Interactive Reference Service (IRS) at UC Irvine: Expanding Reference Service Beyond the Reference Desk

Susan Lessick, Head, Research and Instructional Services
Kathryn Kjaer, Reference Services Coordinator and Physical Sciences Librarian
Steve Clancy, Data Services Coordinator and Health Sciences Librarian
University of California, Irvine


Desktop videoconferencing technology has the potential of bridging the physical barriers that prevent the ready transfer of information between users and reference providers. Because of this potential, the Science Library librarians at the University of California, Irvine implemented a pilot "telereference" project in January 1997 designed to generate needed information about the use of real-time, face-to-face, desktop videoconferencing to conduct reference interviews with student users at a remote location. The new interactive videoconferencing pilot program, called Interactive Reference Service (IRS), is available to medical students who are working in a computer lab located 1/2 mile away at the College of Medicine complex. This project is testing the feasibility, costs, and benefits of implementing such a service on an on-going basis. The paper will describe various planning, implementation, and service considerations, explain sample interactive sessions, and present preliminary observations.


Today my co-presenter and I would like to describe our work on an interesting reference project that is currently taking place at the University of California, Irvine, Science Library. Since fall 1996 a team of science reference librarians have been experimenting with using desktop videoconferencing technology at the Science Reference Desk. Since mid January 1997 we have been using a computer at the Reference Desk equipped with videoconferencing software, a camera, and a microphone, to conduct real-time, face-to-face, interactive reference interviews with medical students who are working in a computer lab about 1/2 mile away at the College of Medicine (COM) complex. The new interactive videoconferencing pilot program, called Interactive Reference Service (IRS), is available to the medical students in the Medical Academic Computing Center (MACC), one hour a day, Monday - Friday, during the academic session. The new service allows medical students who are physically working in the lab to talk directly with a librarian at the Science Reference Desk and get help on their research papers, search strategies, and locating materials in the Science Library.

Why Are We Trying Desktop Videoconferencing Technology At The Reference Desk?

1. Environmental Context

The use of technology to support operations and develop electronic collections and services, are central goals of the UCI Libraries and the reference department in the Science Library. In recent years we have focused considerable time and attention toward developing a "virtual" or "digital" library by the year 1999. Some of these electronic efforts include:

  • implementing an Enterprise-Wide computing environment for staff workstations consisting of an integrated Windows NT/UNIX computing structure.
  • developing and mounting unique digital collections on the Web ( UCI Libraries Critical Theory Resource, UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive, and Martindale's Health Science Guide).
  • opening instructional labs and electronic classrooms in all three UCI library locations.
  • providing public access workstations with vendor card-activated printers for searching online catalogs and the Internet in the reference areas of the UCI libraries.
  • providing end-user training for non-traditional topics such as e-mail, Internet, and critical appraisal skills.
  • offering new electronic services such as: electronic reserves; "Self-checkout"; and electronic reference via email or electronic form on the Science Library Research and Instructional Services home page ( 

The project, Interactive Reference Service , therefore contributes to this library-wide strategic direction, and is part of a larger effort to use technology in new and innovative ways throughout the UCI Libraries.

2. Technology has Obvious Potential

The second reason we undertook the project is that desktop videoconferencing has the obvious potential for enhancing the quality of reference service we provide to users. It extends reference service beyond the Reference Desk into the local surroundings of student users where they work and study. The rationale was: if the technology works effectively, proves cost-effective to implement and maintain, and provides added value to existing reference services such as plain old telephone service (POTS); it could be of significant benefit to the remote user because it conveniently meets the individual user's needs at their "point-of-need" outside the library, or when it is not possible for them to come to library. This is in contrast to traditional reference services which require the user to come to the library in most instances.

3. Scant Data Available

Third, while interactive video has been around for quite some time, scant information is available on the costs and benefits of implementing videoconferencing technology in a reference setting. Zundel points out that interactive video has been used in medicine for consultation and diagnosis since the 1960s . (1) It is also commonly used for business meeting conferencing and distance education. It is only recently, however, with the advent of quality and inexpensive desktop videoconferencing, that libraries have begun to experiment with using the technology at the desk to directly communicate with remote users. (2,3) Given the limited information available, the science librarians wanted to generate data about the use of real-time, two-way televideo for interactive reference interviews. The data from the project will inform local library decision-making at UCI about its implementation on an on-going basis, and it may prove helpful to other reference librarians as well.

4. Equipment and Infrastructure Already in Place

Four, the UCI library already had most of the equipment and an intranet in place that could support the project with minimal additional costs. The Interactive Learning Center (ILC), the Science Library's computing center, supplied the equipment and software for the project. And our existing library network, administered by the Library's Systems Department, supports high-speed and reliable connections within the library and is connected to the campus FDDI backbone which provides high-speed networking to almost all buildings on the central campus.

5. Outreach Program for Medical Students was Needed

Five, the science librarians were looking for a client-centered outreach program specifically geared to meet the information needs of the medical students. Reference transactions with medical students had decreased recently after the closure of the Biomedical Library located at the College of Medicine complex. The medical library services and collections were moved in 1994 to the new Science Library which is located some distance away from the medical school. The outreach project with personalized service addressed the need to enhance direct communication between the science librarians and the medical students.

6. Demo Prompted Interest in Videoconferencing Technology

Last, after seeing a demonstration of a desktop videoconferencing program, the CU-SeeMe program, loaded on two MacIntosh computers in the ILC in 1996, several science librarians became interested in testing whether it could be effectively adapted to reference service. The technology appeared to be relatively simple to use, of reasonable quality, and inexpensive to implement. Videoconferencing technology also seemed fun to use.

Planning and Project Goals

The project officially began last fall shortly after seeing that initial demo. Curious about whether it could be effectively adapted to reference service, we requested that the ILC programmer install the software and equipment, i.e., CU-SeeMe software, camera, microphone, and video card, on a PC at the Reference Desk. We hoped to informally test the reliability and quality of the connection between the Reference Desk on the second floor and the ILC on the first floor of the Science Library. Our thinking at that time was the if the test was successful between two locations in the library, we would then identify a remote location outside the library, and continue testing the connection between the Reference Desk and that remote site. And if testing continued to go well with the remote site, we would then publicize the interactive reference service to users on a pilot basis. Moreover, once the service was established, we would then evaluate the project after a reasonable amount of time, and make a decision whether to discontinue the service, or operationalize and integrate the service into daily operations of the Reference Desk, or possibly expand the service to other sites if warranted.

During the pilot period we will analyze the following:

  • reliability of the technology
  • quality of communications (speed and quality of video images and sound)
  • whether conversations and/or interviews can be conducted effectively between sites
  • whether we are really helping users with their research needs
  • whether the service provides additional functionality to normal phone service
  • document user and staff reactions to the technology and important technical and services issues encountered
  • AND explore how best to integrate the new service into the daily workflow at the desk without increasing staff.

Initial Testing of CU-SeeMe Program at the Science Reference Desk

As it turned out, the initial video/audio connection between the PC at the Reference Desk on the second floor and another PC located in the ILC on the first floor of the Science Library, was NOT successful. Both machines were running on Windows 3.1 with PC/TCP. We encountered numerous hanging and dropping problems, and the quality of the video and audio connections was poor also. Because of these problems we decided to remove the software on the PC at the Science Reference Desk, and install instead a Macintosh computer solely devoted to the videoconferencing project at the desk. (4) The equipment change and new software proved substantially more reliable, and both the video images and the sound were also improved. By January 1997 we had achieved a somewhat stable and workable videoconferencing environment and were ready to proceed to the next step of securing a non-library conferencing partner on campus.

College of Medicine (COM) Partnership

Even with this rather limited experience and testing period, we felt confident to approach a non-library campus partner who we hoped would agree to co-host the interactive project. This would involve setting-up and designating a computer station equipped with videoconferencing technology in a public area of a campus lab for students to talk with the reference staff in the Science Library. As it turned out, the technical staff and the Director of the COM Academic Computing Center, were delighted to participate in the project. Coincidentally, they had recently installed CU-SeeMe software on one of the MacIntosh computers in the COM lab and were looking for a conferencing partner as well.

Preparations Prior to Starting


During the first two weeks of January 1997 the ILC and COM programmers and several science reference staff, conducted numerous videoconferencing tests between the Reference Desk and the COM computer lab. These initial tests proved successful. A team of science librarians who volunteered to participate in the program received training from the ILC programmer on how the technology worked, how to establish a connection to the COM computer, and how to use various features of CU-SeeMe software such as the chat tool and shared whiteboard. The programmer also configured the Power MacIntosh, upon boot-up, to position the windows in such a way as to be convenient for librarians to work with the video images and various tools including two important online public catalogs, ANTPAC and MELVYL. Scheduling and various service considerations were also being worked out and finalized during this period. In addition to these activities, the public start date for the service was publicized to the medical students. User instructions, posters, signage, and a banner announcing the new service were also placed in the COM computer lab.

Since February 1997 the team of librarians has used a new desktop videoconferencing product called Apple VideoPhone Kit. The new program which includes the software, a camera, and a microphone improved the quality of the video communications. It also provides a color conferencing capability, a faster connection to the Internet, and has a document-sharing capability called the Timbuktu program. Shortly the team will experiment using Timbuktu. Team members believe eventually that sharing applications while speaking to users remotely, will be an important benefit, if not the most important benefit, of using the technology.

Service Considerations


The Science Reference Desk is staffed between the hours 10am-8pm Monday-Thursday, 10am-5pm Friday, and 1pm-5pm Saturday and Sunday, and provides reference assistance in all fields of science including the biological and physical sciences, as well as medicine, engineering, and computer science. A librarian/library assistant partnering program has been in place for almost two years in which a librarian and a library assistant are scheduled to serve together at the desk during peak activity hours between 10am-5pm Monday-Friday. The librarian and the library assistant each have a computer at the desk providing access to ANTPAC, our local online catalog; MELVYL®, the University of California's catalog and collection of bibliographic databases; and the World Wide Web through Netscape.

Addition of Interactive Reference Service

As mentioned above, an important project goal is to ultimately integrate the interactive reference service into our regular reference desk functions which include drop-in service, phone reference, consultation-by-appointment, and electronic reference. However, for the purposes of this exploratory project, we decided to make the service available one hour a day during week days. The hour between 2pm-3pm , Monday-Friday, was selected initially because this seemed to be a peak activity time in the medical computing lab. An additional librarian was scheduled to provide the IRS service during this hour. Five librarians volunteered to participate in the Interactive Reference Service project and they became a project team with each person serving an hour per week.

During the IRS video reference hour a librarian and a library assistant are stationed at their respective desks, each with a computer at their disposal to handle normal reference activities. An additional librarian sits at a third specially configured Macintosh computer next to the two other librarians with a microphone and camera ready for interactive video transactions with the students in the medical computing lab .

Computer lab photo Service Operations

About five minutes before the hour, the librarian sits down at the Macintosh computer, making sure all systems are active including the interactive video windows, MELVYL®, ANTPAC, and Netscape sessions. At first it was necessary to call the consultant at the medical computing lab to have him initialize an interactive video session. Later the station was preset at the medical computing lab, so each librarian could open a session without making a phone call and staff intervention. The computer in the medical computing lab was also configured to easily open MELVYL®/Medline, ANTPAC, and Netscape sessions. At UC Irvine, Medline is available on the MELVYL® System. Any university computer can access the full MELVYL®/Medline database by opening up a telnet session. A web version of MELVYL® has also recently become available.

Before the IRS service began, each librarian received instructions on how to launch the video system and use the various features. Written instructions were also available at the Macintosh station for consultation. A video reference log was also placed at the station so that the librarian would write a brief description of the reference transaction, note technical problems that occurred, and make comments about the success or failure of the session.

Promotion and Publicity

In order to attract medical students to the IRS service, a large banner and other signage were placed near the IRS workstation in the medical computing lab. A library assistant also designed a large poster for the area which stated:

Reference signageNeed help with your P/D II courses?
Need help with Medline searches?
Need help locating books and journals in the Science Library?
Ask a Medical Librarian!
Try the new Interactive Reference Service in the MACC
Daily from 2:00-3:00pm

This signage was posted with the hope that students in the lab communicating on email, using MELVYL®/Medline, or doing research on the Web, would see the signs and be intrigued enough to sit down and ask a question. During the first week, several students looked curiously at the video window, giggled, stuck out their tongue, or expressed their amusement. But no one actually sat down to interact with a librarian until the following week. The librarian and the consultant in the medical computing lab used that week to communicate and test the set-up each day and to become more comfortable with the system.

Lab Photo By the second week of service, students began to sit down and interact with the librarians. Shortly after, the team sent an e-mail announcement about the new IRS service to all first- and second-year medical students as it became evident that signage alone would not bring in a significant number of students to try the service. The e-mail announcement asked for volunteers to participate in the exploratory phase of our project. Volunteers were asked to call the department and make an appointment for a video reference consultation on a specific date and time during the month of February 1997. Participants would also be treated to a pizza party with the project team in March 1997, and a drawing for a gift certificate from the campus bookstore which would be the finale of the party. This initiative attracted ten student volunteers. Throughout the month of February, we had a number of lengthy reference transactions with these participants. Most of the sessions lasted 30-45 minutes.

Desktop Video Conferencing Features

The first few minutes of each session is usually spent with the librarian advising the student on how to adjust the camera angle and the headphones and how to use the many features of the Apple Video Phone Kit including the audio, video, chat windows, and the whiteboard.

Video Conferencing sampleClick image for detailed view


Conversations between the sites are conducted by using a small microphone that is mounted on each computer so the participants can speak to each other. Initially, the librarians relied on the speaker in the CPU to listen to the student partner. However, the sound quality was so poor that headphones were purchased for each participant. The sound quality improved dramatically, however, a slight sound delay still exists which makes conversing a bit difficult at times. When one person starts to talk, the voice of the other is cut off; so each of the participants have to adhere to a protocol of only one person talking at a time.


The Apple Video Phone Kit comes with a color camera which transmits high quality images. The image is very crisp, clear, and natural although somewhat choppy when transmitting to the remote location. Both the video image and the audio quality can be adjusted with on-screen controls manipulated by the mouse which mimic the controls on a radio or TV.

Chat Window

The chat window which is available with the video software proved to be extremely useful during the project. Sometimes the audio transmission is of poor quality. Some students also feel uncomfortable with the audio. Often complex terminology and concepts is more understandable when both parties can see each other's words spelled out on the screen. The chat window also lets the participants copy and paste text into the chat window. This feature was particularly helpful when explaining MELVYL®/Medline search strategies (for example, the librarian could perform a search in her MELVYL® /Medline window, then paste the search or reference into the chat window for the student to see).


Finally, the shared whiteboard also turned out to be another useful feature of the Apple Phone Kit. It allows the participants to actually draw images on the whiteboard, and copy and paste text in the same manner as in the chat window. The whiteboard can also copy, paste, and display graphic images, even web pages, so that images can be shared by the both participants.

Reference Transactions

As expected, the reference assistance requested by the medical students has focused on Medline searching. During the month of February, the medical students started a module in their case-based learning curriculum where they needed to find research articles in geriatrics. Interactive video proved to be very conducive to advising the students of effective Medline searching strategies. After the student explained what was needed on Medline (for example, articles on "phantom pain"), the librarian would quickly try a few keywords or look for the appropriate subject headings in Medline, then paste the subject headings, search steps, or complete references onto the whiteboard for the student to see right away. In most sessions, there is a combination of verbal interchange as well as sharing of textual information. Being able to see the video image of the person on the other end of the connection adds a personal and friendly aspect to the interchange.

Preliminary Evaluation

After the first three months of experimenting with desktop video conferencing in a reference setting, the following observations can be made:

  1. Feedback from our student volunteers at the promised pizza party was very positive; the students were excited by the innovative and "high tech" aspects of the service which is somewhat similar to telemedicine. They liked the convenience of getting reference help right in the medical computing lab without the need to come the Library. They were very appreciative of our effort to reach out to them with a special service.
  2. On the other hand, the students suggested that the IRS workstation be placed in a separate room or enclosure so that they would be less distracting to other computer lab users. They said that more extensive publicity and promotion would bring many more students to the service. They expressed interest in receiving assistance with Internet searching as well as Medline help. They complained that after the video reference encounter, it was still necessary to come to the library, find the journals, and make photocopies of the articles. Expectations have been raised that high tech document delivery of full-text articles will follow soon.
  3. The librarians on the project team have suggested some technical improvements:
    • A larger monitor (16" monitor is currently used) would be useful since we have multiple windows open during a session.
    • An audio cue to alert the librarian when someone is ready to ask us a question would be helpful so the librarian does not have to continually look at the monitor.
    • Purchasing a headset with a built-in microphone to replace the stand-alone microphone and headphones we are currently using, would improve the audio quality even further and allow participants to speak in a softer, more natural tone.
  4. Other observations include:
    • The initial self-consciousness some librarians and students experience at first with their video image being displayed on the screen, quickly goes away, and people actually like being able to see the person on the other end.
    • The video conferencing service provides a pleasant opportunity for librarians to introduce themselves to the users and for users to become acquainted with the librarians.
    • Desktop videoconferencing technology has advantages over the telephone reference service; the primary advantage is the capability of displaying text and graphical images.
    • A technical person is needed at the remote site who can trouble shoot when problems arise.
If the pilot project proves successful, it is our plan to merge the IRS service into regular reference desk activities and to fully integrate video interactions with drop-in and phone reference service. Several questions, however, still remain to be answered. What impact will the addition of video conferencing service have on the current staffing configuration? What is the right balance of staff to handle the variety of services. The librarians will also need to establish priority guidelines to manage the demands from all these services. Can the video reference sessions be incorporated into our regular consultation-by-appointment service? Will staff be able to adequately serve the remote users and still provide quality service to on-site and phone users? Will remote users be willing to wait while the librarian serves the person at the desk? Likewise, will on-site users understand and wait while the librarian consults with a user through the computer?

Future Plans

Overall, we are very encouraged by the preliminary results of our interactive video experiment and plan to continue the test phase thought the fall quarter 1997. We will also be extending video reference service to the computing lab at the UCI Medical Center Library located 15 miles away from our main campus at the University's teaching hospital. This remote connection will test the viability of offering the video service to a distant location using a high speed T-1 dataline to connect to the UCI Medical Center network.

We will also begin testing the usefulness of the Timbuktu software which has the capability of sharing applications which are running. This will allow the librarian to log into, and work on the same Medline session as the remote user. We think this feature has great potential as a consulting and instructional tool. Despite the various problems we encountered, our experience and positive user reactions to the service have convinced us that desktop video conferencing does have great potential in reference settings when there is a need to deliver information to remote users.


The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the technical efforts of Sam Sapoznick, Bob Schreiner, Warren Yang, and Mark Golesorkhi. We were fortunate in being able to tap the expertise of the other talented and dedicated IRS Team members: Barb Lucas, Sandra Martin, and John Sisson. Special thanks are also due to Shirley Leung, Assistant University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services, UCI Libraries, and Kenneth Longmuir, PhD, Assistant Dean of Educational and Curricular Resources, for their advice and assistance.


  1. Karen M. Zundel, "Telemedicine: history, applications, and impact on librarianship," Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 84 (Jan. 1996): 71-79.
  2. Ruth A. Pagell, "The virtual reference librarian: using desktop videoconferencing for distance reference," Electronic Library 14 (Feb. 1996):21-26.
  3. Karen Westwood, "Lights! Camera! Action!" American Libraries (Jan.1997):43-45.
  4. Power MacIntosh 7100/80 specifications: 80 MHz, 16 MB RAM, 700 MB Hard Drive, Mac OS 7.5.5. Apple VideoPhone version 1.5 uses an Ethernet/T1 connection.