Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Digital reference services
Unlike traditional reference (see library reference desk), digital reference services allow patrons to submit questions and receive answers via the Internet and other electronic means. The users get connected with librarians or information professionals and receive direct assistance wherever and whenever they need it. In addition to answering questions, these information experts may also provide users with referrals to other online and print sources of information and support the development of skills such as information literacy. The terms "virtual reference", "digital reference", "e-reference", "Internet information service" and "AskA service" are used interchangeably to describe reference services that utilize computer technology in some way.
History of digital reference services
Initially created by libraries seeking to expand their services into the online environment, the digital reference model has been adopted by numerous types of organizations. While many digital reference and AskA services provide their services for free, another model has emerged that is effectively creating a marketplace for expert advice and services. These commercial AskA services exemplify a new sort of information exchange that uses the Internet to change the way information is delivered, and how knowledge may be bought and sold. The origins of digital reference service can be traced back to the 1980s. In 1984, the Electronic Access to Reference Service (EARS), launched by the University of Maryland Health Services Library in Baltimore, was one of the earliest digital reference services based on electronic mail. Worldwide-known digital reference services appeared in 1992 (AskERIC) and in 1995 (Internet Public Library). In recent years digital reference services have become effective resources for meeting the information needs of remote library users. Chat technologies, which enable users to communicate on the Internet with librarians in real time, have been used as far back as 1995.
Types of Digital Reference
Asynchronous digital reference service based on e-mail or Web forms involves communication with no expectation of receiving an immediate response from other communicators.
User sends the library an e-mail with a reference query, supplying whatever information he or she feels is necessary. The library may reply by e-mail, phone, fax, letter, etc.
- Web forms:
User fills out an online form on the library's web site. The form asks the user to answer clarifying questions that will help the reference librarian responding to the query. The user sends the completed form to the library. While e-mail reference allows the user to write down the query in his or her own words, a Web form structures the user's request somewhat, prodding the user to supply additional information that will specify the request.
Synchronous digital reference service such as chat provides reference nearly in real-time. Communication and interaction between patron and information professional is also known as live reference or real-time reference.
- Chat reference using simple technologies:
User exchanges short text messages back and forth with the librarian. There are three ways of running this kind of a service: with free, instant-messaging software, with a Web-based chat room or with chat software purchased by the library. With most of these services the user types in an opening query or greeting to get the attention of the librarian staffing the chat reference service. The user and librarian may exchange a series of short messages to get to the heart of the user's request. This exchange of messages is live (it takes place in real time) and allows for negotiation of the user's query.
- Chat reference using web contact center software:
A librarian can actually make the user's browser display a recommended web page, such as a search engine (with a suggested query typed in by the librarian!) or the homepage of the library's online catalog. As the librarian pushes pages onto the user's browser, the chat window can also appear on both user and librarian's screen, allowing them to have a typed conversation about the web pages being sent to the user.
Collaborative networks for reference
In this model, two or more libraries team up to offer reference service using any of the above online formats. The user would send to a member library his or her request, which would be forwarded to the library best able to answer the question. A library may get a question routed to it because it has particular strengths in its collection that match the needs of the user. Or a member library might get a question routed to it because it happens to be open when the user makes his or her request. For example, a user in New York who tries logging on at 3 a.m. Eastern time to the chat reference service of a member library in Boston could be automatically routed to a member library in Hawaii or Australia that, because of the time zone difference, is open. Most collaborative live reference services operate 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.
Digital Reference Services
Virtual Reference Desk (VRD)
The Virtual Reference Desk is a project dedicated to the advancement of digital reference and the successful creation and operation of human-mediated, Internet-based information services. VRD is sponsored by the United States Department of Education. The Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) Project coordinates a collaborative Internet-based question-and-answer-service. This service provides support to Ask-an-Expert (or AskA) services by accepting out-of-scope and overflow questions.
Internet Public Library (IPL)
The Internet Public Library, which exists only in a networked environment, started in 1995 as a student project at the University of Michigan School of Information. It was the first virtual Public Library on the Internet. As a public service organization, the IPL also serves as a learning and teaching laboratory. The IPL offers an annotated collection of high quality Internet resources and a reference service available via a Web form. This service is offered by a network of reference librarians (professional librarians as volunteers, and library students in training). The service is free of charge and open to the Internet community.
QuestionPoint, which started in 2002 as the "Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS)", is the leading Web-based collaborative reference service, developed by the Library of Congress and OCLC (Online Computer Library Center). QuestionPoint's participating members include all types of libraries (National Libraries, Academic Libraries, Public Libraries etc.) worldwide. QP offers both chat and e-mail reference. Library patrons can submit questions at any time through their library's Web site, and the questions will be answered by a global network of reference librarians, networking 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The questions will be answered online by qualified library staff or may be forwarded to a participating library around the world. The service is free of charge.
Ask A Librarian
Ask A Librarian is the UK's electronic reference library. It is a collaborative digital reference service offered by Public libraries throughout the UK. The service is designed primarily for UK residents, but questions from abroad are answered as well. Ask A Librarian is available via e-mail, operating 24/7. The service is free of charge.
Know It Now
Know It Now is a 24-hour online reference service that allows the user to connect to a librarian in real time. Developed by Cuyahoga County and the State Library of Ohio, it is available to all Ohio residents through their local libraries.
A medical and veterinary Ask A Librarian
This Ask A Librarian is for Human Medical and Health and Veterinary Information. We can help you locate print and electronic information about human and animal health.The service is free and open to all (at this time - 2/1/05). This 24/7 service is sometimes done in realtime and at others is via email. (NOTE: if/when this link ceases to work please contact: email@example.com and say the wikipedia entry needs updating).
- Janes, Joseph: Introduction to Reference Work in the Digital Age. Neal-Schuman Publ., New York, 2003
- Kasowitz, Abby S.: Trends and Issues in Digital Reference Services.
- Sloan, Bernie: Digital Reference Services Bibliography. Updated 11/03
- Sloan, Bernie: Collaborative Live Reference Services. Updated 11/03
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