Perceptions of Digital Reference
by Larissa Gordon, Master of Science in Library & Information Science Candidate, Drexel University
As library resources began to move into the world of the Internet, many libraries realized the need for a method of assisting patrons in this new virtual environment. Virtual reference services were formed to meet this need. However, despite their similar function, there are many differences between virtual reference and traditional desk reference transactions. This paper will describe the perceptions of librarians and patrons concerning virtual reference services, paying particular attention to chat reference services. The conclusion to this paper will focus on the need to include virtual reference as a topic of study in library schools so librarians will be better prepared to cope with the challenges posed by the new technology and new patron base.
Over the course of the last few years libraries and library resources have increasingly moved online. Many library databases and special collections are easily accessible by computer, and patrons can manage their library accounts from the comfort of their own homes. However, amidst all these technological advances it must be remembered that "technology and information resources on their own cannot make up an effective digital library"(Sloan, 1998). Something more is needed, specifically, a convenient method of helping patrons in this new and sometimes confusing virtual environment. As a response to this need many libraries have extended their traditional desk reference services to include virtual (or digital) reference services. The challenge for virtual reference services has been to discover an effective way to transfer the reference skills of librarians and the "human touch" of traditional reference service into an environment where the librarian and patron do not come into physical contact with each other (Sloan, 1998).
While libraries have experimented with many methods of providing virtual reference this essay will focus almost exclusively on chat reference services. Chat reference comes close in many ways to approximating a traditional reference transaction, but significant differences remain. In light of these differences, and of the growing importance of the virtual world in librarianship, a discussion of virtual reference services and techniques should be included in the library school curriculum at the same time that traditional reference services and techniques are discussed. Doing this would better prepare future librarians for the reality they will face on the job.
Virtual reference, like traditional reference, occurs when a trained professional helps a patron meet an information need. Where virtual reference differs from traditional reference is in the methods of communication used in the interaction between the librarian and patron. Virtual reference, as defined in 2004 by the Machine Assisted Reference Section committee of the American Library Association, is a reference transaction that takes place, at least initially, via an electronic medium. The virtual reference staff member is able to communicate with a patron through the use of a computer via the internet without needing to be physically present in the same location as the patron during the reference transaction. Methods of communication that can and have been used during a virtual reference transaction include e-mail, instant messaging, chat, co-browsing, videoconferencing, and voiceover IP (Machine Assisted Reference Services Ad Hoc Committee on Virtual Reference, 2004). Using electronic sources, such as the internet or online databases, to find information does not, in and of itself, constitute virtual reference.
Librarians have been writing about the topic of virtual reference since the mid 1980's when the advent of the internet and commercial e-mail enabled patrons to use that medium to contact librarians with reference questions.(1,2) This form of asynchronous reference service had its challenges, which were discussed in many articles over the years.3 Virtual reference was limited to this medium until the late 1990's when the development of chat software enabled electronic reference transactions to be conducted synchronously in real time, mirroring the interaction that occurred when a patron talked with a librarian at the reference desk (Janes, Fall 2002). Slowly this form of reference gained in sophistication as simple text only chat programs were replaced with software that enabled librarians and patrons to co-browse, or search web pages over the internet together (Francoeur, 2001). However, as was the case with e-mail reference, this form of reference service also has its unique peculiarities.
In his 2001 survey of chat reference services, Stephen Francoeur provides an excellent basic overview of chat technology. His article can help introduce those who are unfamiliar with virtual reference technologies to the world of possibilities that are available to libraries. Francoeur discusses several technologies that libraries are currently using, but the two that are the most popular are chat software and web contact center software (Francoeur, 2001). Chat software, the simplest real-time virtual technology available, supports only the exchange of text messages between a librarian and a patron. AOL Instant Messenger, a very popular freeware chat application, is such a program. Web contact center software, on the other hand, is much more advanced and much more expensive than other simpler technologies. Its sophistication allows for a host of functions in addition to chat capabilities, the most distinguishing of which is its co-browsing ability.
With over 700 works listed in his online bibliography, Bernie Sloan's Digital Reference Page shows us that there are plenty of articles to choose from when researching the topic of virtual reference. The literature written about virtual reference and its applications is, as a whole, quite varied. Many articles are theoretical in nature, discussing general trends in virtual reference service, the benefits and drawbacks of this type of reference transaction, and ideas concerning the future of virtual reference services (Janes, Fall 2002). Other articles, written by practicing librarians, describe the very real issues and challenges libraries face in attempting to adopt virtual reference services at their own libraries (Ronan, 2003). In a similar vein many articles discuss existing virtual references services. These articles do such things as analyze the benefits of the service, relate the reactions of users and librarians to the service, give statistical data obtained from user studies, and test methods of analyzing and evaluating the success of virtual reference services (Schneider, 1997; Janes, Digital Reference: Reference Librarian's Experiences and Attitudes, 2003; Broughton, 2003; Carter & Janes, 2000.). A few articles in the collective virtual reference literature also focus on the technologies that make virtual reference possible and the challenges those technologies pose to librarians and users (Penka, 2003; Francoeur, 2001). Finally, there is a significant selection of articles which focus on the reference interview in the digital environment (Bowman, 2002). Many of the articles that discuss these topics also talk in some way or another about the differences between traditional reference services and virtual reference services. However, few focus entirely on this concept, and even fewer actually contain quantitative studies conducted by librarians which compare the two types of reference services.4 While a scientific study is beyond the scope of this paper, it does survey current research on virtual reference that applies to the perception of librarians and patrons regarding the service. These perceptions will show that virtual reference is a unique entity and that special training is required in order to conduct these transactions effectively.
Perspectives on Virtual Reference
The growth of the internet has changed much about our society's culture, including the traditional library. Reference desk transactions before the age of the internet were traditionally very hierarchical in nature. The librarian, as the keeper of all knowledge, maintained that hierarchical relationship with the user, "functioning as a gatekeeper" to the library's resources, the library being one of the few places where a user could get help before the proliferation of the internet (Wilson, 2000). According to Wilson (2002), users who were psychologically comfortable with hierarchical relationships benefited from this transaction. These users actively sought help from librarians, while users who tended to have independent and egalitarian personalities were often uncomfortable asking for help this way and consequently avoided the reference desk altogether. However, "in the post-Internet age of decentralized and distributed information resources, reference librarians no longer have a franchise as sole providers of information at the reference desk." (Wilson 2000) The hierarchical nature of the librarian patron relationship has been changed as librarians are no longer the absolute gatekeepers they once were. In this new environment the independent individuals who avoided the reference desk before are now comfortable asking a librarian for help over the internet, the anonymity of the internet being a great equalizer. Users who were more comfortable with the traditional hierarchical model might not be best served in the virtual arena, but now at least each type of patron has an option suited for their personality and preference.
Interaction with users during the virtual reference process poses several challenges to reference librarians. One challenge inherent in virtual reference is the fact that certain types of questions, particularly "complex reference inquiries from users" are harder to answer in the virtual environment (Francoeur, 2001; Grey, 2000). These questions require that in depth reference interviews be conducted, which is hard to do virtually for reasons that will be elaborated upon later in this article. The idea that certain questions are more difficult to answer is particularly true for questions where print sources provide the best or only source of information to the patron. Virtual patrons are much more reluctant to use print sources because it would make visiting the library a necessity, and many patrons sign onto virtual services to avoid having to do just that (Francoeur, 2001). If a librarian tells a patron that they need to go to the physical library that patron might become annoyed or upset with the librarian. This is because users of virtual reference systems have very high expectations of the service which can often cause them to be demanding and impatient (Francoeur, 2001). Many of them believe that the librarian should be able to provide answers to any question instantly, and most importantly, provide those answers in a digital format - something that is not always possible. The unique perceptions of virtual reference patrons and the unique difficulties inherent in answering patrons queries using chat technologies makes it important to begin educating library students about virtual reference transactions, so they can be prepared to handle virtual reference questions properly upon graduation.
Communicating virtually can also be very challenging independent of the reference transaction. While the slower pace of chat reference can allow for more in depth reflection upon the conversation, pauses that are too long can be awkward. These long pauses often cause individuals on one side of the reference transaction to feel uncomfortable because they are unsure of what the other person is doing. Patrons can be turned off by this because they will often become impatient if the librarian waits too long to respond and cancel the reference transaction (Nielson, Bakker, 2002). Similarly, chat interactions that take a long time to complete can make patrons feel uncomfortable. This is especially true when the librarian fails to explain what he/she is doing during the transaction (Nielson, 2004). Librarians are often likely to forget to do this in the virtual arena because it takes much longer to type a statement than it does to simply speak that statement aloud. The more librarians type, the longer the reference transaction takes, causing librarians to potentially fall behind in their work and to keep other patrons waiting. While using scripted messages does help, not everything in the reference transaction can be scripted. As a result, librarians tend to be brief and to the point when speaking to patrons virtually. However, since humans rely heavily on visual and auditory cues when interacting with each other to determine how to best interpret a person's statements, and because these visual and auditory cues are lacking in chat reference, the patron can and often will interpret seemingly innocent statements as critical or negative. Terse statements are more likely to be interpreted this way (Nielson, 2004). As a result, reference librarians must make an effort to assure the patron that they are working hard to answer the patron's question. For librarians to successfully serve their patrons they must become comfortable interacting in this manner. Starting this process during library school, especially for older library students who are less familiar with chat technologies, would help librarians become comfortable with chat reference and more open to its use.
Conclusion: Library Schools & Virtual Reference
Librarians answering questions in the virtual arena are engaging in the same basic activity as librarians working in a more traditional setting. Virtual librarians use many of the same skills and techniques as their reference desk counterparts to help their patrons find the answers to their information needs. However, this does not mean that a librarian who is successful in giving traditional reference assistance will be equally as adept at helping patrons virtually. Virtual reference is different in many ways from a traditional desk reference. This difference is keenly perceived by librarians who have to cope with technical and communication issues unique to virtual reference. Virtual librarians must also deal with a new type of independent user and their demanding expectations and perceptions of the service they are utilizing.
1: Based on a survey of articles in the Bernie Sloan's Digital Reference Services Bibliography http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~b-sloan/digiref.html . This bibliography and other information available online at Bernie Sloan's Digital Reference Pages http://www.lis.uiuc.edu/~b-sloan/bernie.htm are invaluable resources to anyone researching virtual reference. (return to paper)
2: It is interesting to note here that some articles cite electronic reference as having begun in the early to mid 90's. See Janes, Live Reference To Much To Fast, 2002 "users started to employ e-mail addresses to ask questions in the early and mid 90's." (return to paper)
3: Some of the earliest works to discuss this type of reference transaction, written in the days when this form of communication was still referred to as "electronic mail" are articles by Weise and Borgendale (1986) and Becki Whitaker, 1989. (return to paper)
4: Nilsen, 2004 "there are few studies of user perceptions that provide any comparative data for [physical reference desk] services and [virtual reference desk] services." Furthermore, while there are been studies of user perceptions conducted at university libraries, no studies were identified by Nilsen as having been conducted in public libraries. (return to paper)
Useful websites related to virtual reference
Bakker, Trix. (2002) Virtual reference services: connecting users with experts and supporting the development of skills. Liber Quarterly, 12. Retrieved Feb. 21, 2005 from http://webdoc.gwdg.de /edoc/aw/liber/lq-2-02/124-137.pdf
Bowman, Vibiana. (2002). The virtual librarian and the electronic reference interview. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 7(3). Retrieved Mar. 3, 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Broughton, Kelly M. (2003). Usage and user analysis of a real-time digital reference service. The Reference Librarian, no. 79/80. Retrieved Mar. 3, 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Carter, David S. and Janes, Joseph. (2000). Unobtrusive data analysis of digital reference questions and services at the internet public library: an exploratory study. Library Trends,
Francoeur, Stephen. (2001) An analytical survey of chat reference services. Reference Services Review, 29(3). Retrieved Feb. 21, 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Gray, Suzanne M. (2000, Summer).Virtual reference services directions and agendas. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 39(4). Retrieved Feb. 21, 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Janes, Joseph (2002, Fall). Live reference to much to fast. Net Connect. Retrieved Mar. 10, 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Janes, Joseph (2002). Digital reference: reference librarians' experiences and attitudes. The American Society For Information Science & Technology, 53(7). Retrieved Feb. 21, 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Machine Assisted Reference Services Ad Hoc Committee on Virtual Reference (2004, June). Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services. Retrieved Feb. 21, 2005 from http://www.ala.org/ala/rusa/ rusaprotools/referenceguide/virtual reference.pdf
Nilsen, Kirsti (2004, Jan). The library visit study: user experiences at the virtual reference desk. Information Research (9) Retrieved Feb. 21, 2005 from http://informationr.net/ir/9-2/paper171.html
Penka, Jeffrey T. (2003, Feb.) The technological challenges of digital reference. D-Lib Magazine, 9(2). Retrieved Feb. 21 2005 from http://www.dlib.org/dlib/february03/penka/ 02penka.html
Ronan, Jana. (2003). Staffing a real-time reference service the university of florida. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 8 (1/2). Retrieved Mar, 3 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Schneider, Karen G. (1997). A nice little digital library. American Libraries, 28. Retrieved Mar. 10 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Sloan, Bernie. (1998). Service perspectives for the digital library remote reference services. Library Trends, 47(1). Retrieved Feb. 21 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Weise, Freida O., and Marilyn Borgendale. EARS: Electronic access to reference service. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, (74). Retrieved Feb. 21 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database. Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Whitaker, Becki. (1989) Electronic mail in the library: a perspective. Library Trends, 37(3). Retrieved Feb. 21, 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
Wilson, Myoung C. (2000) Evolution or entropy? changing reference/user culture and the future of reference librarians. Reference & User Services Quarterly 39(4) Retrieved Mar, 3 2005 from Library and Information Science Abstracts database.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License