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Virtual Reference: Replacement or Enhancement?
By Jenna Irwin
November 21, 2002

Technology is a wonderful thing. Reference is near and dear to the hearts of information professionals. Meshing the two of them would seem to be a dream come true. You might even believe that it's possible after looking at AskERIC.

AskERIC provides many services, mainly focused toward the education industry. It has a virtual reference service (questions are answered within 2 business days or if you're in a hurry you can chat with a librarian between 1-4pm ET), a resource collection that includes 3000 links to websites and organizations, an archive of some answers from past questions, 2000 lesson plans submitted by teachers, a link to the ERIC database, and an archive of over 25 education-related discussion groups. Sounds like a one-stop, self-serve education reference center.

What more could you ask for?

The amount of information is phenomenal… or is the word overwhelming? It sounds like you should be able to find anything you might need, if you ask the right question. And, of course, if you have money.


Well, a number of the resources on the page appear prepared to provide information, but when you actually get there, you find it has a price tag. Getting articles from the ERIC database is fee-based - you can either join their E*Subscribe program or get your credit card ready. Were you interested in looking at lesson plans for Chinese language? Only one is listed, and unless you purchase the $34 CD, it isn't much use.

So, to get information from AskERIC you need:

  • the ability to ask the right question
  • information available in the right form already (unless you can wait two days or are available during the chat time)
  • and you have to have the financial resources.

All of this would sound pretty daunting to me if I were an overworked teacher, or a 10th grader who needed my report done as soon as possible.

Does this mean AskERIC is a terrible resource? Of course not! But it does mean that even a well-planned and supported resource like this can have hidden pitfalls for the unwary user.

The point is that technology doesn't negate the need for human mediation of information. AskERIC brings together wonderful resources - if you know how to use them, if you know where to go when you hit the access/money barrier. AskERIC, like any reference source, needs to be supported by other resources.

Like reference librarians (remember that 1-4pm ET chat?).

The important thing for information professionals to remember is that even the best resources have limitations. This means we need to be aware when we send a user to AskERIC what barriers they may stumble into and be prepared to help them past those points. (It might just be that the library holds that journal with the article they need.)

We can't just send people to the computer to do it themselves. Information professionals must step forward and become advocates of technology being a tool for reference rather than a substitute.

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Edited by Michael Harkovitch

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