Web-Enabled Information and Referral Services: A Framework for Analysis

Article excerpt

Introduction

Many organizations provide Information and Referral (I&R) services that help people obtain relevant and accurate information to meet specific needs. Traditionally, I&R services have been provided by a skilled specialist by phone or through a face-to-face referral process, an interaction that can depend upon good interviewing and counseling skills to succeed (Maas, 2000). A number of I&R service providers have adopted information technology tools such as databases to facilitate the storage and retrieval of relevant I&R resources and to help them efficiently produce printed directories. Now, many I&R service providers see new opportunities and challenges stemming from the ability to create databases that can be accessed via the web. Like many other IT-based innovations, the adoption of web-enabled I&R service capabilities involves a number of socio-technical issues that can affect the outcome of the process.

The goal of this paper is to provide a better understanding of the issues involved in the adoption of web-enabled I&R services. First, this paper analyzes the literature on I&R services in order to understand key issues and common practices in the development of I&R services. Then a framework is presented that explores two key dimensions of I&R services: the communities of place and communities of interest that they serve. This I&R community analysis framework is illustrated with a number of mini-case studies, and conclusions are drawn regarding how it may be applied. The results of this research study should be of interest to many organizations that want to use the web to make information readily accessible to the people they serve.

Literature Review

Much of the literature on I&R services is focused on two groups: 1) I&R specialists in the area of health and human services and 2) librarians who provide community I&R services. A key source of information regarding I&R for health and human services is the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS), a non-profit organization that serves as a professional organization for over 1000 public and private information and referral providers in North America. AIRS has developed standards for professional I&R that address key aspects of service delivery, resource databases, reporting, cooperative relationships and organizational requirements (AIRS, 2001a) and supports a practitioner oriented journal, "Information & Referral". Guidelines for I&R services in public libraries is provided by a number of books and articles (Bishop, et. al, 1999; Childers, 1984; Durrance and Pettigrew, 2000).

There is limited research that focuses specifically on the provision of web-enabled I&R services. Most of the literature consists of case studies that report successful attempts to provide I&R service online (Merrill, 1992; Van Camp, 1990). One document that takes a larger view of the issue is the AIRS position paper on the role of I&R in the national information infrastructure. The report found that "political and legislative decision makers are largely unaware of the role we [I&R professionals] play in the information arena and continue to draft proposals that duplicate our efforts and assign to others responsibilities that we are better equipped to handle" (AIRS, 2001b). The report takes the position that the professional I&R providers represented by AIRS should play a key role in determining how I&R services are provided on the information superhighway and identifies a number of issues that should be addressed. The position of I&R providers regarding web-enabled I&R services can be summed up by this statement from the AIRS' Standards for Professional Information and Referral manual: "Under no circumstances shall technology reduce or replace supported access through a qualified I&R specialist. The main role of technology is to enhance or strengthen person-to-person contact, not to reduce or eliminate such contact or to make it more difficult" (AIRS, 2000, p. …