This post is in response to Carnival of Genealogy #88: Volunteerism.
I am a volunteer reference librarian with the Internet Public Library. As with a brick-and-mortar library, the service provides resources to which patrons can help themselves or they may submit questions to trained librarians for help.
I have a Masters in Library Science — all volunteers on the IPL either already have an MLS degree or are MLS students in reference services classes around the country. I learned about the IPL through such a class in library school and really enjoyed helping out IPL patrons. After my class ended, I stayed on as a volunteer. Volunteers must work on practice questions and have their answers evaluated before they can answer real questions from the public. We are trained to answer questions from kindergartners, Ph.D. candidates and beyond.
The IPL receives questions on all kinds of topics, but of course, I especially enjoy answering the history- and genealogy-related questions. I’ve helped genealogy-focused patrons track down elusive obituaries and find free resources for getting started in genealogy research and for mapping out their family trees. On the historical end of things, I’ve dug up information on 1950s Andean railway motor cars, an 1800s insane asylum in Pennsylvania and the religious leanings of a U.S. president. In an “Antiques Roadshow” moment, I got to help a patron identify what type of pottery he had (Blue Willow, in case you were wondering). You never know what patrons are going to ask for next.
The best part about answering an IPL question is not just finding the answer a patron needs, but teaching them how I found it so they can find facts more easily next time. We don’t just give you an answer, we point you to it. And for any concerned parents or teachers out there, rest assured that we only use trusted sources.
I’ve relied on some of the IPL’s aggregated resources for my personal research. Of interest to genealogists: the General Reference section on the Pathfinders page.