Washington A group of public and private libraries from around the world is developing a free online reference service to answer research questions from a public often overwhelmed by the Internet's wealth of information and uncertain about its sources.
A Web site, expected to be available by June, will help direct a query to the appropriate library. That could produce answers, for example, from a library in Australia if the question concerns the history of Aborigines.
"We know the quality of information we have in libraries, and we want to bring that to the Internet. We also know the chaos online," said Donna Dinberg, systems librarian at the National Library of Canada, one of the first participants in the Comprehensive Digital Reference Service.
Rather than watch idly as Internet companies like AskJeeves, Google or Yahoo! fill the void, librarians believe their expertise, research collections and specialized catalogs not available on the Internet enable them to answer questions quickly and completely for free.
In a trial that began Friday, about 60 libraries started taking questions from library patrons. Questions must be submitted through a member of the library consortium either through a visit, an e-mail, fax or telephone call and passed along through the network.
Each library completes a profile that details its expertise on subjects and languages, its hours of operation and other information. The network uses that information to direct the inquiry to the appropriate library.
Diane Nester Kresh, director of public service collections at the Library of Congress, which is coordinating the project, said she expects to offer the service through a public Web page by June.
The network will not cater just to academics, but also to anyone who needs information a library might provide, including art, music, or technological information. The level of detail stretches from preschool to graduate studies.
"We've left it deliberately open," Kresh said. "We're taking the library skills and collections that we have and treating it as a collective that anyone could have access to."
Among the members of the network are Yale and Harvard universities, the National Gallery of Art and the National Library of Australia. Neighborhood libraries also will have a place in the network.