:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Revisiting Digital Reference


   Nearly three-and-a-half years ago I wrote about digital reference in
   these pages (LJ [123]6/15/99, p. 30ff.). Clearly, we have come a long
   way. Back then computer-based chat was nearly the only option for
   providing that service. Today, we can choose from a baker's dozen of
   full-featured online reference products (for a complete rundown of the
   choices, see "[124]Live Digital Reference Marketplace," LJ netConnect,
   Fall 2002, p. 16-19).

   Yet another indicator of the recent popularity of digital reference is
   the advent of both an annual conference (the Virtual Reference Desk
   meeting) and an electronic discussion (DIG_REF) devoted to the topic.
   Although some online reference pioneers (such as R. David Lankes of
   "AskERIC") may argue that the trend to move the reference encounter to
   the Internet began a good while ago, most librarians were not seriously
   thinking about delivering reference service via this method until
   The beginnings

   Online reference in the early days was not pretty. It mostly consisted
   of e-mail or chat. E-mail reference required the patron to wait up to
   several days before being helped, while chat was limited to what a
   librarian could type in response. On the opposite end of the scale, a
   number of us thought that the future of digital reference was to be an
   online video encounter (see the 1996 experiment "See You See a
   Librarian," for example). Although the idea of a video-based encounter
   has mostly fallen by the wayside--who wants to be seen on a bad hair
   day?--modern digital reference software is now capable of much more
   than simply chat (full disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board of
   Docutek, which offers a digital reference product).
   Features expand

   Typical features of digital reference software include online chat,
   screen sharing (where the screen of the user can be seen by the
   librarian), cobrowsing (where the patron will see everything the
   librarian sees as they navigate a path, or vice versa), queuing of
   patrons, canned answers and scripts ("I'm working on your question and
   will be with you in a minute," etc.), and statistics.

   A number of products provide methods to edit, store, and catalog
   reference transcripts for searching and referral. Some have the
   abilities to send files, share forms (e.g., patrons can watch the
   librarian type in a catalog search on their web browser), and highlight
   (the ability of the librarian to highlight text on the user's screen).

   Pricing models for the various applications vary widely. Vendors are
   trying to determine appropriate pricing models at the same time
   libraries are trying to figure out what they can afford. But the
   interesting parts of digital reference are not software features and
   pricing but the practical and philosophical issues surrounding this
   kind of service.
   Looking at the numbers

   Many early adopters of this technology are concerned about the
   generally low usage levels of online reference. The problem is that it
   may be too early to tell whether the reason is lack of awareness on the
   part of the community being served, or a lack of interest. Although
   this question is of primary importance (no publicly funded organization
   wants to waste money on an underused service), we need more experiences
   and better measures before we can determine where the problems lie.

   Before drawing too many conclusions from what at first glance appears
   to be generally low usage patterns, we need to acknowledge two
   important aspects of this service. It is free from proximity (the user
   doesn't have to be in the library) and, in some cases, time constraints
   (in the case of extended hours service or 24/7 service). Even if only a
   small percentage of patrons are served via online reference, the
   service may be important if those patrons would be unserved without it.
   The importance of transcripts

   Anecdotal evidence from early adopters of digital reference indicates
   that the value of transcripts in a searchable database for answering
   subsequent questions has been highly overrated. Meanwhile, that same
   anecdotal evidence has pointed out important unanticipated uses of
   these transcripts.

   One use is to alleviate the anxiety of staff about their ability to be
   effective online reference librarians. After reading transcripts of
   actual online reference transactions, librarians are more likely to
   believe that they can do it, too. Another is that transcripts can be
   useful learning tools. For the first time in our profession we have a
   growing body of written records of reference transactions to study.
   Second thoughts

   Despite the seeming stampede toward moving the reference desk onto the
   information superhighway, there are critics raising questions. The
   rather harshly written critique "Virtual Reference: Overrated,
   Inflated, and Not Even Real" is one such example. A more calmly written
   piece from a reference insider (Steve Coffman of LSSI, providers of
   reference software and services) calls the future of collaborative
   digital reference into question (see "What's Wrong with Collaborative
   Digital Reference?"). This is neither unsurprising nor unwelcome.
   Offering digital reference services is a major step for any library,
   and we should be very sure it is worth at least experimenting with it
   before investing both staff time and money.
   Whither digital reference?

   Digital reference is in its infancy. We are still gaining important
   experience and learning a great deal with each new experiment. LJ's
   "round table" on digital reference (LJ 10/1/02, p. 46-50) made clear
   that this area of the profession is in great ferment and creativity
   while also being in a very early stage of implementation.

   Will digital reference become an essential part of standard library
   service? It's clearly too early to tell. That makes it all the more
   disturbing to hear tales of libraries cutting back on reference desk
   hours as a result of offering digital reference. No matter how
   successful digital reference proves to be, in-person and telephone
   reference services will remain important.

   As with any new technology or potential service, the essential question
   must be, "Does it provide better service to our clientele?" If it
   doesn't, then no technology--no matter how new and shiny--will be worth
   our time and that of our patrons. It should come as no surprise that
   answering such an essential question will take time, will be
   accompanied by a number of false starts, and will be debated with
   inflated rhetoric on both sides.

Link List

   DIG_REF Discussion

   Live Digital Reference Marketplace

   An LJ Round Table: Live Digital Reference

   LSSI, Inc.

   See You See a Librarian

   Virtual Reference: Overrated, Inflated, and Not Even Real

   Virtual Reference Desk Conference

   What's Wrong with Collaborative Digital Reference?
   American Libraries, Dec. 2002, p. 56+