Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The true impact of the Internet for reference services is now being witnessed by the use of virtual reference services. Here it is not the ability of the Internet to store and distribute large quantities of information but rather its communication benefits, the shifting of time and space, that is leading the development in how reference is delivered.
Towards the end of last year The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) (www.ifla.org/VII/s36/pubs/drg03.htm) published, through its Web presence IFLANET, some interesting guidelines for digital reference services. The guidelines themselves appear in a well-structured document that is clear in definition and which opens the way for further debate. In other words, it is authoritative yet not in any sense dogmatic. The purpose of the document is straightforward: “to promote digital reference best practices on an international basis”. The “Introduction”, as introductions to such matters are required to do, defines what digital reference is. It also notes the many other names employed, drawing on a listing from the National Library of Canada. The terms “virtual reference”, “digital reference”, “e-reference”, “Internet information services”, “live reference” and “real-time reference” are used interchangeably to describe reference services that utilize computer technology in some way.
These guidelines should be welcomed. They are a first attempt to set a standard that will ensure a level of quality for the user. Additionally, any such standardisation would increase the opportunities for collaboration, particularly on a trans-national basis hence the keen involvement of IFLA. It must be acknowledged that the initial and main impetus for virtual reference has come from North America where initiatives such as the virtual reference desk (VRD) have created many resources notably an annual conference and indeed some of their own practical guidelines. The IFLA guidelines set out how a library might administer the virtual reference service. Of particular interest here are issues of staffing, training and service evaluation. The legal aspects such as copyright, freedom of information and data protection are all touched on. There is a practical section that deals with how chat facilities might be best managed.
When I recently used a virtual reference service I was disappointed with the correspondence that took place between the librarian and myself. Having posed my question, after a short delay, the librarian responded saying that she had searched Google and here were the top ten results. Why did she assume that I could not have done this? Moreover, I had done this and was not satisfied with the results.
Of course one of the reasons Google is used is that it will always return a result. However, Googlewhack (www.googlewhack.com) “the search for the one” is a game played by those who find the workings of this Internet search engine fascinating and intriguing. The aim is to enter into the Google engine two words that will return just one solitary hit. Not easy! From the information retrieval perspective this is an interesting aspect of the frequency versus relevancy trade-off. For those learning or indeed those teaching and in need of an interesting lesson plan, Googlewhack offers a wonderful solution. See if you can get a Googlewhack but be careful, it can be addictive for librarians.
Ronan O’BeirneInternet Editor, Reference Reviews, and Principal Libraries Officer - Information, Bradford Libraries, Archives and Information, Bradford, UK