Friday, June 17, 2011

Volunteering for the ipl2

One of the best work experiences I had during my pursuit of the MLIS at Drexel was as a volunteer for the ipl2. The ipl2 is an “information community” that provides authoritative collections, information assistance and instruction to patrons from around the world. It was formed by the merger of the Internet Public Library (IPL) and the Librarian’s Internet Index (LII) websites and is hosted by Drexel University at the iSchool. The ipl2’s Ask an ipl2 Librarian service is heavily used by thousands of patrons, particularly teachers and youth.

ipl2.pngI originally got the opportunity to volunteer via my INFO 522 Information Access and Resources class, one of the requirements for the MLIS. That quarter I was trained by the ipl2’s Manager Alison Miller to be a Digital Reference Librarian (volunteer brochure) and I began answering questions.

Digital Reference Librarians claim and answer questions submitted by ipl2 patrons on a wide range of topics. Volunteers have some choice in what questions they answer, so there is an opportunity to concentrate on your particular subject specialty or interests. Overall, the emphasis is on providing excellent customer service. Volunteers need to be able to not only find answers to patron questions but also to communicate these answers in ways that are articulate and accessible to the patron.

Personally, I love the scavenger hunt aspect of helping patrons to answer questions. I love the opportunities for impromptu instruction and I love the sheer variety of questions that you get. Since the ipl2 tries to promote free, publically accessible and authoritative online resources, answering questions for them quickly familiarizes you with some of the best such resources available on the web. Another great aspect of this volunteer experience for anyone who is new to providing reference services is that the email format is “asynchronous”. This avoids the time pressure that new reference service providers sometimes feel in a chat or in-person reference interaction, making it a great way to get your feet wet. The web searching and website evaluation skills I honed at the ipl2, as well as the writing skills I gained from drafting informative and instructional answers, have definitely benefited me in subsequent professional experiences.

Since I enjoy digital reference and have been training to be a public services librarian, I also took Prof. Eileen Abel’s INFO 740 – Digital Reference Services (a class I highly recommend). In this class, I was able to take my volunteering for the ipl2 a step further by becoming a Reference Administrator (volunteer brochure). Reference Administrators are responsible for ensuring the smooth operation of Ask an ipl2 Librarian. They sort and classify incoming questions and provide guidance to the volunteer Digital Reference Librarians. In busy times they also reprise their role as Reference Librarians by helping out with longstanding or difficult patron questions.

I found the experience working for the ipl2 so rewarding that I stayed on as a volunteer after my classes ended. I’ve found that getting so much digital reference practice has really helped me become a better communicator and a better teammate to a group of other librarians working together to provide service to patrons – both essential qualities for working in a library, regardless of department or specialization.

If you are a library school student who has the option to integrate the ipl2 experience into your coursework or if you are a professional librarian looking for a great way to get more reference experience, I recommend volunteering for the ipl2. It’s educational, rewarding and fun!

Olivia Castello earned her MS in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Digital Libraries from Drexel University in 2011. She was awarded a Dean's Fellowship from Drexel and served as the Treasurer of the Drexel Chapter of SLA. Currently, she is the Drupal Intern at Drexel Libraries. She blogs about family history research at and you can follow her on Twitter @adaycalledzero.

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