Digital reference: what the past has taught us and what the future will hold.

Author:Zanin-Yost, Alessia

In his 1876 paper, "Personal Relations Between Librarians and Reader," Samuel Green wrote that it is essential to provide reference assistance to help users locate information because the public is not trained to find information (Bopp & Smith, 2001). By the end of the nineteenth century, the role of the librarian had expanded to include reference service, and it has been part of the profession since then. In the interim, great advances have been made in the field of librarianship. New technologies change the way we search for information and what we expect from reference service. With the introduction of the computer and the Internet, libraries expanded the role of reference beyond the use of the mail, telephone, or the fax machine. However, Green's point remains pertinent: having access to sophisticated technology and more information does not mean that users have better research skills.

In the past ten years, libraries have become both more sophisticated and more dependent on new technologies. For example, libraries migrated from card catalogs to online catalogs. With so many changes in the profession, reference service has also changed. Today, librarians not only help patrons at the reference desk but also in cyberspace. This new type of service, called digital or virtual reference, has emerged as the result of various factors, including the advent and wide use of the Internet and the development of software capable of providing synchronous and asynchronous service. Digital/virtual reference is quite new, but has quickly become popular because of demands by patrons to access information anytime, anywhere.

Digital/virtual reference service allows librarians to help patrons access information in a virtual environment, using various methods such as e-mail or chat. Each type of service has positive and negative features. Although digital reference lacks the face-to-face communication that is an integral part of reference service, the reference techniques used and the scope of the librarian's role have remained the same.

This paper discusses issues related to the use of digital/virtual reference in academic libraries in the U.S. The first section clarifies the terms "digital reference" and "virtual reference," which are often used interchangeably, and explains the slight difference between the two. The second section provides a brief history of the evolution of digital reference. Section three explains how digital reference works, and section four discusses the implications for users and librarians. The last section offers speculations about the future potential for digital/virtual reference.

Digital or Virtual?

The interchangeability of the terms "digital reference" and "virtual reference" and their relative newness have caused some confusion for both the novice and the veteran in reference service. With the advent of the Internet, libraries began to offer online services to their users. One of the simplest types of digital/virtual reference service is online access to the library's catalog. Digital/virtual reference service developed from the interest in using available technology to provide better access for users. Patrons can be assisted remotely and, in many cases, 24 hours every day of the week.

Digital/virtual reference is a new system, and many issues surround it. Some are being resolved, while others need more attention, including clarification of the terminology. Many dictionaries offer the same definitions for "virtual" and "digital". According to the Merriam-Webster, "virtual" is something that it is not physical, but is made real with the aid of a computer, while "digital" involves the use of computer technology in capturing, storing, and providing information. Both virtual and digital reference make use of the computer to provide information. But do they mean the same things?

Lipow (2003) writes that at the present time there is not a clear use of the words "digital" and "virtual" in the context of reference service and that both are used with the same meaning. She and others in the field agree that digital reference includes a variety of electronic resources, like e-mail or chat, that provide reference service using the Internet. Lipow's statement is consistent with the definitions that others give the terms.

Some professionals simply define the terms "digital reference" and "virtual reference" as similar in service and scope (Borchardt & Croud, n.d.). Others provide a more specific explanation. Kenney (2002) says that digital reference is also "called chat reference, virtual reference, online reference, and synchronous reference" (p. 46). Lankes and Shostack (2000) write that digital, virtual, and e-reference are the same type of service and that they all use librarians as intermediaries to assist users in finding information in a digital environment. Most authors provide examples of digital and virtual reference. For example, the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) (2001) defines digital reference, virtual reference, and online reference as using either synchronous technology, like chat, and/or asynchronous tools, such as e-mail, to provide and assist in the retrieval and use of information.

The Washington State library (n.d.) defines virtual reference as a service that encompasses many electronic aids all having in common the use of the Internet. Some use e-mail, videoconferencing, mail lists, and chat rooms as examples of virtual reference (Gray, 2000); however, many authors prefer to use only e-mail and chat as examples (Fritch & Mandernack, 2001; Francoeur, 2002).

Janes, Carter, and Memmott (1999) define digital reference as, "a mechanism by which people can submit their questions and have them answered by a library staff member through some electronic means (e-mail, chat, Web forms, etc.), not in person or over the phone" (para. 7). Kasowitz, Bennett and Lankes (2000), Wasik (1999), and White (2001) define digital reference as Internet-based services that use humans as mediators.

Throughout the literature, the terms digital and virtual are applied to the use of computer-based technology. Library professionals use both terms, and everyone agrees that digital/virtual reference is a new type of service based on the same question-and-answer type of assistance provided in traditional in-person reference.

Sloan (2002), who has been active in the field of digital reference for many years and has worked with the academic Ready for Reference project in the Alliance Library System in Illinois, writes:

online or virtual or digital reference services, i.e., the provision of reference services, [involves] collaboration between library user and librarian, in a computer-based medium. These services can utilize various media, including e-mail, Web forms, chat, video, Web customer call center software, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), etc. (2002, para 1). Sponsored by the Department of Education, the Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) is committed to the progress of digital reference and the development of Internet services. VRD provides this definition of digital reference:

Digital/virtual reference, or "AskA", services are Internet-based question-and-answer services that connect users with experts and subject expertise. Digital reference services use the Internet to connect people with people who can answer questions and support the development of skills (2002, para. 2). There is no consensus on which term to use. Digital or virtual reference provides the same type of service: it allows users to access information and assistance online, using e-mail, chat, video, voice software, or any other Internet technology. "Digital reference" will be used for the remainder of this paper.

History of Digital Reference

Reference service began in the late nineteenth century, and it defined the role of the librarian as a provider of information, assistance, and instruction (Bopp & Smith, 2001). These services have not changed. What has changed is how librarians provide these services. Today, librarians not only help patrons in-person but also virtually. It is important to briefly discuss the development of the Internet while talking about the evolution of digital reference, since the latter would not exist without the former.

Online technology developed in the early 1960s, but did not receive much attention until the 1980s. Early computer systems, such as BOLD, designed by Harold Borko in 1964, provided a glimpse of the possibilities for the retrieval of information (Hahn, 1996). During this early period, libraries became interested in developing a system that would allow them to retrieve information faster and more accurately. To demonstrate the potential for the use of computers in libraries, the American Library Association (ALA), in collaboration with Joseph Becker and Robert Hayes, developed a system that allowed users to search a bibliographic database through a computer using a standard telephone line. The device was presented at the 1964 New York World's Fair in the Library/USA exhibit. The equipment allowed the librarians to provide answers to 800,000 questions in 18 months (Hahn, 1996). These first systems were difficult to use and costly to maintain, and did not provide enough incentive for companies to invest in something they believed was not going to be marketable. However, not...

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