Day or Night, UK Public Libraries Have Answers – guest blog from the Enquire service

Vftl are pleased to share some great information about the Enquire service.

Day or Night, UK Public Libraries Have Answers

… and you can get them now!

Want to know about something exceptional?


Day or night, public libraries have the answers.  Enquire is a cooperative public library service providing information and reference to all via the web or smartphone 24 hours a day 365 days a year, and it is free to any user. This is what collaboration across public service departments can offer citizens – libraries have been doing it for decades.   Trying to find out which game in medieval Scotland consisted of tobogganing on an ox skull? Or looking for a special childhood read but can’t remember the author? You’ll get the answers to these and countless other questions through Enquire. Enquire puts people in touch with real librarians who give tailored answers with the personal attention that a standard internet search engine just can’t always match. Effectively, participating libraries are open, even when they are closed, and people really appreciate interaction with a human being on the other end of the line far more than a voice recording.


Enquire is the global public library


Enquire is an evolution of the UK-wide Ask A Librarian email service started in the mid-90’s when libraries were pioneering digital engagement in local authorities. The Enquire virtual reference chat service started in 2005 and over 70 public library authorities participate. There is no central government funding for a national service of this kind.  Enquire is the longest running full time, open-to-all web service of its kind, coming long before the current commercial services – and all from your Public Library!  This demonstrates the pivotal role public libraries continue to play in information delivery, bibliographic search and learning across all ages.  The service is run by librarians for libraries.  OCLC has played a central role in this evolution, as an organisation adept in cooperative service and information delivery across the world, and in the continued development of the QuestionPoint software that enables Enquire to happen .


Everyone is Welcome – no-one is turned away

The Enquire service is socially inclusive; it is available to anyone with a web browser (or web-enabled mobile device) and Internet access.   On this basis Enquire users include any individual with an information query from regular library users to those that have never used the library service before.  Although the service is valuable to all, it has specific resonance with:

  • Disengaged and socially excluded communities who find visiting the library difficult; e.g.  housebound users
  • Disabled individuals, notably people with hearing impairment.
  • People for whom English is a second language
  • People in education; i.e. school children, students, adult learners, teachers, academics.


It isn’t just a service for people who know nothing about searching on the web; many customers are adept surfers, but librarians know how to locate credible and trustworthy information.


Enquire also participates in the Yahoo!Answers community – Enquire is a Knowledge Partner in Yahoo!Answers and so responsible for researching some of the answers. Thus Enquire helps people who may never use a public library. In their December blog Yahoo! said this about Enquire:


“Enquire are an umbrella organisation for librarians and are one of UK & Ireland Answers’ most committed and diligent Knowledge Partners.”

With over 100,000 answers sent since 2005; the Enquire service helps people change their lives – daily and 24/7.


No question goes unanswered


Through an exceptional collaboration, good customer service and a quality ethos, Enquire is able to answer a diverse range of questions from local and national government information, to science, the arts and general knowledge all day every day.  The information and signposts to relevant information and organisations that the service provides helps people make informed, often life-changing decisions.  Recent examples of enquiries include:


  • a young person wishing “to go Vegan” – October 2010: “I want to go vegan but my mum is worried it wouldn’t be good for me health-wise. Can you help me find information about how healthy it is to go vegan please? Thanks.”
  • Person wishing to understand cigarette addiction – December 2010: “Can you give me 4 mechanisms that are believed to underlie cigarette addiction?”
  • Person preparing for an interview – December 2010: “I’m going for an interview tomorrow with Microsoft, can you give me any information i.e. company information/recent developments to help me?”  The questioner was clearly pleased with the response “Oh wow thanks, this is really useful!”
  • Person investigating affordable housing – November 2010: “I want to know what help is available for people that are looking for affordable housing. I believe you can help, I want registered social landlords”


Enquire can be adapted as a tool for democracy


Along with these expansive question examples is the ability to offer a national service but also add local value. Local authorities, and their partners can work with librarians using the Enquire back-up to create their own local services allowing direct interactive access to elected members, local figures and key community leaders information from many different points.  Some of the diverse services being provided locally by Enquire libraries include:


–          Live Homework help and study support

–          live Q & A sessions with councillors regarding budget cuts

–          genealogy fact finds for family history

–          reading advice

–          assisting older people to find information

–          educating children and parents on staying safe online.

Enquire takes questions and finds answers for academics, researchers, students, children and lifelong learner alike. The diversity is one of the delights for the participating librarians – you never know what you’ll be asked or who will ask you.


… and those mystery answers?


Those curious about the Ox Skull question will be glad to know that the name of the game was ‘lashing the fannocks.’ This involved finding a suitably snowy hillside, inserting one’s buttocks tightly into an ox’s skull, and then tobogganing down the slope yelling ‘pesh’, or some other suitable insult.  According to Enquire much pleasure was derived from this in the Middle Ages!


Enquire, is available online all day every day at: or at


Enquire was commissioned nationally by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and managed by OCLC, but originated from the Ask-A-Librarian email service formed by E@RL in the mid-1990’s then managed by Co-East.  OCLC is a non-profit organisation.


Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.