Virtually Virtual Reference

Posted On Sep 19 2007 by

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, (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.]

Last Updated on: January 19th, 2024 at 12:22 am, by Andrew K. Pace

Written by Andrew K. Pace

8 responses to “Virtually Virtual Reference

  1. I think it’s helpful if we think of ‘virtual reference’ as a channel for providing public service online and ‘IM’ and ‘Web-based chat’ as types of software tools to do it.

    I’d love for you to elaborate on the “distributed—but as yet unmanaged—infrastructure” you describe. One major VR vendor, QuestionPoint, could be said to provides a de facto national virtual reference service.

    Forgive me if it’s a rhetorical question, but it’s hard for me to resist – as to “Why not simply IM”, I think the lack of scalability and lack of access on school and library networks are the main reasons libraries are sticking with those “cottage industry” products.

  2. I’ve mentioned it before and will mention it again. I’ve long been curious in seeing a library combine some sort of knowledge management about personal specialties of their staff and an IM server like one of the Jabber ones.

    In theory you should be able to have a “switchboard” functionality, that is, someone can route IMs so to patrons they appear to be coming from one account, but librarians could switch and pass around who’s responding. They would be able to view the conversation in process and also know which one of their fellow employees on staff might be able to better answer the question, all through a combination of a web interface and IM client. Sadly, none of the Jabber servers seem very fun to develop fro. (I guess I’ll learn some Erlang if all else fails).

    It appears over the past few years there’s at least a few commercial entities that have developed systems like this, but a bit closer to the more the traditional phone service. There’s also somewhat expensive software packages that provide this functionality. Perhaps the system I’m envisioning is just a bit over the top and current solutions are good enough.

  3. I think the scalability issues that arise with going with free commercial software (as well as loss of statistical capabilities, etc.) are outweighed by their ease of use and familiarity. Until meebo came along, the one catch was that the patron needed an account. Now a patron can just “meebo” the library.

    Andrew, my one comment about your article is that co-browsing could in theory be used to help a user navigate someone else’s screwed-up site. I don’t think it’s enough of a benefit to warrant the expense and overhead of VR clients… but it’s not just about navigating the library’s website.

    Jon, I like your ideas, but I agree, the “good enough” solutions satisfice, and sometimes you gotta take the software and run with it.

  4. We use a jabber app at our library and also let people make us buddies using their chat accounts if that’s what they prefer. We don’t have a super busy reference desk, so we can do it as part of reference (and we can answer the phone, too!)

    I was skeptical about virtual reference when it was all the rage some years ago – as a superior alternative face to face reference (the new ECAR survey of undergrads and technology talks about how students do like the face to face connection in their learning) but students also like convenience, not surprisingly. I think you can finesse a bells-and-whistles product that doesn’t serve users simply because it’s not what they use.

    Our students tend to use chat when they’re trying to wrap up a project and want help with citations or when they’re running into tech difficulties in their dorm room. I’m not sure how they’d feel about asking if they thought they might get a random librarian out there rather than someone they’ve probably met … interesting question … but we rarely get questions via IM that are half as tricky as those that walk in on two feet, perhaps because students want help with their research, but think getting answers is their job and someone else finding the answer is cheating (though telling them how to find it is not). It’s probably different at public libraries.

  5. Andrew, thank you for the humble admission of conversion. Why not simply IM? Yes, why not? But, who will be answering those IM’s at 2 am? In a language other than English? With an MLS? I have yet to hear of an independent effort that is 24/7/365 and yet, that is what the market demands.

  6. In case you were wondering, “7,681,000” was the GDP of Paraguay in 1994. I knew I could count on someone. Thank you, James.

  7. I disagree that ease of use is more important than scalability. Not having to learn how to IM is a huge part of its success recently. It’s why we’ve put so much work into exploring the collaborative possibilities of open-source enterprise IM systems. But we can’t give up scalability if we want to see virtual reference grow.

    The promise of virtual reference is that the physical barriers to live service are broken down, through the magic of the internet. People flooding through our virtual doors will ask virtual questions. We’ll serve as many people live online as we do in person.

    So far, even with scalable systems, collaborative statewide services top out at 80,000-120,000 questions per year (we’re around 25,000), so we aren’t even close to realizing that promise yet.

    This is a very 1998 vision, I know, but the alternatives are ghastly to me. All this to serve 20 people a day? The horror!

    I’m also not seeing any other vision being articulated. This is why I’m interested in Andrew’s statement about a centralized and unmanaged infrastructure for reference. What the heck?! That sounds cool, please explain!