Digital Reference Overview

by Linda Berube
Co-East Regional Manager and Ask A Librarian Co-ordinator

An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Task Group
Series editor: Penny Garrod (UKOLN)

February 2003

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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' [1]. 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 [2].

A digital reference transaction will usually include the following elements:

  • The user
  • The interface (web form; e-mail; chat; video etc.)
  • Electronic resources (including electronic or CD-based resources; web resources; local digitised material etc), as well as print resources
  • The information professional

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 [3]. Digital reference cannot be regarded as 'extra' or a service that can be delivered only when there are enough staff and time [4]. Proper planning not only ensures for a smoother integration with more traditional information delivery, but also affords the requisite time for:

  • Staff training
  • User orientation
  • Development of appropriate use and service level agreements
  • Identification of target audience
  • User and use evaluation.

Additionally, digital reference adds value overall to library service in that it supports the following key agendas for public libraries:

  • Social Inclusion: email-based and especially chat-based reference extends library services to those users with physical challenges. Not only can those users access information, but can receive real-time guidance from librarians, thus facilitating the 'human interaction' so important in reference transactions
  • E-government/modernizing government: The use of real-time technology increases accessibility to all types of government services. Libraries, experts in information delivery technologies, can provide the model in local authorities for reaching out to diverse user groups
  • NOF Training Expected Outcomes 2-8 [5]: Services, such as Ask A Librarian [6] and chat reference, provide excellent training for staff in simple Internet searching to more complex user interaction with state-of-the art technologies. All staff, from professional to clerical, have the opportunity to become conversant in different types of technologies while delivering real-time service.

With enough planning to allow for the scheduling of services, libraries can provide a range of points of access to information guidance:

  • Traditional reference desk staffing
  • E-mail
  • Telephone
  • Chat (including video, audio).

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:

  • Physical service location (in a public service area; in a special collections area; in an office; proximity to print resources etc)
  • Virtual service location (server space; Internet Service Provider etc)
  • Training in advanced web skills, reference interview and procedure
  • Programming and web expertise (web design skills; database management etc.)
  • Management and co-ordination of the service (who does what when)
  • Completion time for transactions (questions will be answered in a day/two days/a week etc.)
  • Quality control (basic standard for researching questions; types of sources used; structured response; referrals to other resources or services etc.)
  • Service population (whether service is available for local library users or anyone)
  • Data collection for evaluation
  • Promotion of the service
  • Hardware and software (PC/Workstation; printer; scanner; mail client; web-form; chat software; authentication software; etc.)
  • Additional equipment (web cam; video equipment etc.)
  • Furniture

The staff necessary to run such a service includes:

  • Researchers (librarians; library assistants) to gather the information to answer questions
  • A co-ordinator to assign questions and to monitor answers; to schedule staff
  • IT support for running networks, maintaining web pages and scripts
  • Data entry staff to input and send responses.

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. 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:

  • It is widely available
  • It does not require extra software
  • It is a relatively non-threatening, non-intrusive transaction
  • The question can be plainly stated without the need to respond to what users would consider to be extraneous questions.

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 Forms

Web form transactions as found within the UK public library service, Ask A Librarian [6], 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.

Screen Shot Web Form

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.

Text-based chat

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 [7].

Screen Shot 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 [8]. In addition, suppliers, such as LSSI with their Virtual Reference Toolkit [9], 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:

  • Showing (or 'pushing') web pages to users/staff members while responding to questions
  • Escorting users/staff members through web searches
  • Distance learning sessions, including virtually training users or staff members in Internet searching
  • Tracking information service usage/statistics, and generating reports
  • Conducting on-line meetings for staff; or meetings with end-users, such as online book discussion groups etc.
  • Queuing of users (i.e. if more than one user tries to access the service at the same time, one will receive a message indicating that the librarian will respond momentarily etc.)
  • Sharing files with users/staff members (such as slide shows; graphics; word processing; pdfs; screen shots; scanned images)
  • Authenticating access to licensed proprietary databases during live reference chat
  • Maintaining transcripts of sessions.

Because of the customised software and immediate nature of the transaction, chat reference initially makes more demands on the following library resources:

  • Staff, in terms of the numbers and time devoted to service delivery
  • Training programmes, as this type of reference requires more advanced skill, adaptability, and confidence
  • E-reference skills, both in breadth of knowledge of electronic and web resources to hand, and in the ability to respond in real-time to questions in a timely and accurate manner.
  • Budgets, both in terms of staffing and cost of the technology.

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 [10].

Challenges with this type of service are similar to those with chat reference:

  • Staffing
  • Training
  • Times for implementing the service
  • Lack of mobility for staff involved with the service (a librarian must remain at the terminal for the time allotted)
  • Cost

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 [11]. In addition, the Open University Library, through its OPAL project, is working towards developing an "artificial librarian [12]". 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 [13]. 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:

  • An 'About' page or paragraph which clearly delineates the nature of the service and types of questions acceptable
  • A 'Tips' page, which not only explains questions outside the remit of the service, but suggested sites for re-direction (An 'About' or 'Tips' page can be placed in such a way on the website that it is mandatory to read these pages before getting to the web form or chat window)
  • Pop-up boxes or links, on the web form or chat window page itself, which re-direct the users to more appropriate sites for specialised information, such as health, law, genealogy etc [14].
  • User orientation/tutorial pages can: advise on the framing of a question; encourage the sharing of information on resources already tried, or search terms and search engines they have used. Tutorials or orientation pages can be incorporated into a web form to create a more user-friendly interface.


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:

  • Salutation, preferably addressing the user by name, if available
  • Copy of original question
  • Answer, primarily from a web source (in keeping with the service proviso of responding in the manner approached)
  • Source
  • Closing and thank you
  • Signature, including name of library or service [15]

Development of a standard for response should include consideration of the following:

  • Which elements to be included in the response (see recommendations above)
  • The tone of the response; i.e. level of formality or personalisation
  • Depth of response; i.e. how much of a 'reference interview' to be conducted; short or long answers; how much help to be given when questions outside the scope
  • How much time to be given to putting together a response
  • Method for evaluating responses, by users and reference co-ordinators [16].

Archives/FAQs/Knowledge databases

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

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:

  • Expertise with different types of electronic resources, as well as the Internet
  • Effective management of user expectations and demands
  • Multitasking (handling several search windows; managing user queues, as well as service options etc. [17])
  • Knowledge of other languages, helpful in understanding questions posed by those for whom English is a foreign language.

User Orientation and Feedback

Until recently, development of digital reference service has included little consideration of users [18]. 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:

  • Outcome measures (quality of answers)
  • Process measures (effectiveness and efficiency of the process)
  • Economic measures (costing and cost effectiveness of digital reference)
  • User satisfaction (degree to which users engaged in digital reference services are satisfied with the process and the results) [19]

Privacy and Legal Issues

At present most digital reference transactions have a textual component. There are, therefore, more potential areas of legal conflict, including:

  • Data protection; because of the text- and computer-based nature of digital reference, there is more opportunity for collecting personal data, as well as more potential for abuse, intentional or not
  • Confidentiality; in addition to personal data, the content of users requests should also be protected, and handled in a non-judgemental way
  • Re-use of information; the use of transaction contents in articles and reports might require consent, or at least protection of personal data
  • Transaction and content compliance with local, national and international rules; users as well as librarians might be prohibited from exchanging information in accordance with acceptable use and filtering policies
  • Intellectual property rights and proprietary use; such as licensing issues with supplying commercial information to non-local users
  • Liability/Third party claims; such as supplying information which may have a detrimental effect or which might be put to questionable use
  • Warranty of Info; such as accountability for information supplied.

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 [20].


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 [21].

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" [22].


  1. MINITEX Publications & Mailings - Reference Notes, March 2001 Minnesota Higher Education Services Office at the University of Minnesota
  4. Lankes, R. David. "The Birth Cries of Digital Reference: An Introduction to this Special Issue." Reference & User Services Quarterly. 39.4 (2000) 352-354.
  8. (for examples of other collaborative services, see;
  16. Kasowitz, Abby, Bennett, Blythe and Lankes, R. David. "Quality Standards for Digital Reference Consortia." Reference & User Services Quarterly 39.4 (2000): 355-363.
  17. Gross, Melissa et al. Assessing Quality in Digital Reference Services:Overview of Key Literature on Digital Reference.
  18. Ibid. [19] McClure, Charles and Lankes, R. David. Assessing Quality in Digital Reference Services:A Research Prospectus
  20., see also Tenopir, C. A Decade of Digital Reference: 1991-2001. Reference & User Services Quarterly. Spring 2002, Vol. 41. No. 3, p.264.
  21. Lankes, R. David. "The Birth Cries of Digital Reference." Reference & User Services Quarterly. Winter 2000, Vol. 39, No.4. pp. 352-354.
British Council website Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) website Re:source website