Digital Reference Overview
by Linda Berube
The sheer amount of information on the Internet can often be confusing, and frequently offers too much choice. Web portals or gateways alone do not help in the search for sources. Users looking for a quick, clear path through what's on offer require more direct guidance from an information professional. Digital reference replicates in the digital library environment what is most valued in the physical, especially public, environment: personalised guidance in the gathering and selection of the best resources. Although this new type of service poses a challenge to more traditional public library service delivery, successful integration of the new and old models will provide users with the consistent support necessary in navigating the digital environment.
Although most librarians have an idea about what digital reference is, they are less sure what to call it. There are various terms in use: online reference; digital reference; electronic reference; virtual reference; live reference. Generally speaking, virtual or live reference refers to transactions in real-time, using chat and video-conferencing, for example. Online, digital, electronic reference includes email and web form transactions. However, these distinctions are quite often blurred and overlap. In the context of this paper, 'digital reference' is used to include two broad components: 'it is Internet-based and designed to connect users with experts' . More importantly,
Digital reference refers to a network of expertise, intermediation and resources placed at the disposal of someone seeking answers in an online environment. Digital reference can provide support for users who find online tools and resources unfamiliar, difficult to learn, or insufficient to answer their information needs. It can also provide valuable user feedback to collection builders so that they may better tailor their resources and maximize their investment in content creation .
A digital reference transaction will usually include the following elements:
Setting Up A Service
Why a Digital Reference Service?
As public access to the Internet increases, libraries will receive more and more information requests online, predominantly through email . Digital reference cannot be regarded as 'extra' or a service that can be delivered only when there are enough staff and time . Proper planning not only ensures for a smoother integration with more traditional information delivery, but also affords the requisite time for:
Additionally, digital reference adds value overall to library service in that it supports the following key agendas for public libraries:
With enough planning to allow for the scheduling of services, libraries can provide a range of points of access to information guidance:
Planning for Digital Reference Service
Although there are various models of digital reference, they share common elements. In adopting any one of the service options, planning should include consideration of the following:
The staff necessary to run such a service includes:
Service Delivery Models
Digital reference service models can be divided into two broad categories:
1. Asynchronous transactions The asynchronous transaction involves a time delay between the question and answer, such as with e-mail based services.
This is still the major format for online information delivery. E-mail reference services come in two basic varieties: basic e-mail and web forms. Common practice for basic e-mail service in UK public libraries involves an email address specifically designated for the reference or information service (e.g. email@example.com). Users can either click directly on the e-mail address on the library web page which activates email software, or send a message to the email address using their own software.
E-Mail is still the most popular form of communication from users' perspectives for the following reasons:
From the librarian's perspective, a plain e-mail based service is easy to implement, requiring no extra software and no extra training on the software.
Web form transactions as found within the UK public library service, Ask A Librarian , can only be initiated from a designated web site, where users must respond to specific queries in addition to asking their questions. In order to send the form, which will usually be received by the library in the form of e-mail, users must click on a button specifically designated for that purpose.
Web forms can be useful to librarians and users alike in that they provide a structured format for asking questions. Librarians not only can guide users in framing questions, but also gather information important for service evaluation. The form must be carefully constructed, however, as users may get impatient if too much is demanded before they can ask their questions.
2. Synchronous transactions
The synchronous transaction takes place in 'real-time' with an immediate response to the query, such as can be found in chat-based services.
Chat or Instant Messaging is where librarians and users can 'speak' to each other in real time on the Internet using special text-based software. An example is the Live Help service offered by Gateshead public libraries, which uses Swiss software, Click and Care .
The transaction involves a split web screen: in one screen users type questions and can instantly see librarians' responses; in the second screen, librarians can call up web pages or other electronic references where the required information can be found. Although chat reference is associated with the 24/7 service model, this level of service is often impossible for single libraries to implement. Usually, the service will be offered at specifically designated times throughout the working day. The 24/7 service model is more easily delivered through collaborative services, such as southern California's QandA Café . In addition, suppliers, such as LSSI with their Virtual Reference Toolkit , offer supplementary support for answering questions outside the hours of library service.
Chat reference software, which can be stored locally on a library authority server or remotely on a supplier's server, often includes features for:
Because of the customised software and immediate nature of the transaction, chat reference initially makes more demands on the following library resources:
Video-conferencing or web-cam services
This form of digital reference includes the visual element, which may be an antidote to the communications problems inherent in the more text-based services. Librarians and users are able to use both text and speech for reference transactions. Instead of a window for the textual exchange, there is a window in which librarians and users can see each other while conducting a face-to-face interview. Web or other electronic sources can 'be pushed' to users via another window. This technology provides distance learning, as well as research and reference applications; examples of the range of uses can be found in university libraries, such as the Off-Campus Library Services, University Libraries, The University of Tennessee .
Challenges with this type of service are similar to those with chat reference:
Digital Reference Robots
Digital Reference Robots essentially use artificial intelligence to respond to questions; the most well-known of this type of service is Ask Jeeves . In addition, the Open University Library, through its OPAL project, is working towards developing an "artificial librarian ". Such services work through software that searches databases of questions and answers, otherwise known as knowledge bases.
The Digital Reference Transaction: Responding to a Question
Upon setting up a service, whether this involves putting an email address on a website, or creating a web form or a live chat help page, libraries should be prepared to deal with diverse questions from all over the world. The Ask A Librarian service provides samples of transactions, organised according to subject on its website . However, there are a number of ways of handling or re-directing questions which may be considered to be outside the scope of the service. These include:
It is generally acknowledged that good digital reference practice should be based on good face-to-face reference practice and standards. Effective service provides structured responses that include the following elements:
Development of a standard for response should include consideration of the following:
Maintaining an archive of transactions is recommended, not just from a statistical perspective, but also as a basis from which to develop a knowledge or Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) database. The assumption is that the user will perhaps find an answer before querying the service, thereby cutting down on duplication of questions. Often these databases, which should be searchable for optimum use, will not only include frequently asked questions, but responses which might be general enough to cover a range of questions.
Issues for Public Libraries
Staff training is key, not only to ensure that staff develop effective and efficient information research skills, but also to orientate them in delivering a new type of service. It is not uncommon for staff to be initially resistant to participating in digital reference services. Causes of such resistance can range from fear of something new ("we've always done it this way") to insecurity about computer skills. It is also important to remember that poor face-to-face or in-person reference skills may actually mean even worse digital reference skills, especially in a purely text-based environment.
In addition to basic computing knowledge, other more specialised knowledge includes:
User Orientation and Feedback
Until recently, development of digital reference service has included little consideration of users . This lack is in large part due to librarians themselves having to contend with a major service shift: even the simple addition of an e-mail address on a web page has provoked time, staff, and service delivery issues. As more and more librarians make the transition to digital reference service, the users' experience of the digital reference transaction receives more attention. This attention is resulting in more guidance for users in acceptable use, formulating questions, and alternative sources. In addition, librarians are seeking more feedback from users through email and web surveys.
Evaluation and Impact
The impact on traditional services is also a relatively recent consideration in the field. In the case of public libraries, digital reference is often perceived, at best, as extraneous to traditional services, and, at worst, not an official service at all. As libraries start to see in-house reference transactions decrease and web transactions increase, digital reference will have to be handled as a formal service, perhaps even replacing certain traditional services. Acquisition budgets may need to shift to allow more reference materials in electronic format to be purchased and to enhance the delivery of such information to users, in the form of hyperlinking software, for instance.
McClure and Lankes identify the following areas to be included in the assessment of evaluation and impact:
Privacy and Legal Issues
At present most digital reference transactions have a textual component. There are, therefore, more potential areas of legal conflict, including:
Any information service offered over the web or through email should include at least a privacy, data protection, and liability statement, such as that found on the Internet Public Library site .
Studies from university and public libraries in the United States have demonstrated that as electronic resources have proliferated, users need training in navigation, for accuracy, relevance, and currency:
One major impact of electronic services is the growing need for user instruction. In our 1991 survey, several librarians predicted the end of library instruction, as they saw new more user-friendly services emerging and the computer skills of students increasing. By 1997, almost all respondents admitted the need for more instruction--and more intense instruction .
Clearly, librarians, especially, but not exclusively, public librarians, must be able to take on the role of mentors, whether it be as guides in libraries at computer terminals, or as virtual guides through e-mail and chat. Incorporating digital reference as a standard service in library plans will prepare librarians in "heed[ing] the cries of an infant digital reference field, or they will be deafened by the roars of the coming reference revolution" .