Digital Reference Services

Dan J. Bye (Information Adviser, Distance Learner Support Service, Sheffield Hallam University, UK)

Program: electronic library and information systems

ISSN: 0033-0337

Article publication date: 1 December 2004




Bye, D.J. (2004), "Digital Reference Services", Program: electronic library and information systems, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp. 285-287.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Interest in the potential of electronic chat/digital reference software is growing. It promises to extend the possibility of real‐time support to virtual, remote and distance users and offers advantages (such as the ability to exploit “push” technology to send information to the user) over telephone or asynchronous e‐mail. Our users are visiting our buildings less often, and interactive chat services could help librarians stay visible in the age of the library without walls.

Digital Reference Services is aimed at practitioners and students and is in two parts. The first part concentrates on theoretical considerations, professional issues and service principles. The second part consists of case studies of libraries that have implemented or piloted such services. There are nine examples from academic libraries, but only one from a public library context. Contributors are not afraid to discuss the challenges of digital reference (“Our experience with instituting a chat reference service has not been a particularly positive one”, according to the authors of one chapter, from East Tennessee State University). The attention given to human factors and management issues is welcome. However, there are no non‐American contributors to this volume, and only passing mention of non‐American research or practice, which may limit its appeal to an international audience. There is an index but no glossary.

Katz provides an introductory overview for part one. Digital enquiries take longer than telephone or face‐to‐face encounters, and research suggests that although this medium is good for “directional type queries”, it works less well “for search and research queries”. He raises staffing issues, and suggests exploring collaborative avenues towards providing a 24/7 service.

Kresh traces the history of interactive online reference services across almost 20 years. Amusingly, she briefly refers to MUDs as “early interactive media used mainly on college campuses”: if you didn't already know that a MUD was originally a “multi‐user dungeon” in the context of mainframe computer role‐playing games, you would be the none the wiser after reading Kresh's piece. She emphasises that librarians must apply their traditional skills – “identifying, organising, indexing, evaluating, disseminating information” – in this new arena in order to be successful.

Lauer and McKinzie's contribution “Bad moon rising: a candid examination of digital reference and what it means to the profession”, does not live up to its provocative title. Their “controversial” argument is merely that “the profound impact of digital reference claimed by its proponents is overstated”. Their unremarkable conclusion is that “digital reference … ought to complement traditional reference, but only where a need for it is clearly evident, its advantages clear, and its cost‐effectiveness thoroughly demonstrated”, but none of these considerations receives more than superficial attention. The authors assert, “in certain places and in certain contexts, digital reference can be highly useful and effective”. But which places and what contexts? It's a shame that Lauer and McKinzie are so keen to emphasise that they are not “saying that digital reference does not work, or that it is of no value”, as a genuinely thought‐provoking radical anti‐chat polemic would have been very welcome.

Elsewhere, Spink compares mediated online searching and digital reference, Mizzy and Mahoney recommend maintaining a collection of electronic resources for use in virtual reference sessions, Breznay and Haas offer practical advice on setting up a digital reference desk, and Fagan and Desai explore communication strategies for the instant messaging environment.

The detailed case studies in the second part of the book cover very similar ground, which makes it a very repetitive read. Some of the pieces describe the progress of incomplete (and therefore not finally evaluated) pilot projects, which I found frustrating. For example, California State Polytechnic University's service faces an “uncertain” future – authors Dunn and Morgan note that, “it may be a while before we know if a service like askNow will really catch on”. As for Kansas’ “collaborative statewide virtual reference pilot project”, KANAnswer, the authors conclude that “it is much too early to assess the pilot project as a whole”.

The consensus seems to be that chat services are slow to catch on (although users are generally very appreciative of the service), difficult to manage and evaluate, and sometimes stressful for staff. Chat sessions are often missed, abandoned or disconnected. It is not clear that digital reference is cost‐effective.

I was most struck by how little many librarians know about the needs or information‐seeking behaviour of their target user groups. Many librarians have noticed the correlation between increasing Internet use and declining reference enquiries, but it is not obvious that the one is the cause of the other, or that as electronic chat evolves it will offset the decline in information desk activity. What kinds of people favour using electronic chat to ask reference queries? Do the people who adopt this mode of support constitute a hitherto untapped source of business? Are our users familiar with this technology from other contexts such as recreational chat rooms, or is it new to the majority? The contributors to this collection do not seem to have the answers, and my impression is that the survey methodologies used are not up to the job of finding out. Until we start doing some serious market research we won't know whether chat services will appeal to more than a minority of our users.

For example, Blank of Duke University (“not alone in finding the number of questions disappointingly low”) reports how a consultation survey was posted on the library home page. Ironically, given that that you'd expect a bias towards Internet use from an Internet‐only survey, their “assumption that the homepage is more dominant than the building” was only “partially supported by the results” (my emphasis). Over 43 per cent of respondents reported visiting the building at least three times a week, and nearly 62 per cent said they visited the Web site at least three times a week. But these groups are not necessarily exclusive: how many frequent Web site visitors are also frequent building visitors? Two thirds of the respondents had never used chat software.

Sims of Louisiana State University writes that 121 surveys were e‐mailed to their chat customers. Half a dozen were incorrectly addressed, and there was a 39 per cent response rate from the remainder (i.e. around 45 usable returns). You can't draw robust conclusions from such a small number of responses.

The book generally gives a negative impression of the state‐of‐the‐art in digital reference services, as exciting theory is confronted with disappointing experience, but that is precisely its value. The uncommon honesty of this collection of articles should inspire librarians to ask some hard questions, not just of the technology and the claims made for it, but also of the adequacy of our present reference practices, marketing strategies and research techniques. As Kresh says, it is important to “rethink what and how to provide service so that the imported technology is not just an overlay on a workflow that did not work well to begin with”. It makes sense to offer as many different ways of accessing professional assistance as possible. By identifying how to improve on what the pioneers in the field have achieved (or failed to achieve), the future may be more successful, and digital reference may find a permanent place in the librarian's communications toolbox, alongside e‐mail, fax, telephone and – why not? – text messaging. For anyone interested in the future of virtual library services, this book is a wake‐up call.

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