Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Revisiting Digital Reference
Nearly three-and-a-half years ago I wrote about digital reference in these pages (LJ 6/15/99, p. 30ff.). Clearly, we have come a long way. Back then computer-based chat was nearly the only option for providing that service. Today, we can choose from a baker's dozen of full-featured online reference products (for a complete rundown of the choices, see "Live Digital Reference Marketplace," LJ netConnect, Fall 2002, p. 16-19). Yet another indicator of the recent popularity of digital reference is the advent of both an annual conference (the Virtual Reference Desk meeting) and an electronic discussion (DIG_REF) devoted to the topic. Although some online reference pioneers (such as R. David Lankes of "AskERIC") may argue that the trend to move the reference encounter to the Internet began a good while ago, most librarians were not seriously thinking about delivering reference service via this method until recently. The beginnings Online reference in the early days was not pretty. It mostly consisted of e-mail or chat. E-mail reference required the patron to wait up to several days before being helped, while chat was limited to what a librarian could type in response. On the opposite end of the scale, a number of us thought that the future of digital reference was to be an online video encounter (see the 1996 experiment "See You See a Librarian," for example). Although the idea of a video-based encounter has mostly fallen by the wayside--who wants to be seen on a bad hair day?--modern digital reference software is now capable of much more than simply chat (full disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board of Docutek, which offers a digital reference product). Features expand Typical features of digital reference software include online chat, screen sharing (where the screen of the user can be seen by the librarian), cobrowsing (where the patron will see everything the librarian sees as they navigate a path, or vice versa), queuing of patrons, canned answers and scripts ("I'm working on your question and will be with you in a minute," etc.), and statistics. A number of products provide methods to edit, store, and catalog reference transcripts for searching and referral. Some have the abilities to send files, share forms (e.g., patrons can watch the librarian type in a catalog search on their web browser), and highlight (the ability of the librarian to highlight text on the user's screen). Pricing models for the various applications vary widely. Vendors are trying to determine appropriate pricing models at the same time libraries are trying to figure out what they can afford. But the interesting parts of digital reference are not software features and pricing but the practical and philosophical issues surrounding this kind of service. Looking at the numbers Many early adopters of this technology are concerned about the generally low usage levels of online reference. The problem is that it may be too early to tell whether the reason is lack of awareness on the part of the community being served, or a lack of interest. Although this question is of primary importance (no publicly funded organization wants to waste money on an underused service), we need more experiences and better measures before we can determine where the problems lie. Before drawing too many conclusions from what at first glance appears to be generally low usage patterns, we need to acknowledge two important aspects of this service. It is free from proximity (the user doesn't have to be in the library) and, in some cases, time constraints (in the case of extended hours service or 24/7 service). Even if only a small percentage of patrons are served via online reference, the service may be important if those patrons would be unserved without it. The importance of transcripts Anecdotal evidence from early adopters of digital reference indicates that the value of transcripts in a searchable database for answering subsequent questions has been highly overrated. Meanwhile, that same anecdotal evidence has pointed out important unanticipated uses of these transcripts. One use is to alleviate the anxiety of staff about their ability to be effective online reference librarians. After reading transcripts of actual online reference transactions, librarians are more likely to believe that they can do it, too. Another is that transcripts can be useful learning tools. For the first time in our profession we have a growing body of written records of reference transactions to study. Second thoughts Despite the seeming stampede toward moving the reference desk onto the information superhighway, there are critics raising questions. The rather harshly written critique "Virtual Reference: Overrated, Inflated, and Not Even Real" is one such example. A more calmly written piece from a reference insider (Steve Coffman of LSSI, providers of reference software and services) calls the future of collaborative digital reference into question (see "What's Wrong with Collaborative Digital Reference?"). This is neither unsurprising nor unwelcome. Offering digital reference services is a major step for any library, and we should be very sure it is worth at least experimenting with it before investing both staff time and money. Whither digital reference? Digital reference is in its infancy. We are still gaining important experience and learning a great deal with each new experiment. LJ's "round table" on digital reference (LJ 10/1/02, p. 46-50) made clear that this area of the profession is in great ferment and creativity while also being in a very early stage of implementation. Will digital reference become an essential part of standard library service? It's clearly too early to tell. That makes it all the more disturbing to hear tales of libraries cutting back on reference desk hours as a result of offering digital reference. No matter how successful digital reference proves to be, in-person and telephone reference services will remain important. As with any new technology or potential service, the essential question must be, "Does it provide better service to our clientele?" If it doesn't, then no technology--no matter how new and shiny--will be worth our time and that of our patrons. It should come as no surprise that answering such an essential question will take time, will be accompanied by a number of false starts, and will be debated with inflated rhetoric on both sides. __________________________________________________________________ Link List DIG_REF Discussion www.vrd.org/Dig_Ref/dig_ref.shtml Live Digital Reference Marketplace libraryjournal.reviewsnews.com/index.asp?layout=article&articleid=CA251679 An LJ Round Table: Live Digital Reference libraryjournal.reviewsnews.com/index.asp?layout=articleArchive&articleId=CA245058 LSSI, Inc. www.lssi.com See You See a Librarian sunsite.berkeley.edu/~emorgan/see-a-librarian Virtual Reference: Overrated, Inflated, and Not Even Real www.charlestonco.com/features.cfm?id=112&type=ed Virtual Reference Desk Conference www.vrd.org What's Wrong with Collaborative Digital Reference? American Libraries, Dec. 2002, p. 56+