Guest Editorial: Virtual Reference, Today and Tomorrow
Since implementing a live online reference service in January, the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries has been inundated with queries from librarians wanting to know how it's going. Clearly, virtual reference is currently a hot topic in libraries, with everyone moving their reference services online and looking to learn from others who have ventured into this new territory. At the same time, although we have just begun to experiment, we have been at it long enough to begin asking ourselves what works well, what we could be doing better, and what we would like to see in new virtual reference technologies. This issue provides readers with reports from pioneers of various online services, takes a look at problems yet to be solved, and attempts to imagine what virtual reference might be in the future.
Josh Boyer, Reference Librarian for Distance Learning at the NCSU Libraries, gives an overview of one academic library's solutions to the shared problems of staffing, choosing software, and getting used to online chat as a new mode of communication. Problems that still need to be resolved include how to best attend to multiple simultaneous live requests (from phone and chat), the need for expanded hours ("'9 to 5' won't cut it"), and well-thought-out policies for protecting the privacy of patron transcripts. Josh concludes with the claim that we need to reexamine the way our library Web sites and catalogs are designed. The virtual reference desk may help those patrons who are willing to use it, but we should optimize our virtual environment to give those who won't ask reference questions a better chance of helping themselves.
Temple University libraries, one of the early adopters of virtual reference technology, began its online chat service in November 1998. Sam Stormont's article describes the history of this project, including Temple's experiences using homegrown virtual reference software (developed by students in Temple's computer and information sciences department). He discusses their ongoing experiments with different staffing models and shares the results of their research into various software packages. The Temple service currently receives approximately twenty-five to thirty questions per week, about twice the number it received when the service began.
At the Florida Distance Learning Reference and Referral Center (RRC), librarians have begun experimenting with real-time online library instruction using a chat room as a virtual classroom. Rachel Viggiano and Meredith Ault describe their experiences and share tips and strategies for making online teaching and learning sessions successful. The software used by the RRC, ConferenceRoom Professional Edition by WebMaster, allows RRC staff to create new channels or "chat rooms" and to move users from one room to another, a feature that has proven helpful for managing large classes online. Other successful strategies involve the use of prewritten scripts and additional staff as classroom "helpers."
Diane Nester Kresh describes a different sort of experiment in taking reference into cyberspace, the Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS) launched by the Library of Congress. Looking at public demand for both physical libraries and online reference, she concludes that librarians have strengths to bring to the online environment that will give us an edge over Web search engines. Collaborative reference offers a way to take advantage of individual librarians' subject expertise and the power of local library collections while providing the 24-7, one-stop-shopping convenience of the Web. The CDRS offers a viable model for how librarians and libraries can survive economically and reinvent themselves to meet their customers' increasing expectations for instantaneous delivery of information.
Developing policies and procedures, deciding who does what, and creating an efficient workflow are perhaps the most difficult parts of getting any new virtual reference service off the ground. A useful tool would be a model of virtual reference that librarians could use to help develop new services as well as critically examine current services to determine how they could be made more efficient and successful. Michael McClennan and Patricia Memmott of the Internet Public Library give us such a model in their article titled, "Roles in Digital Reference." The roles they define and describe are illustrated with case studies of the Internet Public Library's Ask a Question Service, the Saskatchewan Libraries' Ask Us! online reference service, and the Virtual Reference Desk Network sponsored by the United States Department of Education.
With all of the advantages of taking reference online, there remain plenty of problems with the technology currently available for doing so. Generally developed for e-commerce applications, the software lacks many functions that would help make online reference work effective. Steve Coffman, in his article "We'll Take It from Here," presents a wish list of developments we'd like to see in virtual reference software. Improved co-browsing and collaboration is on the list, as is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as a way to overcome the limitations of chat as a medium for conducting reference transactions. Steve suggests ways in which virtual reference technology could improve the efficacy of collaborative reference and describes a vision in which reference librarians create their own evolving online reference resources using the technology's ability to capture the work we do each time we answer a reference question.
The world of virtual reference is changing rapidly. New technologies will continue to arise that can be creatively adapted to our unchanging goal of providing patrons the information they want, regardless of location or format and in the most convenient way possible. It will be interesting to look back upon this time in five years (or even one or two) and see which solutions proved most promising and which were abandoned. If the articles in this issue are any indication, it will be an exciting period of continuing transformation. I look forward, with the rest of you, to helping create what happens next.
Karen Ciccone ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Head of the Natural Resources Library at the North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh.