This exploratory study was designed to produce a preliminary sense of reference librarians' experiences in adapting reference practice to the digital environment, to relay their descriptions of their own views about what is special or unique about digital reference, and to contemplate the implications of those views. We wanted to know how digital reference services were started in their libraries and if these librarians have shared similar or common experiences in inception, development, and implementation. We also sought to identify how traditional reference practice and concepts fit into and determine new practice in reference and conceptions around it. Finally, we sought to develop the framework and outline for a larger-scale investigation of librarians' experiences with these changes. Findings describe a wide variety of experiences and include discussion around service character and policy, the digital reference interview, and future directions for reference practice. In conclusion, future research is proposed and unanswered questions are outlined. It is our hope that in the stories of these librarians we will uncover clues to better understand, conceptualize, and articulate what reference is becoming in the digital world and to help the profession of reference librarianship better prepare for what lies ahead.
In the past decade, reference librarians have experienced a dramatic shift in their profession as resources and information exchange move increasingly into digital formats and space. First we grappled with the most immediate question around digital reference: "what to do and how to do it?" (1) Soon after, we witnessed the success of Internet reference services and reports that digital reference services were on the rise in both academic and public library settings. (2) More recently we've seen expert information services proliferate on the Web, alongside real-time library reference services and extensive collaborative projects. (3) By now it is common knowledge that library patrons are seeking out and finding innovative ways to ask their questions, and get them answered, via the Internet. In turn, librarians are experiencing innovative ways of interacting with their patrons, locating resources, and publicizing their services in the same space. For many practicing reference librarians, we just know that reference has a new face and that this face has evolved in the increasingly digital, and ever dynamic, world of information exchange.
Researchers have reported somewhat cautiously both the positive and negative effects of these trends on university reference librarians. Generally these findings indicate a growing need for user instruction due to "substandard computer skills" and a fear that the reference librarian is more technical support than information resource. (4) What may be somewhat lost in this still-developing area of inquiry are additional stories of librarians actually living out the challenges of this change. What are librarians doing and trying in their efforts to adapt their practices to a completely novel framework of time and space? How are librarians currently adapting their traditional training in reference practice to a virtual work and service space?
This exploratory study was designed to produce a preliminary sense of reference librarians' experiences in adapting reference practice to the digital environment, to relay their descriptions of their own views about what is special or unique about digital reference, and to contemplate the implications of those views. We wanted to know how digital reference services were started in their libraries and if these librarians have shared similar or common experiences in inception, development, and implementation. We also sought to identify how traditional reference practice and concepts fit into and determine new practice in reference and conceptions around it. Finally, we sought to develop the framework and outline for a larger-scale investigation of librarians' experiences with these changes. It is our hope that in the stories of these librarians we will uncover clues to better understand, conceptualize, and articulate what reference is becoming in the digital world and to help the profession of reference librarianship better prepare for what lies ahead.
Since the early 1990s literature in library and information science has considered the effects of the widespread use of the Internet on both reference practice and its resources. (5) Around this time, the concept of "using the Internet for reference" came to mean not only using the Internet as a resource to answer reference questions but also using the Internet to exchange information between patrons and librarians. Not long after, the Internet Public Library emerged as the case study for doing reference with the Internet, for the Interact community, making more clear the distinction between doing reference digitally (now called "digital reference"), and using the Internet as a resource to answer reference questions in a traditional space. (6) In the same article Ryan considers historically significant changes in information technology that have affected reference practice and notes that "the Interact is both the medium and the message," making the notion of "using the Internet for reference" still difficult to define.
In the mid-1990s reference librarians, understandably, continued to grapple with the use of the Internet among reference librarians and began discussions around the formation of digital reference services in public and academic libraries. (7) Research subsequently found digital reference services in slightly less than half of academic libraries and in about one in six public libraries. (8) However, librarians are reportedly still not using free Web pages to answer reference questions, even when they are available. Additionally, when they speak to patrons about the Internet, it is often framed as "something that users might independently want to check out later on." (9) Not surprisingly, research into "reference librarians' attitudes towards the World Wide Web" and toward "digital reference" continue to appear. (10) As previously mentioned, recent discussions on digital reference have extended to include contemplation of commercial and noncommercial (but nonlibrary) digital reference services, standards for digital reference projects, collaborative and real-time reference projects, and negotiating reference practice in the virtual space. (11) Whether reporting a "confusing array of options" changing the look of reference or challenging reference librarians to "transform [reference] for the new age and prove their value" in order to merely survive, more than ever before, the phrase "using the Internet for reference" is loaded with energy, excitement, and even some anxiety about reference as an increasingly dynamic practice. (12)
While obviously well-positioned for serious and continued inquiry on many fronts, the relatively new arena of digital reference has revealed more questions than answers and continues to be considered by many as a novel area in reference, or at least one of dramatic change. The findings of this study continue to infer additional but similar questions and to further develop ideas for continued research in digital reference practice and service.
Methods for the collection of data for this study were informal and intended to develop a framework for the completion of broader study of librarian experiences and opinions on how reference is changing in the face of increased digital access to reference services.
There were two ways in which data were collected. The first was a series of four preliminary telephone interviews, each recorded with the respondent's permission. Subjects for these interviews were purposively chosen from among librarians currently working in digital reference services as identified in two previous studies. (13) These interviews were intended to record an informal conversation, guided by a number of questions that were e-mailed to the participant in advance. These questions can be referred to in appendix A. Recorded interviews were then transcribed and analyzed for recurrent concepts or themes. The findings from these interviews were then used to construct an instrument for the collection of data from librarians by alternative means as described below.
Second, librarians were contacted by way of posting to the Virtual Reference Desk electronic discussion list for digital reference, DIG_REF. The intentions of the study were described, and an invitation to respond to a revised list of questions was offered to all participants in the list. This message, as posted to the list, can be referred to in appendix B. Eighteen DIG_REF subscribers returned their answers to the questions by way of e-mail or by posting to the list directly. These responses were similarly analyzed for recurrent concepts or themes.
The text of each of these responses was then digitized (if not digitized already) and initially analyzed using qualitative analysis methods for digital content. First a traditional cut-and-stack method was used to identify common and recurring themes. Second, using the ethnographer's software NUDIST, themes were contextualized by the comments of corresponding to other variables.
We chose to undertake this exploratory investigation deliberately; while the literature has many examples of reports of what librarians are doing (projects and designs of services in the reference arena), none really focus on their reflections of how their reference practice is evolving in a rapidly changing world. Our work differs in that it asks reference librarians to think about and discuss their professional practice in this emerging environment as well as how they see their practice and the services they work in changing. We also wanted to ask questions beyond how librarians are using the Internet to do reference work and go to a deeper level of analysis about the nature of their digital reference services, how those services work, and how they are operating within them.
In addition, the people we interviewed were self-selected members of a discussion list on digital reference issues. We wanted to talk with people who had been working with and thinking about this area and who were willing to share their thoughts with us. This discussion complements previous work by Janes, the results of which come from a survey of several hundred reference librarians asking them for their experiences with and attitudes towards digital reference. (14) We believe that although our results are not representative in the same way, they are nonetheless indicative of important issues and questions in the emerging digital reference arena, and that we also have more in-depth and extensive information from each of our respondents. In general, our methods resemble those developed by Curry and Harris on the subject of librarian attitudes toward the Web. (15)
Of the librarians that responded to our survey, seven represented public libraries, twelve academic, two government, and one corporate. Because of the relatively small number of participants in this study, we are unable to make grand inferences from our results or even generalized comments about librarians, reference, or digital reference practices. In many cases, recurrent themes were expressed intermittently and our participants rarely responded with universally similar comments or responses. Still, some compelling and perhaps generally common themes emerged, and these will drive the methods and instruments to be developed for a more formal examination of the questions at hand, including those inferred from the findings reported below.
Starting a Digital Reference Service
The reference librarians responding to our survey cited many reasons for deciding to develop a digital reference (DR) service and their motivations for developing it (appendix B, question 1). Though not asked directly, the majority of respondents voluntarily reported that their service was initiated during or after 1999. Most often, our respondents noted that their services were responding directly to the expressed needs of users. This was among our most frequent and consistent responses. Describing that an interest in digital reference had come about by way of the interest of users first (per direct requests from users for the service, or staff's own notice of the need), many noted that they had been receiving reference questions from patrons through e-mail long before a formal DR service was offered. One commented, "Our patrons had the idea to test the possibilities of such a service." Another said, "People were sending us questions anyway through our e-mail link to comments about our Web page." Other librarians noted that they were concerned specifically with serving users who faced geographic or time-related barriers to standard library services. Their motivation was to serve remote or otherwise constrained patrons with a service that would be as easily accessed, as were their traditional services and resources.
To a similar degree, our respondents say they were motivated to start a service directly by staff interest or by staff with previous experience in digital reference. In many cases, comments about staff initiative came hand-in-hand with comments about user needs. One librarian noted, "We decided that we needed to assume greater responsibility for service to these primary users who were, in effect, denied service, and who chose to find research assistance elsewhere." In many cases, a single staff member's interest in initiating such a service developed into in-house studies, committee formation, and service developments. Other staff members reported that they came to their current library and service expressly to create a new digital reference service, as they had experience developing other DR services previously and elsewhere.
In developing their services, many librarians spoke of the connection between other library reference services, and a few expressed the idea that digital reference was a natural or obvious shift in library services. They reported that this was in part due to the fact that other libraries were already offering the service and that staff members interested in developing a new DR service could borrow from the experiences of other libraries already doing it. One reported doing a formal report of her investigation of "how other public libraries were offering this service," including looking at policies, limitations, Web forms, etc. Another said "seeing other libraries do it without being overwhelmed with questions" motivated them to develop their service.
These librarians reported a broad range of service volume once their service was up and running, and they gauged the frequency of the use of their new service against their expectations. Answers to our question on the number of questions expected and currently received were widely varied in both number and method of reporting. Therefore, the following results are only tentative and should provide an outline for a more detailed analysis of the number or questions digital service providers are answering and expected to answer. That said, answers ranged from four questions per week to two-hundred-eight questions per week. Experiences also varied greatly in terms of whether these frequencies matched expectations. Two librarians made no report of their expectations, seven stated that they didn't know what to expect, five received fewer than expected, four received about what they expected, and four received more than they expected. A few testimonies speak to the broad range of experiences and expectation in this area.
* We thought we'd be flooded! No one feels that threat now.
* I don't think any of us knew what to expect when we started with e-mail reference. The number we really get varies considerably from day to day! ... I suspect this number will decrease when we go `live' with real-time reference. Again, we don't know how many to expect to get via that service either!
* When we initially implemented the e-mail reference form, we became inundated with questions from all over the world. As a result, we were forced to implement a more restrictive policy than appears on the form. In implementing the chat service, we anticipated being overwhelmed, but that has not been a problem thus far.
Some librarians reported that their service expectations and use had changed or shifted in response to changes in the service over time. The most frequently cited reason for such shifts was related to marketing strategies for the service. For some libraries, this included formal marketing campaigns, and for others this included simply placing the digital reference link on the main page of their library's Web site. "We have placed the Ask Us! link on all pages of the main library Web site, and the visibility has really increased our traffic from what it once was," cited one respondent. "When the `Ask a Reference Librarian' link was moved to a prominent place on the main library Web page, we went from 20 questions per semester to 130," said another. Though a few librarians noted that "marketing" can help publicize the service and encourage patrons to use it, a number of librarians noted that moving the link to a more prominent place on their Web site had increased the number of digital reference inquiries significantly.
Our question about service volume and expectations (appendix A, question 5) prompted some librarians to share with us their plans for expanding their service. Some mentioned plans to further advertise, to move the link, to improve the Web form, and to generally expand or grow. Others expressed ambivalence around not wanting to "lose the human touch" but being clear that "numbers are dropping [in person and on the phone] to the point that we need to be spending our time in other ways." Only two librarians specifically mentioned an interest in seeing the number of digital reference questions rise, one a corporate librarian, the other an academic librarian.
The Character of Digital Reference Services
This section describes the general nature of digital reference service projects, as described by our responding librarians. We know from published research that DR services are a relatively recent phenomenon and have only been generally characterized in the literature. (16) Rather than characterize DR service in its own right, our questions seek to elicit thoughts and commentary on how DR services are different from (or the same as, in some cases) traditional reference practice and to elicit reference librarians' experiences with these projects. The following sections outline the comments of our respondents in the areas of staff and directorship and policy and guidelines. Subsequent sections develop the more ambiguous matters of the reference interview and digital reference service quality.
Staff and Directorship
Our librarians reported varying staffing levels in their digital reference projects. Some librarians reported that they were the sole digital reference librarian (and project manager) for their entire digital reference service; others reported working with a revolving staff of librarians who share responsibility for all questions; and others reported working with a group of librarians trained specifically for digital reference practice. For example, one librarian reported being part of a nationwide consortium where the entire (European) country "has a special interface that links all libraries collaborating for their `Ask a Librarian' service," where both patrons and librarians can see all questions and whether a question has already been answered, is waiting for an answer, or is being handled by a librarian. Any library can answer any of the incoming questions so that "we can really take advantage of the knowledge and skills of librarians all around the country." Another librarian noted that in their library a core group of librarians was trained in e-mail reference. Rotating on a daily basis, two librarians from this group are assigned a morning or afternoon Ask a Librarian hour, away from public service desks.
Yet another librarian noted a division between adult and children's digital reference services, saying "This Ask A page is divided between Adults and Kids. Generally, e-mail ref has become a part of every librarian's reference workday. They are answered as they are received, and if the volume is higher than normal, the e-mails are printed off so that librarians not at a PC can work on them." In contrast, another librarian reported that their services were "operated by one staff member for its entire first year, and has only recently been made a department-wide initiative." This librarian made no mention of the digital reference services of the library in other departments, or on the whole.
Policies and Guidelines
There seems to be wide variety, and little consensus, in the development of policy or limits to digital reference service in this sample of respondents. Generally librarians offered their policies on what they will and will not do in the digital reference environment. Those responses are detailed in table 1, in order of descending frequency.
Generally policies seem to develop around the types of questions best suited for digital reference, how much time can be spent with them, and developing standards or guidelines around digital reference as it is related to other forms of reference. Though the number of librarians stating that the same treatment was to be given digital reference questions was relatively high, almost as many librarians specifically noted a preference for "quick ref" or factual questions in the digital arena. One librarian expressed adamantly what others alluded to: "We cannot seem to emphasize enough that the e-mail reference service can handle only ready-reference, factual questions." Others noted a concern for doing extensive research and placed importance on instruction, either as a value or as something to avoid with their digital reference services.
One librarian mentioned how expectations for the service had influenced the policy for the service. Expecting to be inundated with questions, some developed stringent service policies that were not necessary. While most librarians indicated an interest in going back to the Web forms to elicit a clarified reference question, this librarian was interested in revising policy based on the actual experience with the service once offered.
More than half of our responding librarians reported either no policies or very broad or basic guidelines in regards to their treatment of digital reference questions once they are received. Commenting on how guidelines and quality of service develop, many librarians expressed views such as "I think the basic reference principles apply." Of these, four librarians pointed out that their guidelines were in progress or pending further development of the service. Generally some offered suggestions for answering questions, rather than guidelines. Staff members were instructed to use their best judgment or to provide personal answers or answers that are "individual to the librarian." In about one-quarter of responses, "stock answers," "template answers," or FAQs were referred to in lieu of a formal guideline or stated policy.
Still, many librarians were clear about their lack of policy in this area, or at least the tendency to be broadly or generally focused. One stated plainly, "I believe in very general guidelines only; flexibility is usually more important." This sentiment may stem from the statement many librarians are now making about equity and the "same treatment" for all reference questions, regardless of their method of submission. One respondent noted that their standards are "not specific to e-mail reference; only based on general reference training." Though our librarians did not address it specifically, they suggest with this and similar comments that "general reference training" is sufficient training for digital reference practice.
For the minority, there were several aspects of digital reference services for which guidelines had been developed. First, our respondents described specific guidelines on how to format their answers, including things like a friendly greeting, thanks for asking the question, restating the question, friendly closures, spell-checking, and signing with either initials or a canned signature. One librarian described a policy of stating the library's commitment to instruction within the response itself.
Similarly, with regard to resources, librarians rarely reported formal guidelines. A few reported a preference for delivering online resources, when available, that the user can access. At least one librarian in our sample also reported always using good, reliable authoritative sources, using more than one format for sources, including URLs, and using any format. A few commented similarly to statements such as "always including instructions on how the information was found." One librarian reported a specific amount of time to be spent with each patron but did not specify the time allowed.
When commenting on evaluating their services, one interviewee noted that their service was evaluated six months after its beginning for patron satisfaction. Another noted that all questions and answers are archived and have been informally checked for speed and accuracy. Others stated that they had no mechanism for evaluating either the service or patron satisfaction but expressed an interest in doing so formally, as "many tell us they are pleased/satisfied/surprised." While surveyed librarians were not asked to directly comment in this area, very few librarians reported collecting statistics or doing formal evaluations of their digital reference services. One librarian noted that they "printed out all our answers so we can collect stats on them" but also noted that they "will probably cease this." A few librarians voluntarily mentioned the presence of FAQ pages related to their services.
The Reference Interview
Perhaps not surprisingly, respondents in this study commented with some ambivalence to our question about the reference interview, a practice usually viewed as the key to eliciting a clear notion of the user's information needs, as well as the key to finding an appropriate solution. In this survey, librarians expressed some stress about how to manage the traditional reference interview in the digital environment. Generally they are not sure how their services measure up to traditional services now offered with the familiar interview by phone or in person at the reference desk.
When asked to speak on the quality and character of the questions that digital reference services are receiving, librarians spoke directly and indirectly about their discomfort with the lack of a traditional reference interview. One librarian suggested specifically their point of discomfort: that instruction was limited, if not impossible, through digital reference services because of the lack of a traditional interview. "Quick, factual questions are best," she noted, "because we just don't have the body; anything that has depth should be a consultation." Often librarians expressed the belief that they "definitely need more of a reference interview" but went on to report that they were happy with the quality of the questions received. Overwhelmingly, an appropriate Web form was associated with comments about the interview. This was expressed as the "need to work with our e-mail reference form to better elicit the types of questions we hope will be asked." Some commented that making changes in their Web form had already greatly honed the typical question received. One librarian noted, "The questions we receive through this form [modeled on another library] are of a much higher quality than those received directly via e-mail." Two others mentioned a belief that an improved form could elicit "better" questions but that they had not yet had time to change their existing forms. On the other hand, one librarian noted that they had used their form to further restrict the kinds of questions that their library would answer, as they had received too many questions when the service was first offered.
Still, many librarians report that they are happy with the questions they receive through their digital reference services. While some expressed a similar interest in more of a reference interview, these respondents simultaneously reported feeling generally positive about the quality and specificity about the questions they had received thus far (without one). Others noted that only occasionally was it necessary to engage in "back and forth ... to get a good idea of the question," indicating that the interview, while librarians are certainly still conscious of it, may not be as necessary in the digital reference setting. One librarian stated plainly, "I always say [the reference interview] is over-rated!" suggesting that for some librarians, digital reference may have overcome the need for an interview at all.
These and similar comments highlight this area in particular as needing attention when discussing the evolving practice of reference, as in the following section. Reports that a reference interview is definitely necessary, along with reports that it is somewhat passe, could point to some transitory space where librarians are grappling with the conflict between their traditional ideals and actual reference practice as it is occurring in an increasingly digital world.
Equity and Quality
Our perceptions of timeliness, quality, and service have been upgraded by demand--it's great!
Again, there was little consensus in the answers to questions regarding the quality of digital reference services. Most markedly, one-third of our responding librarians mentioned that answering reference questions digitally was more time consuming, with librarians expressing concern that their turn-around times were "slower than we expected." One librarian noted that it is "especially easy to spend more time when the question lacks clarity," another noted that "cyber-savvy librarians will respond differently than those who are less experienced with Web resources." Another librarian agreed that comfort with the electronic environment will affect librarians' attitudes about how reference is changing. Presumably both the character of the request and the experience of the librarians have a part to play in the timeliness of the service. Still, it is interesting that a number of our respondents expressed some anxiety over whether they were spending too much time or not getting answers back fast enough.
* You may end up using more time for online reference, although that was not the idea. On the other hand, most of the questions and answers are indexed and archived on the Web, so one answer serves more users than one, so spending more time could be seen as justified.
* Given how much time we spend on e-mail, we may have initially expected to receive more traffic than we got. I suspect this may be, now, because of the lag factor. Although we answer reference queries within twenty-four hours, people can find an answer faster by using a search engine. Not necessarily a better answer, but faster matters more sometimes, especially when deadlines are looming.
* I actually feel more relaxed because I don't have someone impatiently standing around and waiting. I can sometimes kill two birds with one stone because the same reference will be used in more than one question and I can do that at once, without waiting for those to come individually.
* I have found myself debating whether to tell someone how to do something online, which would mean a lot of typing, or just pushing the results of what I've done to them. Saves a lot of time, but could they do it next time?
In these and similar comments, librarians are reporting a strain around the time they spend answering questions, equitable treatment of all reference questions, and whether or not their service is sufficient for their customers, in terms of time.
In related comments, some librarians reported that the digital environment afforded a better level of service, perhaps because of the further time spent preparing and articulating an answer in print. A similar number of librarians reported that they like providing digital reference service more than other kinds of reference because they can, for example, answer the reference questions in peace and quiet or because they had the opportunity to be more complete, to communicate better, or to better document their answers. A few respondents spoke directly to their experience of a higher level of reference service:
* It seems to me that real-time ref has a higher level of service built into it, simply because Web pages can be directly pushed to the customer, and because it's much easier to train the customers to search the Net for themselves.
* My personal feeling is that e-mail reference allows you to give better answers because you aren't rushed into providing something/anything in one minute (person standing there drumming fingers on the desk, looking at their watch). I can take some extra time to really work on the question--not just suggest a source, but actually follow it up to see if it's right.
On the other hand, a slightly greater number of respondents commented specifically that they were able to offer the same level of service and pointed to their institutional missions and commitment to equity in every request. Again, there is some uncertainty around wanting to maintain a standard of equitable service, and the reality of their experience with digital reference itself. In fact, many of our librarians emphasized instruction in their answers to questions around quality and character of their services. These librarians, who also stressed that instruction is difficult to accomplish in an electronic environment, noted that they answer e-mail questions in the same way as at the desk or on the phone.
Whether the level of service is higher, lower, or the same as traditional reference service, many librarians feel proud of their services and feel that they are serving their users well. One librarian noted, "the service has been very welt received by both the user community and the libraries, and will be funded by the Libraries after the grant ends!" Receiving positive feedback from patrons, as well as continued funding from directorship, is encouraging to the staff members who have initiated and maintained digital reference services in their libraries.
New Directions for Digital Reference
I find it exciting ...
Our respondents agreed strongly in only one area: their passion and commitment to digital reference services. Obviously, their views cannot be generalized to all practicing digital reference librarians, as our respondents were self-selected from a digital reference electronic discussion list, a population already committed in some way to the contemplation and practice of digital reference services in libraries. Still, it is worth noting the energy and the passion with which our respondents relayed their feelings about their work and its perceived value to the profession of reference librarianship. Further, our librarians discussed their hopes and vision for digital reference, and reference in general, for the future. Embedded in these comments is an anxiety around convincing librarian peers and directors of the value of digital services, and around how digital reference services are changing. They seem to be posing a delicate question about the balance between traditional reference values and training with the technologies and physical spaces of the present and future. As these comments came to us through an open invitation to speak to anything they would like, we think it best to provide these comments in that context and let the librarian's own words speak for themselves:
* It will be interesting to see what happens to ref services in the next few years. This profession is changing faster than I expected it to, and I entered it because I thought the technology was so exciting. I don't want libraries to lose their impact with people. We need to reposition ourselves as the information experts! We seem to have lost that edge. We need to learn from AskJeeves and other commercial services, rather than decry their existence. They are there and doing a booming business because they've got their finger on the pulse and libraries need to catch up.
* I am trying to convince all of our subject librarians that questions asked digitally are just as important and deserve just as speedy an answer as questions asked at the desk. Right now, I have about one-third of my subject librarians taking days, weeks, even months to answer--even with reminders. They just don't understand where reference is headed.
* We need to decide if we are able to keep up with personalized reference service in this kind of environment, or can we create some sort of expert system that can search all of our [institution-] specific resources and spit out a list ranked by relevance. Personally, I feel the latter is more likely to be successful, although I hate the idea of losing the human touch. I doubt we'll ever do away with the reference desk or phone service, but the numbers are dropping to the point where we need to be spending our time in other ways.
These librarians, and many others like them, feel impassioned about their digital reference work, and feel that there is much value added to reference in general when the practice is taken to a new venue. However, it is also apparent that our respondents are treading new ground. They are the innovators and path breakers, consistently balancing the traditions of reference with the need for adapting those practices to a new cultural space, where competition for professional service now exists where it once did not.
If there is an overarching theme emerging from this study of librarians' experiences with a changing reference practice, it is that there is a tension around these changes both deep and wide. However, in these responses lie potential clues to the most relevant, current and unanswered questions about digital reference services and practice.
Our respondents' comments were most diverse when asked to discuss their experiences with the reference interview in a digital space. One question to be resolved is whether or not the survey question itself elicited the somewhat guilty "we should have more of an interview" response. It could be that these respondents, along with the researchers, are trying to balance their notions of how reference should be--or always has been--done with what's happening in day-to-day practice. As much as our librarians speak to the reference interview, there is very little discussion of a "back and forth" between librarians and users over e-mail. Some librarians even reported automatically referring patrons to a phone call if they don't understand the question right away, or as part of a canned response--at the end of an answer. They very rarely report asking the patrons to e-mail back or to engage in some kind of e-mail exchange. They do report that they usually do get a response back when they do ask for one over e-mail. So there is real resistance in our respondent group to actually practicing a reference interview through e-mail information exchange. Further research must consider if this is the case, and why this might be.
In planning and implementing digital reference services, our respondents indicate that both user suggestions and staff initiative were the primary catalysts for service development. On this point, it may be interesting to develop further the nature of the exchange between user need and librarian response to that need in regards to digital reference; specifically, which comes first? Next we could consider how this exchange corresponds with the nature of our work in general. Is there an inherent balance to reference practice that demands an exchange between users and librarians that will always define our work? Immediately this question leads us back to the tension described around the reference interview by our respondents. Could it be that the tension in the reference interview process is now being projected onto reference as a practice, and in a more general way? Are librarians' described expectations about their users, the types of questions, and service policy or quality--all of which appear to carry significant tensions as well--carried over from a traditional reference training that has yet to be resolved in the digital space? If yes, can new concepts of reference practice, along with descriptions of common experiences, help resolve these tensions?
Concerning the frequency or volume of digital reference inquiries and preservice expectations, there seems to be feelings of great tension as well. Our respondents seem to be in the midst of change, this change is somewhat uncomfortable, and as a result, they are experiencing some difficulty in thinking strategically, or at least commonly, about digital reference. This is not to say that a number of our respondents are not thoughtful and innovative. Rather, it is to say that their difficulties and struggles in balancing the tensions they describe are to be expected. While this study can only suggest potential frames and generalities, further research can help ease these tensions by reporting directly and on a large scale, common experiences and concepts helpful to thinking about and planning for digital reference projects.
One window to understanding this seeming resistance or uncertainty may be in the fact that many of our respondents reported feeling concerned about turn-around time. Specifically, a fear around turn-around time and the amount of time spent with each user is apparent in their discussion of service quality. On one hand, librarians report that the quality of service is innately better and are even reporting that they are using e-mail to answer questions that come in person at the reference desk, in order to offer higher level of service, but comment often about higher levels of service being unfair to other customers on the other. Also, again, there seems to be a real concern for the patron getting the answer in enough time. Our respondents never mention the possibility that their users may already be aware that there is a potential time lag with digital reference services and instead assume that their patrons demand or expect immediate attention. Whether or not this is the case should be further developed with continued research. Additionally it should be developed whether or not digital reference standards are possible to attain consistently when instruction is so clearly valued and involved.
In discussing policies and guidelines for digital reference services, time is again important. Many librarians in this survey described their anxiety around this issue, and this could relate to both the librarians' feelings that they can't do an interview (either because they don't have time to create an appropriate Web form or don't have time to e-mail back and forth). Perhaps this is also stems from a concern that e-mail would take over their reference duties. One other possible explanation for their descriptions could be that librarians are often working under strict staffing and budget constraints. Whatever the reasons, our respondents report some level of anxiety around time in terms of serving the patron well and in completing their own duties (reference and otherwise).
Another factor that may be considered as explanation for the described tension could be the propensity many librarians described to consider digital reference most or solely appropriate for factual questions. If librarians expect their service to be primarily of use to "quick-ref" or factual questions, then their concern for turn-around time can be understood as well. While recent research suggests that digital service projects may be more appropriately directed to source or research-dependent questions, many librarians suggest that digital reference has already been well determined to be appropriate only for factual questions. (17)
All things considered, our respondents offer a complex first look at their experiences practicing reference in an increasingly digital world. Obviously these inferences are speculative and cannot be asserted from a small and specialized population of practicing digital reference librarians. Further research must investigate librarians' experiences with the changing practice of reference before we can begin to assert theoretical structures for thinking about it. Still, a framework for thinking about how reference practice is changing may be suggested here and can provide a conceptual framework for research and further inquiry as well.
Conclusion and Future Research
This research indicates that librarians are in the midst of an extensive and important change as reference evolves to accommodate an increasingly digital world. As librarians have, for the most part, only recently explored the options available in taking their practice to digital spaces, this research confirms our respondents to be innovators, path-breakers, and advocates of breaking new ground in information services for libraries.
Perhaps most importantly, this research identifies a number of questions yet to be answered and areas of inquiry yet to be attempted through further research. Specifically, further research should address the areas around which our respondents described the most striking tensions: the digital reference interview, digital reference service quality and standards, and the purposes best suited to digital reference. Additionally it should pursue a greater number of respondents from diverse library settings, technical backgrounds, and digital reference experience. Potentially the type of inquiries outlined in this research could be administered as a digital reference inquiry; making use of and characterizing the service could coincide with librarians' descriptions of their experiences. Of course, special arrangements may have to be made to accomplish this with academic and special library digital reference services, but it is especially important to include these respondents in such research, as they may provide much needed insight into why commercial information services seem to have their "finger on the pulse," as one of our respondents described. If there is a bridge to be built between commercial information and library services, the foundation may be laid with such an inquiry. It may be valuable to outline the potential areas of inquiry, as detailed by the unanswered questions that are brought to light by these findings.
Service Policies and General Character
* Descriptions of digital reference (DR) service, as it now exists; including the number of questions answered, on average, per week, and the number of staff members involved in the service, as well as how they are involved.
* Brief histories of DR service development and implementation; including when the service began, and how long respondents have been involved with the service they are now working with, and in what capacity they are involved.
* Descriptions of the guideline or policy development process; did it come after the service was offered? What resources did respondents turn to in developing their guidelines (i.e., other services, literature)?
* Reports of initial and current funding source and level.
* Descriptions of training; is there any specialized training involved for the librarians administering this service? Is the training standardized? If yes, do standards in training correspond to standards in service?
* Licensing issues; does licensing of bib-databases or other electronic reference materials limit the ways librarians can or would like to answer a question?
* Library instruction; does the services explicitly value or uphold an explicit philosophy of instruction? How is that communicated to the patron?
* Marketing issues; how do libraries advertise the service? Is there a link on the Web site? Where is this link?
Service Quality and Evaluation
* Level of service in DR; is it higher, lower, or the same as reference services offered in person or on the phone? Does more time equal better service?
* Evaluation of DR; including questions, answers, or types of inquiry. Is there a FAQ page associated with the service, or a database to help manage the inquiries?
* Standards of DR practice; what are they? What resources do librarians turn to in developing these standards?
* Librarian impressions of user satisfaction with DR service; do librarians collect information about how well the patron/customer liked the service? Would they use it again?
Points of Tension and Future Directions for Digital Reference
* What kinds of questions are best answered in DR services? Is DR service and quality related to these kinds of questions?
* Do you want to grow or expand? Would you like to see the number of DR inquiries change? How?
* Where do you see reference services moving? Are they truly moving away from the desk? If yes, what does that mean to you?
* Describe in detail how you manage your knowledge and training in the reference interview as a part of practicing reference in a digital exchange. Do you feel this is working well? Do you have any thoughts or ideas about how librarians might improve the exchange between information professionals and users?
* What are your opinions about developing standards for DR services? Are general guidelines more appropriate and flexible, or could standards improve service quality?
* Do you like doing DR? Why?
* Do you manage other librarians doing DR?
* What are your perceptions about how other librarians feel about DR? Do they agree/work with you? Are you well supported?
* How do you feel about commercial information services? Are they a valuable/valid form of "reference" practice?
In conclusion, our findings indicate that librarians who are actively navigating the shift from traditional reference practices to reference in cyberspace have done so with much originality, and in some cases, against many obstacles. The experiences of our responding librarians shed some light on how this has occurred, but more importantly, alert us to the need for further consideration and research in the areas outlined above.
Phone Interview Questions
1. Why was this service developed? What were the motivations for developing it?
2. Who answers the questions? How? What kinds of resources are and aren't used?
3. How many staff are involved, and in what ways?
4. Is there a separate budget for the service? Do you know how much it costs?
5. Have you developed policies, limitations, or restrictions on the service, the kinds of questions you'll take, time to answer, etc.?
6. Have you developed guidelines for how to answer questions (how to phrase answers, formats for answering, etc.)?
7. How many questions did you expect to get when you started? How many are you really getting?
8. What kinds of questions do you get? (Include subject areas, in any way different from what you get at the desk or over the phone.)
9. What kinds of users ask questions this way? (in any way different?)
10. What kinds of technologies do you use? Do you use any specialized software?
11. Are you answering questions any differently than you would on the desk or over the phone? Do you give a different level of service?
Electronic Discussion List Interview Questions
1. Why did you decide to develop a digital reference service? What were the motivations for developing it (a single staff person, committee, requests from users, etc.)?
2. Are you happy with the specificity of the questions you get? Do you feel you need more of a reference interview?
3. Have you developed policies, limitations, or restrictions on the service, the kinds of questions you'll take, time to answer, etc.? Are these affected at all by considerations regarding the interview (or lack thereof)?
4. Have you developed guidelines for how to answer questions (how to phrase answers, formats for answering, resources to use, etc.)?
5. How many questions did you expect to get when you started? How many are you really getting?
6. Do you feel you personally are answering questions any differently than you would on the desk or over the phone, or making different decisions? Do you give a different level of service?
7. Do you work in an academic or public library?
8. Anything else you want to tell us about your service or the way you do reference?
Table 1 Policies and Limitations Policy Opposes Policy Supports * Answering questions from outside * Answering all questions within of the expressed community 24 hours * Answering questions other than * No restrictions, or "answering "quick ref," "ready ref," or all questions to the best of our factual questions ability" * Spending extensive time on a * Giving the "same treatment" as question; includes doing all other reference questions "extensive research" * Electronically transferring * Answering subject specific articles (due to licensing questions in at least 3-4 days agreements) * Physically locating materials * Referrals to other digital reference services * Making reservations * Instructional values in mission or philosophy; standards in approximate number of citations, time spent, etc.
(1.) Julie Still and Frank Campbell, "Librarian in a Box: The Use of Electronic Mail for Reference," Reference Services Review 20 (1993): 15-28.
(2.) Sara Ryan, "Reference Service for the Internet Community: A Case Study of the Internet Public Library Reference Division," Library and Information Science Research 18 (1996): 241-59; Joseph Janes, David Carter, and Patricia Memmott, "Digital Reference Services in Academic Libraries," Reference & User Services Quarterly 39 (winter 1999): 145-50.
(3.) Steve Coffman and Susan McGlamery, "The Librarian and Mr. Jeeves," American Libraries 31 (May 2000): 66-69; Diane N. Kresh, "Offering High Quality Reference Service on the Web: The Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS)," D-Lib Magazine 6, no. 6 (June 2000). Accessed July 8, 2001, www.dlib.org/dlib/ june00/kresh/06kresh.html.
(4.) Carol Tenopir and Lisa Ennis, "The Impact of Digital Reference on Librarians and Library Users," Online 22 (Nov./Dec. 1998): 84-88.
(5.) Deborah Sawyer, "A Matter of Confidence: Asking Reference Questions over the Internet," Online 17 (1993): 8-9; Sharyn Ladner and Hope Tillman, "Using the Internet for Reference," Online 17 (1993): 45-51; Robin Kinder, Librarians on the Internet: Impact on Reference Services (Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth, 1994); Marcos Silva and Glen Cartwright, "The Internet and Reference Librarians: A Question of Leadership," The Reference Librarian 41-42 (1994): 159-72.
(6.) Ryan, "Reference Service for the Internet Community: A Case Study of the Internet Public Library Reference Division."
(7.) Truda Olson, "University Reference Librarians Using the Internet: A Survey," Australian Academic and Research Libraries 26 (1996): 191-99; Marilyn Rosenthal and Marsha Spiegelman, "Evaluating the Use of the Internet among Academic Reference Librarians," Internet Reference Services Quarterly 1, no. 1 (1996): 53-67; Carol Tenopir and Ralf Neufang, "Electronic Reference Options: Tracking the Changes," Online 19, no. 4 (1995): 67-73.
(8) Janes, Carter, and Memmott, "Digital Reference Services in Academic Libraries," 145-50.
(9) Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Kirsti Nilsen, "Has the Internet Changed Anything in Reference? The Library Visit Study, Phase 2," Reference & User Services Quarterly 40 (winter 2000): 147-55.
(10.) Ann Curry and Gayle J. E. Harris, "Reference Librarians' Attitudes towards the World Wide Web," Public Library Quarterly 18, no. 2 (2000): 25-38; Janes, Carter, and Memmott, "Digital Reference Services in Public and Academic Libraries," in Evaluating Networked Information Services: Techniques, Policy, and Issues, Charles McClure and John Carlo Bertot, eds. (Washington, D.C.: American Society for Information Science & Technology, 2001).
(11.) Bernie Sloan, "Electronic Reference Services: Some Suggested Guidelines," Reference & User Services Quarterly 38 (fall 1998): 77-81; R. David Lankes, Building and Maintaining Internet Information Services. Doctoral Dissertation, 1999, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York; Joseph Janes, Chrystie Hill, and Alex Rolfe, "Ask-an-Expert Services Analysis," Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 52 (Nov. 2001): 1106-21; Abby Kasowitz, B. Bennett, and R. David Lankes, "Quality Standards for Digital Reference Consortia," Reference & User Services Quarterly 39 (summer 2000): 355-63; Coffman and McGlamery, 2000; Kresh, 2000; J. E. Straw, "A Virtual Understanding: The Reference Interview and Question Negotiation in a Digital Age," Reference & User Services Quarterly 39 (spring 2000): 376-79.
(12.) Tenopir and Ennis, "The Impact of Digital Reference on Librarians and Library Users;" Jerry D. Campbell, "Clinging to Traditional Reference Services: An Open Invitation to Libref.com," Reference & User Services Quarterly 39 (Spring 2000): 223-27
(13.) Janes, Carter, and Memmott, "Digital Reference Services in Academic Libraries;" Janes, Carter, and Memmott, "Digital Reference Services in Public and Academic Libraries."
(14.) Joseph Janes, "Digital Reference: Reference Librarians' Experiences and Attitudes/Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 53, no. 7 (May 2002): 549-66.
(15.) Curry and Harris, "Reference Librarians' Attitudes towards the World Wide Web."
(16.) Janes, Carter, and Memmott, "Digital Reference Services in Academic Libraries;" Kresh, "Offering High Quality Reference Service on the Web: The Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS)."
(17.) Janes, Hill, and Rolfe, "Ask-an-Expert Services Analysis."
Joseph Janes is Assistant Professor and Chrystie Hill is Graduate Assistant, Information School, University of Washington. Submitted for review July 24, 2001; revised and accepted for publication September 17, 2001.…