Implementing Digital Reference Services: Setting Standards and Making It Real

Alastair G. Smith (Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New

The Electronic Library

ISSN: 0264-0473

Article publication date: 1 October 2004




Smith, A.G. (2004), "Implementing Digital Reference Services: Setting Standards and Making It Real", The Electronic Library, Vol. 22 No. 5, pp. 451-453.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Library reference services in the twenty‐first century are faced by the spectre of decreasing reference desk enquiries, customers with 24×7 lifestyle and competition from commercial question answering services offered by Google and Ask Jeeves. For many librarians, the solution is digital reference services. Although there are a variety of Internet based technologies for the provision of these online services, the current technical limitations raise issues such as the asynchronous nature of e‐mail and Web‐based transactions and how this affects the structure of a digital “reference interview”. These issues are addressed in Implementing Digital Reference Services. The book is based on papers presented at the 3rd Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) Conference in 2001 although the contributions have been extensively reworked, as evidenced by 2002 references in most chapters. This UK publication is co‐published with Neal‐Schuman in the USA.

While digital reference is a technological challenge for the library profession, it is also a trigger for rethinking reference work and adopting concepts from related services. For example, Shuler and Mon in their contribution discuss “triaging”, a concept borrowed from medical care. Digital reference is not new: the first literature on e‐mail reference appeared in the mid 1980s, and has antecedents in letter based reference services. However uptake of digital reference services has not been startling. Lankes tackles scepticism head‐on in his introduction, tackling three common arguments against digital reference services. These are: that this is not a digital age (it increasingly is); users can't access digital services (there are large and growing numbers that can); and users aren't coming to digital reference services (at least the numbers are not declining as they are for face to face reference)

Implementing Digital Reference Services is divided into six parts grouped loosely into common themes, although the topics of many chapters cross the boundaries. Part 1 identifies the need for digital reference through two case studies in museum and government libraries. Part 2 looks at issues. Here, Lam takes a wide view of digital reference including “static” aids such as pathfinders. Lam also considers expert systems that had a period of popularity in the 1980s as a form of automated reference assistance. This is augmented later by a paper from the Open University's Bradbury and Payne, in one of the few non‐US contributions, who outline an automated question answering system available to distance students over the Internet, built from open source software. Johnston considers some important privacy issues, for example that digital reference services have the potential to add to the digital trail that modern citizens lay down in their daily life, and ties this to US concerns about government information gathering in libraries.

Part 3 deals with implementation. Marsteller and Neuhaus investigate the rate at which services are being implemented, and describe a 2001 survey of digital reference services that indicates a low level of uptake, e.g. 25 queries/month. The low level of uptake is a common theme in several chapters, but it appears that many services are growing significantly. Kawakami gives useful practical guidelines for implementation: underlining the importance of keeping up interactions with the client in the asynchronous environment, how to handle the potential for librarians to work from home, and the insightful observation that “training should emphasise similarity to conventional reference, rather than differences”.

Part 4 is based around collaboration – an important aspect of digital reference, since it enables institutions to share questions and resources across geographical, subject, and timezone boundaries. Part of collaboration is common standards, for example Lankes’ proposed question interchange protocol. At a more practical level, Normore and Rumbaugh give a good overview of collaboration issues including copyright and privacy. Smith discusses digital reference for distance learners, in particular adult learners.

Part 5 attempts to bridge the gap between research and practice. Pomerantz and Silverstein's chapter here is one of the few making a connection between digital reference and call centers, investigating the importance of ontology in making information easily retrievable.

Part 6 is about evaluating quality. Here Gross, McClure and Lankes provide an important overview chapter that is not just about evaluation but includes a general literature review of digital reference. Over two chapters, Gross et al. cover research directions and propose a model of digital reference. Also included are a more specific survey by Johnson of e‐reference services, primarily e‐mail and Web‐based; and Jaeger's small comparison of library reference services sites with “ask an expert”, directly examining the “opposition” to conventional library services in the digital environment.

The bulk of papers are very relevant, with a good mixture of research results, theory, and practical guidelines and checklists. Some articles are only marginally relevant: Chou and Zhou cover library implications of DMCA and UCITA, which although interesting does not say anything specific about digital reference. If the editors had been prepared to cast their net wider, it could have been valuable to include chapters about some of the more established digital reference services such as those at the Internet Public Library. The trend to digital reference is not happening in isolation: more chapters could have called on research into related areas, such as call centers and telecommuting.

Although the 2001 conference on which this book is based seems a little while ago in Internet terms, Implementing Digital Reference Services is very relevant to current practitioners and would‐be practitioners of digital reference. This is perhaps because digital reference is now in a plateau or consolidation phase. We haven't quite reached the next big jump that will probably be the increased use of voice over IP, which could mean, as Pomerantz suggests in his “afterword”, that the reference interview will be reinvented yet again, and that digital reference will offer a service closer to face‐to‐face. In the mean time Implementing Digital Reference Services is a very useful summary of the practice and theory of digital reference.

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