Information Today [April 2001]

Providing virtual reference service

Breeding, Marshall.

Copyright (c) 2001 Information Today, Inc.

SummaryLibraries are finding ways to expand services to remote library users

Virtual reference service--the delivery of personalized reference resources to users outside the physical library--has become a major issue in the last year or so. While this isn't an entirely new idea, many libraries are now beginning to explore more sophisticated ways to take advantage of the Web-based technologies that can help them offer these services. There is also considerable interest in developing collaborative approaches in which groups of libraries can efficiently work together to deliver virtual reference services to their remote users.

By providing key services through the Web, libraries have expanded their reach beyond their physical walls--although we'll continue to offer collections and resources that can only be taken advantage of by those who come to the library. Many folks will continue to visit our libraries to borrow materials, read, study, and use the traditional and electronic content that comprise our collections. But it's becoming increasingly important to expand the services available to those who don't physically visit the library.

Libraries, in general, are channeling more of their resources toward Web-based information services. We've invested heavily in Web-based OPACs and in subscriptions to Web-based information services, and work hard to construct new digital collections. As our content becomes more Web-based and more actively used by patrons outside the walls of our libraries, we also need to provide avenues of support to these remote users. In addition, we must be careful not to be overshadowed by non-library companies that seek to generate revenues by offering similar services to our clientele--and not necessarily in ways that seem adequate from the library's perspective.

To achieve this, libraries have begun to explore ways of expanding their reference services via the Web. Libraries are service-oriented organizations. Most librarians feel it isn't sufficient to simply offer their content on the Web. Rather, they feel they should complement that content with professional experts who can assist patrons in learning to use these resources and in finding the information they need.


As they enter the realm of virtual reference operations, libraries can benefit from technologies and service models developed for the commercial arena. The evolution of e-commerce stimulated the development of systems that provide personalized customer service on the Web. As merchants began to sell their wares online, they soon realized that superior service matters just as much on the Web as it does in their brick-and-mortar shops. Quality merchandise, competitive pricing, and excellent service are all factors in building an online business.

A new industry then sprouted to provide customer relationship management (CRM) on the Web. CRM involves software and services that enable organizations to deliver personal assistance to remote customers. These services have been designed to supply efficient tools to service providers, allowing them to give personal assistance to a high volume of customers in very efficient ways. The CRM industry offers significant expertise in interacting with customers. Almost all corporations with a large Web presence take advantage of some type of CRM system to deliver technical support and customer service.

Virtual Reference Environment

Libraries face a similar challenge as an increasing number of our patrons don't come into the library, but use the Web-based resources that we provide for them. There is great interest in offering assistance and support for these products and in supplying some degree of general-reference service to remote users.

Providing reference support to remote users is nothing new. Libraries have long answered questions by phone, fax, e-mail, and even through videoconferencing systems. But the Web now allows us to offer remote support with more sophistication and immediacy, and maybe even do it with a more personal touch.

As I mentioned, in the last year or so, interest in providing digital reference service has grown enormously. Many libraries are now engaging in pilot projects or have begun production services. Virtual reference has been a hot topic at library conferences, and many vendors are beginning to offer products and services to support these efforts. Space doesn't allow for a comprehensive review, but we'll take a quick glimpse at these endeavors.

Virtual Reference Features

One approach to providing a virtual reference service is by using the same type of CRM software that's used by the commercial sector. This CRM environment lends itself in many ways to doing just that. Some of the features that need to be in a virtual reference product might include the following:

CRM Systems

Some CRM systems that libraries use to provide reference service include the following:

Chat Utilities

While the full-blown CRM systems offer a great deal of sophistication to the virtual reference environment, they're more complex to operate and require a significant financial investment. A lower-cost approach to virtual reference might involve a simple chat-based utility. A chat utility allows a managed two-way text conversation between the reference provider and the remote library user, but doesn't necessarily offer the ability to view the contents of the user's browser window or to push Web pages. It also doesn't have some of the other features available in the CRM applications.

The advantage is that most chat-based services are free. Netscape's Instant Messenger and Microsoft's MSN Messenger Service are very popular in the home-computing environment and have been adopted by some libraries for virtual reference. But HumanClick ( and Livehelper ( are the utilities more libraries have selected for chat-based virtual reference services. For those libraries that prefer open source software, Temple University has created a chat-based utility called Camden ([sim]jlabonsk/camden.html).

Gerry McKiernan, a librarian at Iowa State University Library, maintains a Web page that provides information on a sampling of libraries that offer live virtual reference assistance and t

Publication Year:2001
Type of Material:Article
Published in: Information Today
Publication Info:Volume 18 Number 4
Issue:April 2001
Publisher:Information Today, Inc.
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Library Systems Today section / "Systems Librarian" column
Subject: Digital reference service
Record Number:9105
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:0000-00-00 00:00:00