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Virtual Reference Desk Conference Report
Heather Tunender and Judy Horn
"Charting the course of reference: toward a preferred future", was the title of the 4th Annual Digital Reference Conference which was held November 11-12, 2002, in Chicago, Illinois. The 4th Annual VRD conference was particularly notable as it inaugurated the co-sponsorship between the Information Institute of Syracuse at Syracuse University and the OCLC Institute. Although faced with some misfortune at the start of the conference, the collaboration was, in nearly all aspects, a success. The keynote speaker, Roch Carrier, National Librarian of Canada, was unable to attend due to injury. I was informed by his substitute, Francine Bouchard, Canadian National Library Project Coordinator for Virtual Reference, that he had a broken leg.
As in previous years, the Conference was organized around seven tracks, each with its own theme. There were three to four sessions within each track:
The inclusion of a Vendor demonstrations track was a beneficial change. In previous years, attendees had less time to devote to software research, but this track remedied that problem. Notably, there was no track devoted to "Digital reference case studies." Its absence, and the conference theme, "Charting the course for reference: toward a preferred future", suggests a new emphasis on defining how VR fits into library services rather than whether or not VR will be offered at all.
The opening General Session began with a welcome from George Needham, Vice President, Member Services Division, OCLC. He noted that 447 people, thus far, had registered for the conference. Second, R. David Lankes, Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse introduced the conference theme and spoke on the current state of digital reference. This conference, like previous Virtual Reference Desk Conferences, is an agenda-setting conference to plan future conferences and to set agendas. It is also an opportunity to talk with one another about best practices in the field of virtual reference. Lankes described that there are many emerging issues in virtual reference including establishing standards and policies for reference service and consortia, integration of virtual reference into the curriculum of library schools, integrating virtual reference into reference management systems, and the need for libraries to take a holistic view of reference services. We have raised the bar for virtual reference and library directors, the public, scholars, and the press are all watching what takes place in our libraries involving virtual reference.
Francine Bouchard, Canadian National Library, Project Coordinator for Virtual Reference
Ms Bouchard talked about the innovative Canadian government initiatives in broadband technology such as "Government On-line." The goals of the Government On-line initiative include providing all citizens (by 2005) access to all government information and services online where and when they need it. According to Bouchard, Canada is the leader in electronic government access. Canadian citizens have shown their approval by ranking the libraries second only to the fire departments for "level of service" provided. It helps that 75 percent of all Canadians have access to the Internet (compared to 69 percent in the USA).
But Canada's libraries face challenges as well. Of their population, 30 percent is at the "lowest literacy level" and only 2 percent of schools qualify for teacher-librarian positions. Canada's National Librarian, Roch Carrier, is fighting to get librarians into schools. He believes school libraries and librarians are the key to solving Canada's literacy problem. In order to increase the National Library's visibility, one of Carrier's goals is to make the National Library "relevant to Canadian citizens" by appealing to the citizens directly and meeting their needs where they "work and play." The creation of Virtual Reference (VR) Canada, a national bi-lingual service to link citizens with the best answers is part of this initiative. According to Bouchard, VR Canada "is equalizing access to information" in particular between rural and urban populations. Other significant projects are the Parliamentary Portal, which provides online access to government and government information and the recent merger between the National Library with the National Archives.
US librarians and politicians should look to Canada for leadership and guidance as we develop information services for our diverse populations.
Digital reference awards ceremony
The following awards were presented during a reception on November 11:
Exemplary Digital Reference Services 2002:
Ask a Librarian – Live! – St Charles (IL) Public Library District.
Ask Dr Global Change – Global Change Research Organization.
Ready for Reference – Alliance Library System.
Ask Now – Metropolitan Cooperative Library System (administered by the California State Library).
VRD 2001 Director's Award. Susan McGlamery, Coordinator for reference services for the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System (MCLS) and project director of the 24/7 Reference Project.
VRD 2001 Conference Student Paper Award. Phillip Edwards, University of Michigan School of Information, received the award for his paper, "Characterization of volunteer expertise within the Internet public library reference service."
There were several excellent sessions, however, one in particular, "Teaching through e-mail reference: Promoting Thoughtful Engagement in a Digital Environment", was inspiring. The session was presented by Lisa A. Ellis, Assistant Professor/Information Services Librarian, Newman Library of Baruch College, NY.
Professor Ellis emphasized "teaching and promoting thoughtfulness in email reference" by utilizing the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Competency (IC) objectives. They did so at Baruch College by considering the following elements when crafting e-mail reference responses:
Determine which IC objectives to teach and how.
Include an explanation for the recommended research approach.
Teach transferable knowledge about databases and resources.
Her sensible approach to answering e-mail reference requests gives librarians a framework for appropriately answering the questions. She suggests having IC objectives 1-5 posted near your computer for quick reference and guidance while you answer questions. Ellis presented examples of e-mail reference answers that integrated the IC approach. The content and educational emphasis that the answers revealed was impressive. Such a framework for answers is not only a helpful guide for answering e-mail questions, but it could also be used to evaluate reference answers after the fact. Although it was not the emphasis of Ellis' presentation, the evaluative elements of such a structured approach would be beneficial to electronic reference coordinators who are certainly looking for appropriate assessment measures.
The General Session on the second morning of the conference, featured Drs Connie Van Fleet and Danny P. Wallace, Editors of Reference & User Services Quarterly Both are on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma School of Library and Information Studies. The topic of their presentation was "Virtual libraries – real threats" in which they spoke on virtual reference as an additional burden to already overburdened libraries who cannot do more without more resources, and the impact that the US Patriot Act and recent court decisions will have on libraries. There is the possibility that libraries will not have full control of the transcript of a session when a user asks a question. They reiterated that it is the responsibility of librarians to do everything possible to protect the privacy of users.
Karen Schneider, Coordinator of Librarians' Index to the Internet, talked about the "turf" of librarianship and the need to rethink our turf. In talking about rethinking our turf she posed questions such as "Are we library?," "Are you library?", "What is library?" She postulated that we need to expand the library beyond a place to a state of mind – "Got Library?" She also talked about the history and services of the Librarian's Index to the Internet. Her presentation can be viewed at http://lii.org/vrd/vrd2002_files/frame.htm
In the closing session David Lankes announced that the 2004 Virtual Reference Conference would be held in San Antonio. The 2003 Conference indicated that there are several big issues to watch during the coming year, including the Patriotic Act and Privacy, especially the policy on the use of electronic transcripts; outsourcing reference; and integration of digital reference into the reference service for the library. Presenters were asked to submit their presentations for publication on the VRD 2002 Conference Web page (http://www.oclc.org/institute/events/vrd2002/presentations.htm).
Heather Tunender (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Electronic Reference Services Librarian, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, California, USA.
Judy Horn (email@example.com) is the Head, Government Information Department, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, California, USA.