I will admit that I used to be pretty down on virtual reference. When the notion that librarians could get on board with unsolicited virtual conversation first started, the grandiose nature of the uptake—punctuated by conferences, scholarly articles, and prolonged navel-gazing discussion of this supposed paradigm shift—made one think that librarians had invented online chat.
As with most things of this nature, a cottage industry emerged to support the library clamor for virtual reference (I know some vendors really hate it when I refer to their bread and butter as a cottage industry, but, well . . . tough). There are many solutions out there—Velaro, QuestionPoint,Tutor.com (more emphasis on the tutoring services these days, it appears), Docutek (a SirsiDynix company with emphasis on lots of other stuff), and probably a dozen more I don’t know about that are free to add themselves to comments on this post.
But now, rather than pretending to have invented chat, some libraries are reverse-engineering the best parts of the products that are out there. For instance, at MPOW, we found that co-browsing wasn’t really the greatest thing since sliced bread. In my opinion, the need to co-browse is a mark of a badly organized website. That is, if you have to walk someone through “how do I find articles?” then there is something more deeply wrong with your website than a failure to offer good virtual reference.
Why not simply IM? It’s not necessarily an offering that is mutually exclusive from virtual reference services, but it can be cheap (even $0) at startup, and popular. Several libraries, including mine, are offering IM service via multiple protocols—AIM, MSN, Google, etc. Others are taking things one step further by embedding the Meebo widget right into the “contact us” portion of the website. Here’s a list of libraries doing that.
Our profession has been talking a lot lately about centralization of cataloging efforts, digital library efforts, and even IT services. In retrospect, the conversation about centralized reference services was a bit premature, but a new distributed—but as yet unmanaged—infrastructure seems to be emerging. (Perhaps a new cottage industry opportunity?)
I have to admit that there’s a part of me that would love to sit down for an hour and just ask random questions about these things. If thousands of us could do it all at the same time, it would be great way to test the scale of virtual reference support. I love reference librarians because I’ve never met one who could resist even the most esoteric question.
What was the GDP of Paraguay in 1994 anyway? I’m gonna go play.
[This post originally appeared as part of American Libraries’ Hectic Pace Blog and is archived here.]