By Dougherty, Richard M.
American Libraries , Vol. 33, No. 5
The Internet is invigorating reference and information services as no other development in this generation. Librarians now have the opportunity, using real-time virtual reference systems software, to demonstrate their professional expertise in new ways. If done well, virtual reference (VR), using computers to offer remote reference service, presents an opportunity to gain a new group of library supporters.
A few years ago many people, including myself, were not particularly optimistic about the future of library reference work. The sudden rise of the Internet and resources such as Ask Jeeves and Refdesk.com sent shock waves throughout the profession. These new services, available 24/7 from companies with seemingly deep pockets full of hard cash, caught the profession off-guard. How could libraries compete with these free, round-the-clock online resources? Even some public and academic library officials openly predicted the doom of libraries.
How in just a few short years did we get from discussions of our demise to the actual offering of 24/7 service? To the profession's credit, the shock and denial wore off quickly. Librarians did not intend to stand pat and deny the future. We began to act by capitalizing on our traditional strengths as information specialists. Who knows more about Web resources than almost any other profession? Who has the qualifications to mediate and evaluate information resources? Who has the knowledge to ensure that sources are relevant and authoritative? Librarians do, obviously.
Before long we began to read and hear about projects such as the 24/7 reference service launched by California's Metropolitan Cooperative Library System in July 2000. Then the Library of Congress announced its ambitious Collaborative Digital Reference Services (CDRS) project (AL, Jan. 2001, p. 22-23). This demonstration project is particularly significant because it can show the power of libraries working together to share scarce intellectual expertise. Even the commercial companies can't match such talent. Today over 1,000 libraries already offer some version of virtual reference, more are in the works, and over 30 versions of virtual reference software are in use and are constantly fine-tuned.
Today most attention seems riveted on the phenomenon of 24/7 services finally becoming available. This focus is understandable, considering the 24-hour availability of the Web resources with which they compete. But is 24/7 really the key issue? Why do services have to be available 24/7? Is such a level of access needed? Is it justified economically? A friend asked me recently, "Why not 22/7 or 18/7 or 20/6?"
I believe skepticism about the need for such extensive availability is reasonable. Most library users still prefer "traditional" (9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) library hours. But times change. Client use and expectations change. Such VR services can be seen as an investment in the future.
To my mind the matter of availability is much less important than is our capability to offer virtual reference services in real time to patrons and other information seekers. I want to see libraries and/or groups of libraries develop the capability. It is that promise that excites me.
How many hours a day or days a week the service needs to be available will depend on the type and size of library, the needs of its clients, and the resources available. With all the collaborative projects out there, libraries should not try to go it alone. Look for partnerships. If you can't offer VR now, at least keep it in mind; when your clients demand it, you will want to be ready. Libraries should not get hung up on the idea that VR services have to be 24/7 in order to start offering them, If and when the demand warrants 24/7 service, I'm sure that libraries will find ways to rise to the challenge of expanding the hours.
The need to have the capability to offer these services also points out the need for transformational changes in reference departments. …