A Blueprint for Building Online Reference Knowledge Bases

Boris Bosančić

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This paper presents a theoretical framework for understanding the process of generating and storing knowledge from online reference service transactions. Terminology for this study has not been sufficiently developed in scholarly work, so this paper uses the phrase “online reference knowledge base” (ORKB) to denote a place for storing knowledge generated from online reference services. In addition to reevaluating the present role of ORKBs through interviews with experts and practitioners who are most closely linked to online reference services, the paper attempts to offer a blueprint of adequate principles and guidelines for the future development of ORKBs.

Online reference services emerged during the mid1990s as an extension of existing reference services in libraries. Today, online reference services represent a standard library service in a networked environment. They have added archival value because they provide a way to store communications between the reference librarian and the user, preserving generated knowledge and its repeated use in a search for new information. This archive of users’ answered questions is often referred to as the “knowledge base” of the service, which is alluded to by the name of the largest online reference service in the world—QuestionPoint (www.oclc.org/questionpoint). That is why I use “knowledge base” here; however, the literature has not sufficiently explored this term. Neither the very concept of an existing online reference knowledge base (ORKB) nor the possibility of its development has been explored thoroughly. Therefore the purpose of this article is to question the current role of knowledge bases as an archive of users’ answered questions in the context of online reference services, with the basic goal of establishing appropriate principles and guidelines for ORKBs’ future development.

At the beginning of the article, I outline the concept of ORKBs as an archive of users’ questions and answers. I will talk about frequent question card files, which is the precedent to the modern ORKB, after which I will discuss the current theoretical accomplishments in this area. In the practical sense, I will refer to QuestionPoint, and to the Croatian public libraries’ Ask a Librarian service (“Pitajte knjižničare”), which I had at my disposal for analysis and research through their administrative interfaces.1 I explore the online reference services’ standardization as well the presentation of the Digital Reference Electronic Warehouse (DREW) project promoted by R. D. Lankes and S. Nicholson, both online reference services experts. I conducted in-depth interviews with online reference service expert s; I attempted to ascertain the experts’ positions on the possibility of the development of ORKBs. On the basis of the conducted analyses and research, I will propose principles and guidelines for developing efficient ORKBs. Finally, I will suggest further research in this area.

The Concept of Knowledge Bases in Online Reference Services

Developing the Concept of Knowledge Bases in Reference Services: Frequent Question Card Files

As far back as the nineteenth century, reference librarians’ need to facilitate knowledge exchange between themselves led them to use special cards or card files, which were created and maintained mostly by volunteer reference librarians with the goal of storing information related to users’ questions and librarians’ responses. These librarians organized the card files either alphabetically or by subject and made them available to other reference librarians to answer similar requests in the future. The annotated information usually related to the discovered sources, that is, answers to certain questions, especially those repeatedly asked or those that demanded in-depth research. In addition, Anglo-American expert terminology often referred to frequently-asked-question card files by various names, such as “quick reference file,” “query file,” “useful reference file,” “information file,” “file of answered questions,” “vertical file,” etc. However, the names that became most commonly used are “frequent question card files” and “ready reference card files.”2

Although there is evidence of the existence of such card files in every library for more than a hundred years, their purpose, structure, and contents have not been sufficiently processed or represented in library-related literature.3 With the advent of information technology in libraries, some librarians have attempted to automate these card files.4 Perez characterizes frequent-question-andanswers card files as beta-test knowledge bases.5 There is no doubt that the frequent-question-andanswer card files can be viewed as a concept that precedes the emergence of ORKBs more than a century later.

The Concept of ORKBs As an Archive of Users’ Answered Questions

The usual understanding of an ORKB is of an archive that contains answers to users’ past questions. In the beginning of ORKB development in the mid-1990s, online reference services were no more than an ordered archive with questions and answers along with information regarding the time of query and the time necessary to give an answer. In the example of the Ask a Librarian service offered by the Croatian public libraries, it is clear that these are not knowledge bases but in fact “answered questions bases,” or rather, “questions and answers bases.”6 However, in the case of the QuestionPoint service, the archive of answered users’ questions is explicitly referred to as a “knowledge base.”

According to Peter Armenti, one of QuestionPoint’s founders, an ORKB is a “searchable electronic archive of question and answer pairs as a support to the users’ information needs.”7 First, a knowledge base is built to save time. Questions that have already been answered are not answered again; instead, the answers are forwarded to the user automatically from the knowledge base. The other reason to develop such a base, according to Armenti, has to do with distributing reference librarians’ knowledge as they participate in the project to answering users’ questions.8 In this way, ORKBs begin to incorporate the purpose of another kind of knowledge base found in the field of knowledge management: knowledge distribution. Apart from that, it is worth mentioning that future explorations of the economic effects would be beneficial because setting up a questions-and-answers archive will surely contribute to significant savings in the business of a library.

Apart from being an electronic pair archive (question and answer), a knowledge base should also contain information regarding how a certain question was answered, including information about research techniques, strategies, sources, etc. Armenti offers the following advice to consider before building a knowledge base for an online reference service:

  • Identify the target user group who will be using the knowledge base.
  • Determine the goal or purpose of the knowledge base (e.g., saving time in answering previously answered user questions).
  • Identify metadata types, which will make up the transaction entry in the knowledge base.
  • Create suitable documents that will contain instructions on how to search through the knowledge base.
    • Constantly check every new idea brought to the reference librarian related to the design of the knowledge base and that can stem from everyday use of the existing questions and answers.9
    • In a 2005 work, Chen demonstrates best practices in the use of web technology to build a web-based system in which reference librarians can record their reference experience.10 This work is significant because the author treats such a knowledge base as not only a key component for online reference services as a separate system, but also as an aid in the reference librarians’ work in the context of traditional reference services. Any reference service provider can find the reason for building such a system in everyday work with users, where users often ask questions that have been previously answered, but the provider is unable to remember the answer. In that sense, Chen sees particular advantages in building such knowledge bases for the following reasons:
  • Time is saved for the reference librarian.
  • The knowledge base becomes an apt tool for training new reference librarians.
  • The knowledge base also becomes an archive containing the answered users’ questions that is available to other users.
  • The knowledge base thus develops into a significant component of the online reference service.11

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