the Web site without knowing any programming language, and enables organizations to build a true searchable knowledge base that can be accessed by people around the world.”