Using the World Wide Web at the Reference Desk

By Dickstein, Ruth; Greenfield, Louise et al. | Computers in Libraries, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Using the World Wide Web at the Reference Desk


Dickstein, Ruth, Greenfield, Louise, Rosen, Jeff, Computers in Libraries


First, know what types of questions are better answered on the Web.

The proliferation of resources on the Web is relentless. It seems we cannot turn a page, a channel, or a corner without encountering a new Web address. Reference sources, like other forms of information on the Web, are burgeoning--and with good reason. The Internet is proving to be an especially suitable medium for accessing and using reference materials. From online catalogs to college catalogs, from dictionaries to directories, the Web provides a timely, quick, convenient, and direct way to get answers. With knowledge and practice, librarians can make full use of this electronic collection.

Often librarians hesitate to answer questions using the Web because they are frustrated by its unexpected nature. The helpful site we so confidently directed a patron to yesterday may not be there today. Frustrating as such an experience can be, it is just this flexibility that makes the Web a unique tool for answering reference questions. Our ability to get information on events minutes after they happen draws us back to the Web again and again. We may lose the comfort of consulting a more predictable print copy, but we gain access to the timeliest sports scores or the latest medical information.

A graduate library school student at the University of Arizona had just completed an assignment to design and mount her own Web page. She reflected on the ease of doing this. "If I can put my page up so easily," she said, "I now realize what this means about the information on everyone else's page."

We are in an electronic environment where credibility, authority, and subject expertise are not always readily apparent. Along with the valuable, accurate, and responsible material on the Internet, there are sources to be questioned, scrutinized, or ignored. We can no longer depend upon the peer review or editorial process to filter our information. Such limitations, however. should not deter us or our patrons. After all, interpreting patrons' requests, developing search strategies, locating and finding appropriate material, and determining its quality and relevancy are at the very heart of good reference service. There is far too much valuable, unique, important, and just plain handy information on the Web for us to do otherwise.

The professional literature has begun to reflect that librarians are recognizing the rise of this new medium as a reference tool. In her article "New Technologies and Reference Service,"(1) Janice Simmons-Welbum depicts the effects of new technologies on reference librarians and users. She describes the increasingly complex process of choosing from a multitude of systems, as well as the learning curve involved in developing needed expertise. Don Lanier and Walter Wilkins(2) predict that the Internet will have a significant impact on ready reference service. They encourage librarians to become familiar with Internet resources in order to assist users effectively. They emphasize the need for staff training and for evaluation of resources.

Further, Paul Healy, in "Untangling the Web: the World Wide Web as a Reference Tool.(3) describes the Web's potential to transform how we conceptualize and use the Internet. He contrasts the "shifting and disappearing" of Internet resources with the "fixed" nature of print material, and he describes how the lack of peer review and the ease of publishing on the Web contribute to the need to evaluate Web sites. Scott A. Melendorff(4) focuses on using the Internet to address specific user needs such as locating just-released information and consulting the online counterparts of standard reference tools. In the following discussion, we will explore successful techniques for integrating the World WIde Web into day-to-day reference services.

Determine If Your Question Is Best Answered on the Web

The overwhelming majority of reference resources on the Web have no print counterparts. …

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Using the World Wide Web at the Reference Desk
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