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Story Last modified at 10:18 p.m. on Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Once-busy telephone reference line 'has been disconnected'

Mom and I couldn't believe that the first phone call to her new house was from a salesman trying to sell her a security system. We laughed about how fast he had found her new number. But after a dozen similar calls over the next couple days, it was no longer funny. What was that "do not call" number? Not exactly information that one tends to keep at their fingertips. No problem. I called the telephone reference number at the local library and, within a minute, had the number.

New Library Hours

Chugiak-Eagle River branch hours are now noon-7 p.m. Tuesdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and closed Sundays and Mondays.

Telephone Reference has been a hallmark of library service for generations. Every reference librarian has stories about the complex, difficult, funny or just plain weird questions researched for patrons on the other end of the phone line. However, with Google, Wikipedia and the Internet readily available on home computers and portable devices, the need for telephone reference has been reduced significantly. Many libraries across the country have dropped this service. As of the first of the year, so has Anchorage Public Library.

The Telephone Reference number has always rung at Loussac Library. When the current Loussac building opened in 1986, the service had its own room on the fourth floor – a square, windowless space with two phone and computer stations lighted by buzzing florescence. There was a small collection of reference books and a microfiche machine next to the set of U.S. phone books on film on the built-in book cases.

The reference room was staffed regularly, except for a brief time in the late 1980s when the service was cut due to budget cuts. In early 2003, after another round of budget cuts, the room was vacated permanently. Telephone Reference moved to the main reference desk on the third floor, so reference staff could help patrons face-to-face, as well as on the phone.

Ten years ago, APL received 15 or so calls an hour through Telephone Reference. Now, we average 15 calls over an eight-hour shift. Not only have the calls decreased, many of them involve helping patrons with library services, such as placing holds or assisting with interlibrary loan requests, rather than doing reference research.

This shift in the number and types of calls, along with a reduction in the Telephone Reference staff, led to a re-evaluation of the service, given current resources. In a money- and staff-saving move, it was decided to eliminate Telephone Reference and invest in a system called iTiva. Among other things, this system will provide recorded information about the library, such as hours of operation, and will allow patrons to get information on their account and renew materials over the phone. (More on the many things iTiva can do by the end of the month when it is expected to come online.)

And if you have telephone reference-type questions, you can still count on your library for information. Submit questions on the "Ask a Librarian" e-mail link from the library Web page:

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 5, 2011.