Digital Reference Services

David Beagley (Heyward Library, La Trobe University, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia)

Library Management

ISSN: 0143-5124

Article publication date: 1 October 2004




Beagley, D. (2004), "Digital Reference Services", Library Management, Vol. 25 No. 8/9, pp. 406-406.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

“Librarians tend to overvalue technology”, state Jonathan Lauer and Steve McKinzie in their contribution to this collection of essays. “Every so often the profession fairly loses its head over some peripheral issue and goes bonkers” (pp. 46‐7).

Considering that theirs is the only voice of the 21 studies in this volume critical of what they see as a headlong rush to embrace digital reference services, they may have a point. Or, perhaps, they are way off the mark and blind to the potential of a bold new opportunity.

In the end, it is difficult to determine from this collection, due to that overwhelming, often uncritical, acceptance by the contributors of both the inevitability and desirability of the digital/online delivery of reference services. Compounding the issue is an uncertainty over what, exactly, that delivery encompasses.

The role of online and digital media in current information storage, retrieval and transfer is unquestioned. Most libraries would spend as much or more on electronic resources and licences than on print. As many of the contributors to this discussion recognize, not only is the Internet the first option taken by many (especially younger) clients when searching for information, but online communication forms (chat, e‐mail, sms, bbs) are increasingly their contact avenues of choice.

However, in Digital Reference Services, there is no clear consensus on whether the focus for libraries should be simply the online reference interview (guiding a distant client while keeping the integrity of the traditional library as a collection and a place) or on the full online library (delivering the content as well as the search strategies).

If the online environment is to be taken as a major revolution in the theory of library service, then this distinction must be determined. If the reference interview is to be the prime focus of change, then we simply have another form of communication to deliver a nature of service already well developed. On the other hand, the question of the full online library (collection, search strategies and delivery) has been simmering along for years now with the technology, and public attitudes (Googling, anyone?), setting the agenda. Yet only one of this book's studies examines reference resource tools.

That conceptual problem aside, Digital Reference Services contains plenty of advice, research and learned expertise for libraries wanting to implement online reference interviews. Several essays deal specifically with online chat, considering adjustments to the traditional interchange between client and librarian. They recognize the absence of visual and aural cues in framing verbal exchanges, and the issues of time lapse in both parties typing statement and response.

David Carter's “Hurry up and wait: observations about the practice of chat reference” notes the need for librarians to adapt to the succinct, abbreviated language structure common in chat exchanges, while still giving clear and functional directions. He also raises the point that, while a client may be using chat as the most immediate tool at hand, it might not be their preferred form of communication. They could, just as easily as the librarian, be struggling with its limitations.

While choices of software and the nature of queries are examined by several writers in considerable and formal detail, one key issue not well studied is the nature of specific user groups to whom online reference might be a distinct improvement rather than just an alternative. A brief reference to a report by Monash University (Australia) on library services for the disabled enables Matthew Marsteller and Jackie Schmitt‐Marsteller to identify groups such as travelers, senior citizens, and the physically and socially disabled, for whom access to the physical library might be impossible. In these cases, online communication is a boon.

Most of the other studies, however, only consider the mainstream clientele of large public and academic libraries in the USA. Consequently, the overall tenor of the contributions is that here is a wonderful new tool we must rush to embrace or risk being left behind the fashion of modern life. This assumes that all clients have access to online communication, and that they prefer it to coming to the actual library. While this may be the case in affluent, technology‐rich societies and libraries, it is not in much of the library world (including schools and small public libraries in those “affluent” societies).

A broader perspective, focusing on the influence of online communication on evolving issues like information literacy, searching techniques, interaction with full‐text resources and the Internet would have given this volume greater relevance to more libraries. As it is, it has plenty of pointers for large libraries with good access to communication technology and the staff to spare to work it. It does well describing one direction reference services can take, but only one.

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