Libraries offer online assistance that clicks with student patrons

Virtual reference service in Balto., Harford counties

May 15, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Where does the Oregon Trail go? Are there really iron-eating microbes? How do I do my math problems? The answers to these and other homework questions can be difficult to find in the maze of information on the World Wide Web, but students can now get professional, one-on-one help without getting up from their computers.

Several Maryland librarians are available online to chat in real time and to guide young people to Web sites, databases and other resources. The Baltimore County Public Library offers a live homework service called Ask Us Now! from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The Harford County Public Library offers the service from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the same days.

Librarians send messages back and forth with students, make Web pages appear on the students' computer screens and suggest good sources of information. At the end of the session, a transcript is e-mailed to the user.

"The goal is to really get out where the students are," says Joe Thompson, a virtual librarian for the Baltimore County Public Library. He helps three to seven patrons each session, and expects that number to grow as students learn about the service.

The Baltimore and Harford county programs began in November with a shared $75,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education designed to help at-risk youngsters. Harford made Ask Us Now! available after school at local Boys and Girls Clubs, but Baltimore County had no central locations where the target group could gain access to computers after school.

Both libraries made the service widely available through their Web sites in March. And while they focus on homework help, they don't turn away questions from the general public.

The State Department of Education is planning a similar virtual reference service to be available statewide and possibly around-the-clock with federal funding through the Library Services and Technology Act. "It is very much in the preliminary stages," says Michael Osborne, acting assistant state superintendent of libraries, but the target start date is January.

"This is the digital generation," says Della Curtis, coordinator of library information services for Baltimore County schools. "Kids are very savvy with using computer tools." In fact, a federal government study this year found that 90 percent of young people ages 5 to 17 - about 48 million total - use computers, more than any other age group.

Louisa Doe, 15, of Woodlawn has used Ask Us Now! several times while attending an after-school program for teens at the Woodlawn library. She has asked questions about her biology homework, researched the U.S. presidency for government class and asked for Web sites that would help her publish her poetry and creative writing.

"It's good and it's helpful," says Doe. She also enjoyed Thompson's style: "Every time I make a mistake and say `I'm sorry,' he'd always say it's OK."

Libraries have been adding computer services for several years, with online catalogs, e-mail forms to request information and more advanced Web sites of their own. Several libraries in Carroll, Allegany, Cecil, Caroline and Baltimore counties are trying out online tutoring through - a 24-hour service - as part of a pilot program that runs until August. But live online help with specific research questions represents a next step for resource librarians, and proponents believe students are good targets for it.

"A lot of students think everything is on the Internet, and if they have a search engine and a computer they can find everything there is," says Sue Tinanoff, a virtual librarian at the Baltimore County library. But with research expertise and access to databases and print resources in addition to the Web, librarians "can find sources that are more trustworthy and reliable," she says.

Curtis is pleased that Ask Us Now! will help students use technology more effectively. "Our challenge is to teach kids how to evaluate information, how to frame a question," she says. Online assistance is another tool for "helping a child wade through this huge information landscape."

Kathy Wellen, library media specialist at Gunpowder Elementary School, asked Thompson for a live demonstration of the service for her fourth- and fifth-graders a few weeks ago.

"I was very impressed," she says. From his post at the other end of the connection, Thompson "led me to sites that were just right for the elementary level."

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