*A nagging question is keeping you awake. You've stumped Jeeves and sent Google into a tailspin. In short, you need a live librarian at 2 a.m.
By Judith B. Herman
Check out AskNow, a 24-hour service that lets you chat with one online. Now, this isn't some lonely-hearts club for bibliophiles; it's strictly for research. Thanks to a federal grant, it's free.
To start, go to www.asknow.org, or go to your local library's website and click on the icon that says "AskNow," "Live Reference Help," "24/7 Reference" or the like. (More than 100 California public libraries participate in AskNow, which is part of a nationwide network of libraries known as 24/7 and was founded four years ago by Susan McGlamery of the L.A.-based Metropolitan Cooperative Library System. Unfortunately, libraries all seem to like having their own brand name for the same thing.)
You'll be prompted for a name — though if you're shy, you can ask questions anonymously — an e-mail address, a city and a question. As you chat on the right side of the screen, you see online searches being conducted by the librarian on the left. The average session takes 15 to 20 minutes, and a transcript is e-mailed to you once it's over.
Say you need some obscure information, as Claremont writer Vickey Kalambakal did while researching her novel about Celts battling Romans in Gaul. She hoped to find location photos by French archeologist and aerial photographer Roger Agache, but she doubted his books were available in the U.S. A librarian in Mill Valley showed her how to search the catalog of the University of California libraries and found holdings for half a dozen of Agache's books.
More complex questions can be referred to specialists — including art librarians from the Smithsonian and CalArts, cookery librarians from the California School of Culinary Arts, as well as medical and law librarians — with the answers arriving in a day or two.
And lest you feel guilty about chaining bleary-eyed bookworms to their desks, don't: They're actually working (fairly) normal hours, in libraries or their homes, stretching from Massachusetts to Hawaii