OCLC has divested its QuestionPoint online reference service, selling the product to Springshare, a commercial company offering a variety of products, mostly focusing on public-facing library services delivered through a software-as-a-service platform. This product, officially branded as the Question- Point 24/7 Reference Cooperative, has been offered to libraries as a subscription service since 2002.
QuestionPoint provides a cooperative model for virtual reference services. Rather than each library needing to have reference personnel on call at all times, questions are handled through a combination of local personnel and a network of cooperative librarians collectively able to provide continuous coverage. Subscribing libraries place a widget on their public- facing website that enables their users to submit questions through online chat. A staff interface enables librarians to monitor submitted questions, provide local responses, and to access statistical information regarding the service questions, including the quantity of questions, categories, and resolution times. The QuestionPoint service includes a knowledgebase of questions and answers. This knowledgebase provides an important source of relevant information to both library patrons using the service and librarians researching responses.
Springshare offers a similar service, LibAnswers, launched in July 2009. This product includes a variety of features to enable uses to submit questions or service requests to the library through a variety of channels. The product primarily was oriented to enabling library personnel to respond to its own submitted questions. With the acquisition of Question- Point, the vision of the product expands to include a cooperative model for responses.
Details of the Acquisition
The agreement for Springshare to acquire the Question- Point service from OCLC was announced on May 31, 2019. The financial terms of the transaction were not publicly announced. Under the terms of the agreement, Springshare acquires the personnel, revenue, subscribers, and content associated with the service and assumes ongoing responsibility for providing support and a technology platform.
The agreement excludes the current software that underlies QuestionPoint. Subscribers to QuestionPoint will migrate to Springshare's LibAnswers platform. OCLC will discontinue the QuestionPoint service and will retire its software. Although QuestionPoint and LibAnswers provide similar services, they differ in their specific features in capabilities. Some features in QuestionPoint may not yet be present in LibAnswers, though it also offers some capabilities not available in QuestionPoint. Springshare will enhance its LibAnswers service on its platform to incorporate features in QuestionPoint not already present. Springshare anticipates completion of this development work in August 2019.
Commenting on the acquisition, Springshare CEO Slaven Zivkovic stated, “We look at this sector as not simply virtual reference but rather in the vein of customer service and user engagement. Today's library users need more than just reference help online. They have questions of all kinds, and we want to help libraries provide the best customer service and the best and quickest way to answer users' questions—via chat, email, Facebook, twitter, SMS, or any other relevant channel.”1
Transition and Timelines
OCLC personnel formerly involved with operating the QuestionPoint service now work for Springshare. Springshare immediately assumes responsibility for the service, though OCLC will continue to respond to support calls related to the QuestionPoint software as long as that platform remains in service. All 22 persons associated with QuestionPoint at OCLC have become employees of Springshare. All are professional librarians, with an ALA-accredited MLS, and provide coverage for the 24/7 QuestionPoint service. This team includes Susan D. Barb, QuestionPoint 24/7 Reference Manager, who coordinates the work of the cooperative librarians.
Springshare reports that they plan to expand the number of personnel by the end of Summer 2019. Mazen Khoury, Springshare Vice President of Business Development, oversees the QuestionPoint migration and integration efforts. Mr. Khoury will lead the newly formed LibAnswers 24/7 Coop service and will preside over the service expansion and growth.
The software platform supporting QuestionPoint was not included in the acquisition, and OCLC will decommission it once the transition to LibAnswers is complete.
Springshare also gains ownership of the QuestionPoint knowledge base. OCLC has provided an export of the questions, answers, and associated metadata in structured XML format. Springshare will import this data into its own LibAnswers knowledgebase.
- May 2019: Agreement Finalized
- June 2019: OCLC QuestionPoint staff join SpringShare
- August 2019: LibAnswers enhancements should be complete
- August 2019: Migration of QuestionPoint libraries to LibAnswers will begin
- December 2019: Migration should be complete; OCLC will discontinue QuestionPoint
QuestionPoint Beginnings and Background
The QuestionPoint service was originally jointly developed by OCLC and the Library of Congress and was launched as a service in 2002. The design of the QuestionPoint service was informed by the Collaborative Digital Reference Service pilot program initiated by the Library of Congress in 2000 along with sixteen other libraries.2 The CDRS program was phased out with the launch of QuestionPoint.
Despite earlier involvement by the Library of Congress, OCLC held all the intellectual property associated with the service. At the time of the sale of the service, the Library of Congress did not have an operational role or ownership stake.
In 2004, OCLC expanded QuestionPoint through the acquisition of a similar service that had been developed by the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System. Based in Pasadena, CA, it was known as 24/7 Reference. This service was launched in 2000, initially serving a multi-type consortium of about 40 libraries. About 500 libraries were using the 24/7 Reference service at the time it was merged into OCLC QuestionPoint. Susan McGlamery, project director for 24/7 Reference, joined OCLC with that transition and subsequently served as Senior Product Manager for QuestionPoint. The 24/7 Reference service was based on the technology platform WebLine, which was subsequently acquired by Cisco Systems.
LSSI (Library Systems and Services, Inc.), a commercial firm offering outsourced library operations and other services, offered a virtual reference technology product, which it launched in 1999. This unit of the company was led by Steve Coffman a vocal proponent of virtual reference services that were rapidly gaining interest at that time. LSSI exited this sector and sold its suite of products to tutor.com in June 2003. The LSSI Virtual Reference Toolkit was based on the eGain LiveWeb software platform.
Library Subscription Dynamics
OCLC is divesting QuestionPoint following a decade of declining subscriptions. The service saw its peak number of subscribers in 2008, with fewer numbers each subsequent year, according to figures given in OCLC's annual reports (see Table 1). At the time of the acquisition, QuestionPoint had 980 library subscribers. Springshare reports that 1,400 libraries subscribe to its LibAnswers service. QuestionPoint subscribers increased dramatically in 2005 when OCLC assumed responsibility for the MCLS 24/7 Reference service.
Despite overall declining subscribers, a number of large organizations continued to provide virtual reference services through QuestionPoint. According to Springshare, some of the major library organizations using QuestionPoint include:
- AskWA: academic and public libraries in Washington State
- AskPA: Pennsylvania public and academic libraries
- Maryland AskUsNow: Maryland academic and public libraries
- AskMN: a service offered to libraries in Minnesota
- Community College League of California
- University of California System
- California State System
- Answerland: Oregon
- AskUs 24/7: a consortium in New York
- CUNY System: Colleges in New York City
- LRCLive: Virginia Community College System
- SCONUL: Society of College, National and University Libraries in the United Kingdom
Background of Springshare
Springshare was founded in 2007 by Slaven Zivkovic to develop products based on a software-as-a-service platform to help librarians deliver content and services to their users. The company's original product, LibGuides, provided a user-friendly way for librarians to create topical subject pages. LibGuides proved to be quite popular with librarians, which otherwise were managing these resources through basic HTML editors or other tools that were often cumbersome and not well suited for managing complex and ever-changing content.
The company now offers a long slate of products that address different needs within the library website or service offerings. These products, all delivered through an entirely web-based SaaS platform, include:
- LibGuides: a content management system specifically designed for managing references and resources subject and course pages.
- LibGuides/CMS: a content management system designed to service as a libraries entire web presence.
- LibAnswers: a virtual reference platform that enables library users to submit questions and service requests to the library.
- LibCal: a calendar for managing library programs and events.
- LibInsight: a statistics and analytics package.
- LibCRM: a library-specific customer relationship management application for library marketing and outreach.
- LibStaffer: a tool for managing the schedules of library personnel.
- LibWizard: a tool for creating surveys and forms.
- E-Reserves: an electronic reserves and reading list management application.
Springshare's products have now been implemented by over 6,100 libraries in 82 countries. Though especially popular with academic libraries, its products have been implemented by public, school, and special libraries.
The company is privately owned by Zivkovic, who serves as its Chief Executive Officer. The company employed 42 people prior to the acquisition of QuestionPoint.
Zivkovic has a long history in the library technology industry. He previously co-founded Docutek with Philip Kesten in 1995, a company that developed the ERes electronic reserves management system and other technology products. Docutek was acquired by Sirsi Corporation (now SirsiDynix) in January 2005. SirsiDynix offered ERes as part of its product portfolio for a few years but gradually let the product lapse. The latest version (Eres 5.6.1) was released in August 2009.
This move represents a consolidation within a specific product genre, that of virtual reference services. Choices have narrowed from two major providers of this service to essentially one. There are some smaller competitors in library-specific reference and messaging technology products and generalpurpose tools that can be employed. OCLC's offering was seeing at least some weakening in interest, though still used by many important libraries and library consortia. The QuestionPoint software had not been updated substantially in recent years. The combination of more modern and robust software from Springshare and the cooperative model from OCLC will result in a more compelling product.
It also involves the transfer of a product from the nonprofit to the for-profit sector, through these designations are not straightforward given OCLC's position as a competitor to commercial companies in many product categories. Springshare generally has a reputation for moderate pricing, so this move does not necessarily mean that libraries will see higher costs as a result of this instance of product consolidation.
Virtual reference products have seen peaks and valleys in their adoption in libraries. In the early 2000s, there was a strong interest in libraries in delivering online reference services in reaction to the rise of ecommerce on the web that was increasingly encroaching on the library's role as a provider of information. Several cooperative and commercial products were launched, including those mentioned above. Actual interest by the public in these services was softer than expected and such services proved to be less strategic than anticipated. The products in this category eventually narrowed, with a relatively small portion of libraries implementing full-featured virtual reference service. Today, interest in this type of product seems to be on the upswing, though more as a component of an interrelated suite of applications that work together to provide a more complete set of services for library users. The focus seems to be more on building patron engagement and improving customer service.