Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: The Virtual Reference Desk

Lina Coelho feels that digital reference has come of age and that this work is one of its adornments where reference information professionals are concerned.

Digital reference has come of age. Starting with tentative 'Ask us a question' e-mail services, it is now available in public, academic and specialist libraries. This dynamic area, which has already undergone major developments in the past few years, continues to grow and evolve.

Creating a Reference Future reflects the best of the contributions to the Fifth Annual Conference on the subject. The authors of the ten chapters included here are front-line librarians from a wide variety of backgrounds eager to share their experiences with colleagues. The first part of the book focuses on chat reference and offers advice based on experiences with teenagers in three state-wide services. It reports of shocked and offended librarians unused to teenage chat and gives valuable insights into their online behaviour. It is reassuring that inappropriate behaviour on the part of users is only relatively rare and that having a robust 'good-bye script' to push to rude users can resolve most problems. Relevant psychological commentary is mixed with useful tips and suggestions on how to deal with rude and impatient users. This is a valuable contribution to the virtual reference body of research which focuses mainly on questions of accuracy, efficiency or accounts of individual services.

Virtual reference provides a rich opportunity to move the relevant research agenda forwards because, unlike face-to-face encounters, it supplies effortless transcripts which can be analysed and mined for data. Although it is not entirely different from the traditional reference desk encounter, it requires librarians to develop different skills and to become accustomed to changing staffing patterns. Training programmes in virtual reference should, therefore, focus not only on software familiarisation but also on adapting communication skills to the e-medium. The cited research findings suggest that it is feasible to offer online virtual reference training, including different learning techniques to accommodate various learning styles. Vendor-specific training in using the software, which might still present difficulties, has to be supplemented by sessions dealing with the specifics of the virtual environment, including legal issues.

Staffing virtual reference desks presents a particular challenge and new models have to be developed which include offering a variety of online reference options - including e-mail, chat and traditional services. Depending on the context in which these are offered, there are possibilities for consortia and sharing workloads, as evidenced by the public library network experience in Denmark, where libraries take turns in participating in a consortium, as this is regarded both as a privilege and an opportunity for staff development. This allows productivity gains through multi-tasking and achieving significant outcomes.

Such developments inevitably require that measures for success be identified and setting performance targets is the subject of a study based at Vancouver Public Library. It looks at benchmarking, costs, transactions time and capacity. 'How many questions should we answer correctly and completely to be successful?' is the concern of all those running virtual reference desks as they struggle to record shifting patterns of use.

The opportunity of aggregating information on digital encounters permits the accumulation of large amounts of information which provide reliable data pools for research. The warehousing of digital reference transactions can accelerate the rate at which improvements in digital reference are delivered to clients.

The most interesting and inspiring articles for me were in the section on innovative approaches to creating a reference future. These ranged from the experience of Biblioteksvagten, where 200 Danish libraries in the public and academic sector co-operate to provide a quality service, to the attempts at the NASA Goddard Space Library to 'download' a librarian's brain onto a knowledge database and record his (and others') tacit knowledge on a system which supports the work of junior colleagues.

The experimental developments in information service delivery at the Orange County (Florida) Library System take the form of 'roving' reference or 'point-of-need reference instruction' taking advantage of Wi-Fi, using wireless communication units, and wireless computers - tablet and pocket PCs which take the reference desk to the user wherever he or she happens to be in the physical library space. There is also use of video conferencing for the assistance of users which improves communication and does not require the user and the librarian to share the same location.

The possibility of creating a virtual 'collaboratory' which facilitates 'active experiential learning' by offering a network of bulletin boards, online chat with Web cam, integrated calendar and open source on-line journals management, publishing and conference systems is a reality in Rutgers University and proving popular with students.

This is an inspirational volume, providing exciting and stimulating reading for any reference librarian and for those who are passionate about professional knowledge sharing and taking services to their clients. As our users become more and more experienced at surfing the Web and conduct every day more searches than they ask reference questions in a year, we have to learn to adapt and refine our offering in line with the technical opportunities offered by the constantly evolving options in cyberspace.

Author Details

Lina Coelho
The British Medical Association

Email: lina.coelho@bma.org.uk

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