|The distribution of electronic full text to users wherever they are
has resulted in fewer transactions at the reference desk. Eager to learn
about using developments in digital reference services as a strategy for
reaching patrons, a standing-room-only audience gathered in the Library
of Congress' (LC) renowned Coolidge Auditorium on the afternoon of January
12 to hear an expert panel of presenters. Co-sponsored by LC and OCLC,
this symposium, entitled "Building the Virtual Reference Desk in a 24/7
World," combined research, results of early adopters, and a vision of things
to come, making it one of the most significant events connected with the
recent American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Washington,
Jay Jordan, OCLC's president and CEO, opened the symposium with a brief
overview of the history of collaboration between LC and OCLC, particularly
in the realm of building WorldCat into a 45-million-record resource. Following
Jordan was Winston Tabb, LC's associate librarian for library services,
who highlighted LC's and OCLC's milestone anniversaries. Next, Diane Nester
Kresh, LC's director of public service collections, introduced the program
and the speakers.
A Hot Topic
R. David Lankes, director of the virtual reference desk and assistant
professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, reported
on the current status and future directions of digital reference. He cited
a recent study by Joseph Janes that found that 97.3 percent of academic
libraries have Web sites, and 44.7 percent have digital reference services—defined
as a mechanism by which people can submit their questions and have them
answered through e-mail, chat, or Web form.
Lankes noted that virtual or digital reference is becoming a hot topic
for conferences. Now is the time to institutionalize digital reference
by creating common technical and quality standards and by developing software
built for both real-time and asynchronous reference. Lankes and Charles
McClure, a professor at Florida State University's School of Information
Studies, have already collaborated with OCLC in one research project to
identify standards (http://www.quartz.syr.edu/quality).
Urginglibrarians to make their expertise part of their collection, Lankes
said that commercial search services, such as AskJeeves, are not the enemy
and won't displace librarians as long as they are committed to quality.
The "Librarian Ascendant"—the librarian of the future—must come to terms
with his or her new roles as filters and information consultants.
Representing the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System (MCLS) in
Pasadena, California, reference coordinator Susan McGlamery provided an
energetic account of and a few war stories about cooperative reference
using e-commerce software. Awarded a grant in 1999 to purchase software,
this multi-type consortium of more than 40 libraries aimed to provide 24/7
service, live interaction with a librarian, a network of subject specialists,
and point-of-need Internet service. It selected Web contact center software
that provides live collaboration, routing, reporting, request tracking,
scripting, authentication, and browser compatibility.
McGlamery displayed a number of system screens via the Santa Monica
Public Library's Web site (http://www.smpl.org/library)
to show how the digital reference system actually looks. The consortium
is now concentrating on Web-accessible information, pushing Web pages to
users, and building FAQs. During the process of developing digital reference
processes, librarians identified a number of problems. One issue was the
increasing level of computer skill and technical expertise required of
them. McGlamery concluded by stating that chat reference is just in its
infancy and has a long way to go before being as easy and spontaneous as
an in-person reference interview.
Santa Monica Public Library
Nancy O'Neill, principal librarian at the Santa Monica Public Library,
followed up with her session, "How Digital Reference Works in the Public
Library." Despite her library's vision of using digital reference services
to meet the needs of a diverse clientele wherever they are, O'Neill stated
that 24/7 service is not quite there yet. She suggested that before initiating
such a venture, librarians need to consider how digital reference service
fits into the library mission and institutional culture, whether there
is acceptance from administration and staff, and whether the appropriate
technology infrastructure exists.
Having provided an e-mail reference service since 1989, in March 2000
Santa Monica Public Library began participating in the Collaborative Digital
Reference Service (CDRS) through the Library of Congress initiative. In
July it started interactive reference through the MCLS's 24/7 Reference
Service. O'Neill described the professional librarians who participated
as fearless risk-takers. The library learned lessons that included rethinking
the reference interview process, frequently updating written policies,
coordinating digital reference with other reference services, evaluating
for quality control, and developing new competencies. O'Neill defined digital
reference as a core service, not an add-on, and said, "When our library
clients are out there on the Web, I want to be out there to meet them."
Cornell University's Paul J. Constantine, head of reference services
at the Olin Kroch Uris Libraries, followed with an academic case study.
Beginning with the caveat that his library system represented only one
way of handling digital reference that might not work for others, he explained
that the system is constantly experimenting and refining and doesn't have
all the answers. With digital reference there's a lot to learn about user
behavior, user needs, and cost models.
Physically, the Olin Kroch Uris Libraries comprise three libraries,
but they are virtually connected with one reference services division.
Constantine said that Cornell had developed a plan for 20002002 with
the goal of ranking in the top 10 of Association of Research Libraries
(ARL) members. The plan's vision statement includes the ideas that users
must have 24/7 access to high-quality digital reference services from anywhere,
reference service must be a key component of the digital library, and digital
reference should be "high-tech and high-touch." In-person reference transactions
have dropped significantly at Cornell and at other research libraries.
Constantine said that we have to move to digital reference because access
to our collections has no time or space constraints, users of these resources
continue to need assistance, and use of competing services is escalating.
(For example, there are more than 4 million queries per day on AskJeeves
During the '90s, Cornell initiated e-mail reference and online tutorials,
experimented with videoconference reference, and, since last year, offers
LiveHelp and the Collaborative Digital Reference Service. LiveHelp uses
e-commerce customer service software (LivePerson), requires only a network
connection and Web browser, provides an organized database of canned answers,
and includes the ability to push Web pages to users. Through LiveHelp,
Cornell's remote users have access to a live, interactive reference service.
Even students within viewing range of the physical reference desk have
used LiveHelp rather than leave their workstation. Even more telling is
Cornell's finding that undergraduate students want only electronic information
and are not interested in using print reference materials.
The lessons learned at Cornell echo those learned at MCLS and the Santa
Monica Public Library. Users expect digital services 24/7. Libraries must
develop new models of service and redefine their definitions of primary
users, including those who are on-site in relation to those who are not.
According to Constantine, as librarians develop these new services, they
should draw upon long-standing core values and not abandon traditional
services. Librarians have to experiment and take risks, recognizing that
there is a price tag with increased stress, frustration, and potential
mistakes. Collaborative efforts, particularly with libraries in other time
zones, can better serve users by extending times of availability. He closed
by saying that the sign of the times is digital.
Having heard two speakers refer to LC's Collaborative Digital Reference
Service without much explanation, we were ready for Diane Nester Kresh's
in-depth presentation. After describing its rationale with trends about
the short life span ofWeb sites, Internet use, and challenges that libraries
are facing, Kresh stated the purpose of CDRS: to provide professional reference
service to users anywhere, anytime, through an international, digital network
of libraries. With this service, an end-user may ask a question and receive
an answer from a librarian working through a participating member organization.
The infrastructure supporting the system includes operating agreements
describing the scope of services and software for tracking and managing
the routing of questions and answers. LC is also building resource databases
that will include member profiles and a searchable knowledge base of questions
Kresh reported that in November 2000, LC finished the final test of
the CDRS's Phase 3, in which more than 50 members had participated. The
goals of the pilot tests included developing a Web form for the question-and-answer
process, creating procedures for assigning and tracking, measuring response
time and interoperability, determining the scope of researcher requests,
and defining best practices. Kresh and Linda Arret, LC's senior network
specialist, gave a brief, live preview of CDRS. More information about
CDRS is available at http://www.loc.gov/rr/digiref.
OCLC, LC Partnership
The capstone of the symposium was the announcement that the Library
of Congress and OCLC have agreed to collaborate in designing and delivering
a new reference service based on the CDRS pilot project. According to the
agreement, OCLC will provide technical and developmental support by building
and maintaining a database of profiles of participating institutions that
will provide answers through CDRS; building and maintaining a question-and-answer
database system that will enable CDRS participants to catalog answers and
store them in a searchable/browsable database; and providing administrative
support for CDRS, including marketing, registration, training, and user
Chip Nilges, OCLC's director of new-product planning, and Frank Hermes,
OCLC's vice president of discovery and fulfillment services, presented
the emerging paradigm that combines local, statewide, regional, national,
and international member collaboration. The opportunities to be addressed
include collaborative knowledge base systems, standards for question interchange,
shared access to expertise, and standard metrics and accounting systems.
OCLC views its role as one that supports emerging networks, partners with
commercial service providers, delivers a low-cost alternative for local
use, develops supporting services, and supports cooperative efforts to
deliver services in the public Web space.
OCLC has an ambitious timeline for piloting system elements this spring,
and expects to have a production version available around July. More information
on OCLC's strategy is available at http://www.oclc.org/strategy. Most interesting
to me was the goal to evolve WorldCat from a shared database to an open
and global learning community. It's incumbent upon OCLC member libraries
to collaborate and participate in the development of this system.
The Virtual Reference Desk is a timely concept, and this well-organized
symposium offered substantive content, from vision to the trenches. The
creativity, energy, humor, and persistence of the librarians who spoke
balanced the formal corporate positions of LC and OCLC. Several speakers
underscored the need for risk-taking at this juncture in the evolution
of the virtual library. Their prophecy was that today's products will be
deemed clunky a few years down the road. Digital reference is the development
to watch in 2001.
Laverna Saunders is dean of library, instructional, and learning
support at Salem State College in Massachusetts. Her e-mail address is