Skip to content

The reference desk usurped? Question and Answer websites revisited.

January 24, 2011

An interesting article came up this morning on USA Today, highlighting the rise of Q&A websites such as Quora and Stack Exchange and how they are “going to be the reference section of the library, where you can reach experts and get definitive answers.”


Is this a direct frontal assault on reference services?  The final death knell of the librarian, laid to rest by question and answer websites?

Maybe not.  Here’s why.

Awhile back, we wrote about the question and answer services kgb and chacha, which pay their consultants to do a Google/Bing search and relay answers to questions posed via cell phone – paid at the rate of roughly 3 cents per answer, or roughly minimum wage.  As one might expect, these answers are often incorrect – but as a question asker, if it’s free to ask, that might be ok.

(One could make a convincing argument that Google voice search has usurped a large part of this market in any case)

The difference between sites like kgb / chacha, which are “horizontal sites,” (wide in focus, anyone can ask / answer questions) and Stack / Quora, termed “vertical sites,” is that Quora / Stack are narrower in focus, with experts providing the answers.  Purportedly, this leads to better answers, but still crowdsourced and free.

Coincidentally, today Vivek Wadwha, an entrepreneur turned academic at UC Berkeley, Harvard, and Duke,  posted a blog entry on TechCrunch entitled “Why I Don’t Buy the Quora Hype.”  His point?   Quora will be an excellent resource if “the same people who have been hyping it, and who have been invested in it, keep posting their thoughtful answers.”  But – the excess hype “is also destined to make Quora a victim of its own press.  The quality of answers will decline.  The people whose opinion I value, such as Quora’s #1 respondent, Robert Scoble, will simply stop posting on the site when they get drowned out by the noise from the masses.”

He continues:  “What is more likely to happen and make far more sense is that a new generation of private, gated communities will grow and evolve.  This is where people with common interests will gather and exchange ideas.  For example, for people seeking legal advice, there is LawPivot, and for business looking for experts, there is Focus.  for techies, there are sites like StackOverflow, Slashdot, Hacker News;  for children, there is Togetherville;  for business students, there is PoetsandQuants;  for entreprenurs in India, there is StartupQnA; for Indian accountants, there is CAClubIndia;  and China has its own groups, and so do many other countries.”

If this is to be the case, sounds to me that there still will need to be information experts who keep abreast of all these information sources and know which is the best source to help point people in the right direction and get answers.

Gee, that sounds a lot like… a… librarian?


(information professional?)


[The Future Ready question is:  Are we being adaptable by keeping tabs on these sources and continuing to learn about them?]

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: