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Province scraps AskAway library program

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The province has scrapped a library reference program that connected patrons to online librarians who would provide an immediate answer to queries.

AskAway, a province-wide virtual reference service open 24/7, ceased to exist on June 30 after the provincial government withdrew funding.

Of the roster of programs that libraries offer, AskAway was one that provided a quick, digital connection between patrons and librarians. If you were doing research and Google or Yahoo failed to answer your question you could pick up the phone and simply AskAway a librarian, who would provide an answer or refer you to resources available in the library.

It was particularly useful for students who could get help with homework after school hours. Since its inception in 2006, the program answered more than 130,000 questions and over half of these questions came from B.C. school children in Grades 5 to 12.

The AskAway's Twitter service offered a glimpse into the kind of service the program offered, especially to students.

"Great time to call us if you are studying for final exams!" exclaims one tweet from the staff.

Yet another one speaks directly to students: "School library closed for Spring Break? We can help with homework research!"

Andy Ackerman, the president of the British Columbia Library Trustees' Association, said the loss of the program is "a loss for all of us."

"They (libraries) have lost a valuable connector between the public of British Columbia and the libraries. AskAway was a valuable link between the two," he said.

"I think the funding cut takes a very short view. Digital is the future of libraries and it's only going to become more and more common," said Lauren Stara, the director of the Whistler Public Library.

She said the program ran for two years at the Whistler Public Library, and although exact numbers of users had to be ascertained, she said the program picked up in popularity in the second year.

Maureen Painter, the director of library services at the Squamish Public Library, said she was disappointed but not surprised when the cut was announced, given the recent spate of cuts to education and other services.

"It was a wonderful service and I'm hoping that it will be a temporary cutback," she said.

Marie Palmer, a reference librarian at the Squamish Public Library, said patrons will no longer have access to this reference service, but said they will continue to have access to professional reference assistance within the library. She also said the library will continue to answer e-mail reference questions.

She called the program's demise "unfortunate."

"I am hopeful that last year's reduction of library funding was temporary and that AskAway will be revived in the future," she said.

"This government, while faced with a significant global economic downturn, was able to support B.C.'s 243 public libraries," said B.C. Minister of Education Margaret MacDiarmid.

She didn't say in as many words that the program had become effete, but hinted at its obsolescence.

"Many B.C. libraries have made significant improvements to the online services since AskAway was created four years ago. Libraries are finding new ways to connect their librarians with the communities through Facebook and Twitter," MacDiarmid said in the e-mail.

Library users say the program should have been retained.

Kameron McKim, who recently moved to Squamish from Campbell River, said his first thought was to join the library.

"A program like that could've been a pretty good asset for the community and for people who are new to town. I mean it's information coming from a librarian; it's information you can trust," he said.

Last year, the provincial government slashed funding to libraries by 22 per cent, which led to downsizing of some programs such as Books for Babies.

Most libraries were notified at that time that more cuts were coming. On June 30 th , the government delivered on that promise.

 

 

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