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Thing 34 Is This Our Competition--Online Answer Sites

Page history last edited by Ann WS 15 years, 3 months ago

Thing 34. Is this Our Competition? Online Answer Sites

More and more people seem to turn to the Internet and anyone on the Web to answer their questions. Has this affected library reference service? Should we be worried? Take a look at some popular answer sites and share your opinions.



You have read lots about the "future of reference" and "are libraries necessary" in the professional and popular press. With "everything on the Internet" and everyone considering themselves a Googling expert, do people need our help finding information? Wikipedia and other online reference sites make finding information easy from our easy chairs or desks. Add in online answer sites that allow you to post a question and anyone to offer an answer and people willing to accept answers from anyone and their dog on the Internet, we could begin to question our worth. In an era of wide acceptance of user-generated content and the "cult of the amateur," where do public, academic, special, and school librarians come in?


In this Thing, we will take a look at some articles on libraries and information services, peruse the online answer sites, and consider some librarians' response to the sites. There are no answers here, so take the opportunity to read and think and comment.


Read these articles to get a sense of what the library world has to say:


  • That Thing You Do (from RUSQ) paints a picture of active libraries most of us will recognize.
  • Librarian 2.0--Interviews of the future of librarians offers the opinions of 25+ librarians from all types of libraries--and all perspectives. Fascinating.
  • Evolution to Revolution to Chaos?  Reference in Transition by Stephen Abram begins with this, "Many years ago, the esteemed Barbara Quint offered an estimate that Google answered as many reference queries in half an hour as all the reference librarians in the world did in 7 years." Read on for his 14 scenarios for reference.


So, what about those answer sites? According to a report in Marketing Charts, the market share of US visits to Question and Answer websites for the week ended March 15 [2008] was 118% more than during the equivalent week in 2007 - and over the past two years US visits to the category have increased 889% (Feb. ‘08 vs. Feb. ‘06),

Hitwise (an interesting site itself) said. While library use has increased, it has probably not shot up quite to that extent!


What is the appeal of an anonymous site that offers answers on everything from relationships & pets to parenting & shopping, along with books, cooking and travel and so on? I read many of the questions and think, "Call your library!"--or Google it, at least. There are a lot of relationship questions --"Should I break up with him/her?" or "My parent is (fill in the dysfunction), what should I do?"--that may not be appropriate for the library as stated. One can see the appeal of anonymity--like telling your life story to a stranger on a plane. But do you trust the answer? This is where information literacy comes in--can we identify the information we need to solve a problem/answer a question, can we find it, can we evaluate the information and the sources, and can we apply the information to the question or problem? And why do people trust some stranger's opinion or info rather than ask a trustworthy librarian who can back up the answer with reliable resources?


Maybe it's library policies that drive people to the answer sites. David Lee King has a post on his blog about libraries treating people using libraries' email and chat reference differently than in-person users. Be sure to read the comments, too.


Apparently people do trust the answers. Predictors of answer quality in online Q&A sites

looked at question and answer (Q&A) sites such as Yahoo! Answers and investigated predictors of answer quality through a comparative, controlled field study of responses provided across several online Q&A sites. Along with several quantitative results concerning the effects of factors such as question topic and rhetorical strategy, we present two high-level messages. First, you get what you pay for in Q&A sites. Answer quality was typically higher in Google Answers (a fee-based site) than in the free sites we studied, and paying more money for an answer led to better outcomes. Second, we find that a Q&A site's community of users contributes to its success. Yahoo! Answers, a Q&A site where anybody can answer questions, outperformed sites that depend on specific individuals to answer questions, such as library reference services [emphasis added].


Librarians Respond

Slam the Boards is a group of librarians that is taking the bull by the horns. The 10th of each month is Slam the Boards Day. Librarians invade the various Web answer board sites such as Yahoo! Answers, Amazon’s Askville, The Wikipedia Reference Desk, and others—answering as many questions as they can using authoritative sources. The goal is to make sure readers know a librarian provided the answer and thereby raise awareness of library services. Read more about it on WJ Slam the Boards! Predatory Reference and the Online Answer Sites. Here is a discussion of the first effort by Jeffrey Pomerantz. Slam the Boards has a wiki Answer Board Librarians with lots of tips and tricks, suggested tag lines for your answer board response, and lists of "best answer" ratings earned by members.








  1. Be sure to read at least a few of the articles above.
  2. Take a look at several of the answer sites and decide what you think. Keep in mind--it's the Internet and people often seem to ask questions about sex and other NSFW topics. Don't click on those questions or any other question/answer that could offend you.
  3. Explore the Slam the Boards wiki. Consider participating in the next event.

Answer Sites

Questions are wide-ranging on these sites, including a lot of chat-type questions ("What comes to mind when I say 20/20?"). Maybe we just need more friends and family to talk to.


AskMetafilter (requires paid membership to post)

Part of Metafilter. "Metafilter is a weblog that anyone can contribute a link or a comment to. A typical weblog is one person posting their thoughts on the unique things they find on the web. This website exists to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members."


A service for mobile devices. "ChaCha’s advanced technology instantly routes it to the most knowledgeable person on that topic in our Guide community. Your answer is then returned to your phone as a text message within a few minutes."


"Allexperts, created in early 1998, was the very first large-scale question and answer service on the net! We have thousands of volunteers, including top lawyers, doctors, engineers, and scientists, waiting to answer your questions. All answers are free and most come within a day!"


"WikiAnswers is a wiki-based Q&A project powered by contributors from all walks of life. Anyone can ask, answer or edit questions, building a global Q&A database, covering all topics." Related to Answers.com.


"Get real answers from real people...you're now part of the world's biggest think tank." Earn points for answering, best answer, and choosing best answer to your questions.


Part of Amazon. "Askville is a place where you can share"  and discuss knowledge with other people by asking and answering questions on any topic." Has a complicated point system for good answers, experience, etc.


"Ask questions and share your knowledge with the world here on Answerbag. Get the best answers where there are no duplicate questions and questions are always open.." Divided into Social, Expert, Local, and Shopping.


"Mahalo Answers strives to help you get helpful and trustworthy answers to your questions as quickly as possible. Mahalo Answers has a points and levels system to encourage helpful participation."


"Folkstown is the place for expert advice from ordinary people. Community members posts questions and receive answers from volunteer experts on just about every topic you can think of."


This is a search engine that searches FAQs across the Web.


ReadWriteWeb has a roundup of Q & A sites.

FeedMyApp has some here.


Blog Prompts


  1. What is the appeal of an online answer site?
  2. What kind of questions did you see at the sites you looked at?
  3. Are these the kinds of questions that can--or even should--be directed to a library? Why/why not?
  4. Do people use these sites because they don't know of other resources--like their library?
  5. What do you think of the Slam the Boards events? Did you participate?
  6. Did you answer any of the questions on a site? Which site? What type of question?




For the Curious  (optional)


Join Slam the Boards and try your hand at answering questions. Let us know how it went.





Comments (1)

Andrea said

at 9:12 pm on Mar 22, 2009

The David Lee King link doesn't work, but you can find it (interestingly enough) by googling his name and the topic...

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