The Internet's gain in stature as an information resource has been the reference librarian's loss.
After all, the library isn't the first place most people think of when they need a digital gateway to information.
"The public focus has swiveled to the Internet and away from libraries," said Donna Dinberg of the National Library of Canada.
While interest in the library help desk is declining, free commercial Web help services such as Ask Jeeves, Webhelp.com and Yahoo are thriving.
With all these commercial online reference services, will librarians become obsolete? Dinberg wants to shift the info-power back to her domain.
"We know that libraries can provide authoritative information, both online and offline," she said. "And we feel that the only thing stopping us is the fact that patrons aren't coming to the library much anymore."
A new project is attempting to make the library an even more vital research source than ever before. The Library of Congress and its partner libraries are launching a pilot project to bring librarians' expertise to the Internet by forming a global reference desk that is available 24 hours, seven days a week.
The Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS) links academic, public and governmental libraries.
With the chaos of unfiltered material on the Web from self-styled "experts," users need hands-on librarian expertise more than ever to get accurate, timely and credible information, said Diane Kresh, director of public service collections at the Library of Congress.
"Projects like this are about redefining the role of the library and the librarian in the digital age," Kresh said. "It will help us to redefine ourselves so we're not just thought of as brick-and-mortar physical places, but as virtual resources of credible information."
In a trial that began last week, about 60 libraries began taking questions from library patrons via e-mail, fax, phone and in-person visits.
Each library creates a profile that includes its area of expertise, hours of operation, geographical location and other information. Users will be able to access a website, expected to be available by June, which will direct their query to the appropriate library. Answers will eventually be stored in a searchable knowledge database.
Participants include Yale, Harvard, Cornell, the National Gallery of Art, the National Library of Canada and the National Library of Australia.
According to the Association of Research Libraries, the number of reference queries handled by librarians has declined over the past two years.
That decline can in part be attributed to the Internet, Kresh said.
But the rise of Web-based services has also forced libraries to think about new ways to provide information by bringing their expertise to the Internet.
While some commercial digital reference and AskA (Ask an Expert) services allow users to rate experts and the quality of their answers, most do not screen their experts and cannot guarantee accuracy.
The new global library network will allow users to distinguish between credible sources and those created by self-styled experts, Kresh said.
"You need experts to help find the most accurate, relevant and credible information," she said. "Librarians are generally regarded as trusted advisors."
While commercial services such as AskJeeves mine the Internet for answers, CDRS draws upon not only the Internet, but also upon librarian expertise and the hundreds of thousands of untapped volumes in library collections.
"We're not in competition with a search engine like a Yahoo or a Google," said Nancy O'Neill, a librarian at the Santa Monica Public Library.
CDRS transcends these commercial services by providing access to "everything that is not in digital format and never will be."
"There's often too much information (on the Web)," O'Neill said. "We become mediators. We offer good information."
The collaborative reference service will expand local library resources by linking them to global, diverse collections.
But with more information to search, it may take hours or even days, rather than seconds, for users to get a response.
"Our goal is certainly to provide the response time of commercial services," Kresh said. "But we're also focused on providing full, quality answers."
While the network is currently concentrated on English, it eventually will be able to handle up to 20 languages.
"You can't presume that English will be the language of choice," Dinberg said.
The National Library of Canada will feature both French and English user interfaces.
Project directors are working on equipping librarians with translation services, so they can eventually answer questions in any language.
Directors are also testing the scalability of the system to make sure it can handle the volume of requests that may incur with global demand.
While the project is currently focused on question-and-answer sessions, managers hope to expand to support full-service delivery such as inter-library loans.
The network will function across time zones, so that a user in the United States can e-mail a question to a library in Australia at 2 a.m. when their local library is closed.
"That's more of an opportunity than a challenge," Dinberg said. "This will really touch the end-user directly."