If you have a serious question don’t turn to KGB: the story of how this for-profit text ref service fails

March 26, 2010, 1:48 pm

A few years ago during the
NCAA Basketball Tournament Questia
was dropping a lot of cash on commercials, essentially trying to lure college
kids (or their parents) into monthly subscriptions for materials that most of
them probably already had access to. The real product though wasn’t the books
and articles per se, but the idea of getting information via an easy-to-use
centralized interface. A dream that academic libraries have failed to provide
(although we’re getting closer with products like SUMMON.)

This year I’ve been seeing
ads for the text service KGB. They are
not a new company, in fact I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time but
it took a
state holiday
to free up the time. Anyway KGB purports to offer “high-quality
answers on the go” for 99 cents. They are appealing to mobile users everywhere
who just want answers. Looking at their sample questions online they are pretty
much targeting old-school ready reference inquiries such as city populations
and demographics, weather, trivia, and video game cheat codes.

As a librarian I know that
I am oversensitive about others encroaching on the information expert game… or
maybe that is just my competitive nature? I wanted to test these experts who are selling “a better way to
get answers, fast and fun!”

So here we go:

  KGB1 I was asked this type of thing all the time at Georgia Tech.

Kgb2 Yes, the article is 5 pages long but is that the right page number?

Kgb3 Wow. I feel like they didn't even try. 

Apparently they have a
deal if you ask three questions the fourth one is free. For this one I thought I’d
get introspective. The response pretty much sums it up.


Looking Ahead

I think that over the next
two years we’ll see more
and more libraries launching
text reference services. I have mixed feelings
about this actually. I’m all for expanding into new frontiers, yet at the same
time I question the value of having a librarian
answer txts. In my world that workforce is shrinking and so we have to be conscious
of the give & take.

Anyway, there is already
too much hype around txt ref right now, but it will be interesting to see if
KGB stays around. I don’t say that with some sort of naive arrogance presuming
that librarians are so great, but rather, I wonder if people will pay for
answers. We’ve seen this fail before with Google Answers, yet thrive with a
free version offered by Yahoo. We’ll
have to wait and see, but one thing is certain KGB is lame. I wouldn't hire these folks to help my patrons.


Ok. So I
know this is not a fair evaluation. I’m sure someone is working on a scholarly
article right now that compares texting a library vs. these for-profit
services. KGB is an easy target and my questions might not be typical, although
they are not atypical from a regular ref desk. This was really just meant to be
a little entertainment on a Friday afternoo
n. I need to get out more! 

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