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Case Study

Inside Indiana U's Move to ChaCha

University to bolster research with guided search functionality

Indiana University's alliance with search firm ChaCha, announced last week, may portend how universities, librarians, and Internet search engines will work together in the future. The arrangement points up how librarians or other experts can add huge value to scholarly searches through so-called "guided searches" by stepping in to offer access to  vast amounts of material--and expertise--that conventional search engines don't touch.

Thursday IU announced an agreement with ChaCha, a search firm that was founded by two IU alumni and is located near the Bloomington campus. Under the strategic alliance, IU will work with ChaCha to develop Web-based research tools and services. In an initial project, IU will offer human-aided academic search services through ChaCha that will augment what students, faculty and staff can do now through any public search engine, including ChaCha or Google. ChaCha specializes in just that: machine-based searches augmented by knowledgeable human guides.

Tapping Expertise
That sort of guided search will allow librarians to augment scholarly searches because they have access to huge amounts of journals, databases, and indices beyond the reach of conventional search engines owing to copyright and subscription restrictions, among other things. In a guided search, a librarian or other IU expert can step in to help a searcher find a reference within that otherwise largely hidden trove of material.

Capabilities that make ChaCha a good choice for the university's guided search project, according to Vice President for IT Brad Wheeler, is a mechanism in ChaCha that allows it to route and match a particular inquiry to an available human guide. Another feature ChaCha offers, Wheeler said, is a constant refinement of its internal knowledgebase of answers, rather than offering an answer gleaned through a standard algorithmic search. That feature will help IU build its search knowledgebase, a key part of the project. "We would never be able to fund building and maintaining a knowledgebase" of the scope he envisions, Wheeler said, without using the ChaCha platform.

IU librarians already routinely help students and faculty, as well as the public, with online searches by answering chat, e-mail, and instant message queries. According to Carolyn Walters, executive associate dean of IU's Bloomington libraries, IU Bloomington and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis librarians answered more than 150,000 search queries last year. The arrangement with ChaCha will formalize and standardize that service somewhat.

The Two Step: Building a Knowledgebase
Once the pilot project launches--and the university plans to have it in place when students return to campus late this month-- searches provided through IU's search portal at, through the university's well known and widely used IT knowledgebase at, and through IU's "Ask a Librarian" service, all will use ChaCha's search platform.

Since those searches will originate from with IU's site, librarians will know that the search customer is an IU student, faculty or staff member. Librarians will be available through a live instant-messaging chat interface. Other search engines, including Google, will continue to be available for conventional searches. "It also allows us to bring our subject expertise to bear," Walters said, since questions can be handed off to an appropriate expert--a librarian for now, but eventually a faculty member or even perhaps a student--through the IU and ChaCha system.

A huge benefit to IU librarians from the ChaCha arrangement, Walters explained, will be the ability to begin building a knowledgebase of commonly asked questions, along with standard reference sites and suggestions for research. An introductory English class, for example, assigns students a writing project each year that generates the same resource questions from students year after year. Using data gathered through ChaCha queries, librarians can formally create what they already have built informally in many areas of the IU site: links to resources specific to certain IU courses and assignments.

Offering guided searches is hardly a new business for any university, Wheeler said. "We're [already] in the guided search business," he pointed out, through resources as varied as the library reference desk, tech support help line, and health center--all places where students looking for information call on faculty and staff.

The arrangement with ChaCha will help formalize and standardized that process, he explained, moving every part of the university to the same generalized platform for guided searches. "Many will use algorithmic searches ... and move on," Wheeler said. "But when you value that expertise," students or faculty may well turn to ChaCha for human-guided search instead, he said.

For now, the pilot project includes the Bloomington and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campuses; eventually, the school said, IU's other six campuses will be included.

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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