Digital Reference Service in the New Millennium: Planning, Management, and Evaluation

Hermina G.B. Anghelescu (Library and Information Science Program, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, USA)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 1 August 2004




Anghelescu, H.G.B. (2004), "Digital Reference Service in the New Millennium: Planning, Management, and Evaluation", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 60 No. 4, pp. 481-483.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

A distinguished team of three editors and 20 contributors (their credentials are listed on pp. 231‐238) offer their insights and prospects on virtual reference services offered free of charge or for a fee by American libraries of all types (public, academic, school, and special) both in the private and public sector. Seventeen essays on the hot topic of digital reference are followed by an appendix containing useful selected resources in this continuously changing area (pp. 223‐230). The volume includes a selection of the papers presented at the “Reference in the New Millennium” conference held at Harvard University in 1999, and it is the sixth issue of The New Library Series published by Neal‐Schuman.

The book is organized thematically, dividing the topic of virtual reference services into major sub‐themes. The volume opens with an introduction to this emerging field, “The foundations of digital reference” (pp. 1‐10), in which R. David Lankes examines the changing attributes of the reference staff and the services they provide within an electronic environment. The first part, “The New Reference Culture: Traits and Trends”, consists of four papers: “Why reference is about to change forever (but not completely)” by Joseph Janes (pp. 13‐24), “Transforming reference staffing for the digital library” by Susan Lessick (pp. 25‐36), “Definitions of personal assistance in the new millennium: philosophical explorations of virtual reference service” by Lorna Peterson (pp. 37‐46), and “Evolution or entropy? The changing reference culture and the future of reference librarians” by Myoung C. Wilson (pp. 47‐57). The authors discuss the transition from traditional reference services to electronic reference services supported not only by print resources but also by electronic resources such as commercial databases and other fee‐based reference products and the Internet. The new information and communication technologies which support the delivery of information will replace the traditional face‐to‐face interaction with e‐mail and chat sessions conducted via the Internet. The reference transactions will take place with invisible users who need to articulate their information needs in front of a computer terminal. All of these changes require a significant behavioral shift on behalf of both participants in the virtual reference interview and demand a reassessment of the funding necessary to provide reference services around the clock.

The second part, “Building Digital Reference Services and Networks”, contains two papers: “Collaborative digital reference service: update on LC Initiative” by Diane Kresh and Linda Arret (pp. 61‐67) and “Digital reference quality criteria” by Blythe Allison Bennett, Abby Kasowitz and R. David Lankes (pp. 69‐80). The success of reference services provided 24/7 relies heavily on cooperation involving resource‐ and expertise‐sharing among libraries and librarians around the world. To this effect the Library of Congress has developed the Collaborative Digital Reference Service, with an ever‐growing number of institutions joining in order to serve users anywhere, any time through international joint efforts. This new service requires new standards of quality of staff training, collections, and librarian‐user interactions.

The third part of the volume is devoted to “Managing Digital Reference Services”. It includes four papers: “Managing growth for AskA services” by Pauline Lynch (pp. 83‐90), “Designing a virtual reference desk: intellectual property considerations” by Brett Butler (pp. 91‐109), “Simple and sophisticated methods for processing large volumes of question and answer information through the World Wide Web” by Lynn Bry (pp. 111‐123), and “Digital reference service at Georgia Institute of Technology” by Bruce Henson (pp. 125‐131). This section primarily addresses issues pertaining to maintaining and administering an operational network both from automation/technical and institution/staff standpoint within the context of an ever‐growing number of libraries that join the virtual reference community facing ever‐increasing demands from sophisticated users. Legal issues involving copyright in the electronic environment are also discussed.

Once the digital reference services are in place, one needs to know to what extent they meet the needs of the virtual constituency who use the help of electronic librarians in pursuing their information‐seeking needs. The fourth part of the volume features the topic “Evaluating Digital Reference Services” and includes two case studies: “Evaluating the ‘Ask a Question’ service at the University of California, Irvine” by Judy Horn and Kathryn Kjaer (pp. 135‐152), and “National Museum of American Art Reference Desk: a usage analysis of a digital reference service” by Laura Sowers and Marilyn Doman White (pp. 153‐178). Providing reference services in the virtual environment identifies new criteria adopted to assess the quality of responses, user expectation and satisfaction, and research methods employed to retrieve adequate answers. The literature is in need of studies assessing the quality and effectiveness of virtual reference services. Two such pioneer studies address this issue in an academic library and a museum library setting.

The fifth part, “Digital Reference Technology Spotlight”, consists of three papers: “Moving reference to the Web” by Susan McGlamery and Steven Coffman (pp. 181‐195), “The University of North Texas Libraries' online reference help desk” by Monika Antonelli and Martha Tarlton (pp. 197‐206), and “Click on the wizard for help: using help desk software for real‐time reference” by Saundra Lipton (pp. 207‐288). This section revisits the technological context of providing virtual reference services and focuses on software currently available, offering suggestions for improvement. Three approaches to electronic reference services are examined, from two academic libraries and one consortium. The three cases highlight the necessity for information specialists to stay current with the new technological developments available for integration in the virtual reference process.

In his conclusion, “An agenda for digital libraries”, R. David Lankes emphasizes the need for networked knowledge, in addition to calling for more reference resources in digital format. The advent of digital reference services is considered a “primary knowledge revolution” where librarians without borders are connected in real time with patrons regardless of time and space. His final thought is: “I invite you into the revolution. I invite you to be a reference revolutionary. Stop looking at a library as a collection of objects and start seeing it as a house of contexts. Stop looking at librarians as information custodians, and demand they be guides. I invite you to invent the future!” (p. 222).

Illustrative charts, graphs, questionnaires, screen shots and user surveys complement and enhance the text. While the topic of virtual reference services abounds in the journal literature, there are not that many books which address it. This volume fills this void. It is recommended for all librarians, even for those who are not directly involved with reference services. It calls for change and it reminds all knowledge workers that they should be part of it.

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