Virtual Reference in Libraries: Status and Issues. (Leading Libraries)

By Helfer, Doris Small | Searcher, February 2003 | Go to article overview
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Virtual Reference in Libraries: Status and Issues. (Leading Libraries)

Helfer, Doris Small, Searcher

Like it or not, virtual reference in libraries is here to stay. As the American Express ad used to say, "It's everywhere you want to be." Virtual patrons, with access to electronic resources the library provides, will have questions. New library users will have questions on how to gain access to the electronic holdings. Some users will not have the time or inclination to go to the library. If my library doesn't offer virtual reference, I can guarantee other libraries will gladly answer their questions.

Is virtual reference at this point a great use of resources and a great replacement for visiting the library in person? Probably not, but then I know a lot more about available library collections and resources, including the electronic ones, than the average patron. If the average user gets a satisfactory answer to their questions, will they care that some print article obtainable from their library might have answered the question marginally better? My guess is, probably not! Nonetheless, sometime you will still need to tell a patron that only print resources have the answer or that you need them to come into the library to get additional help, beyond what is available virtually.

MCLS Consortium

When many librarians hear that library management is considering offering virtual reference service, especially from an organization with as ominous a name as 24/7, it conjures up nightmares of doing reference on the 2 to 4 a.m. shift. Not something that all but the most night-owlish of folks would look forward to.

So far, despite names like 24/7, very few individual libraries offer such continuously available service unless they belong to a larger consortium or a global company network, where service from sources around the country or around the world might fit into normal work hours. "Playing the time zones" may locate a librarian somewhere in the world for whom the 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. shift turns into the heart of the working day.

The 24/7 Reference is a project of the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System (MCLS), supported by federal LSTA funding, administered by the California State Library. To find out more about the project, please visit To quote, "The Service's goal is to provide libraries with the tools they need to do live reference on the Web. 24/7 reference was originally developed for use in our large library consortium, MCLS, located in southern California." The project has grown, and, although it started out as a service to and for members of the MCLS consortium, the LSTA grant has allowed a large number of libraries to add the service, including Boston College, Hartford Public Library, the University of Washington, Santa Monica Public Library, and Cornell University

The Metropolitan Cooperative Library System is an association of libraries in the greater Los Angeles area, which shares resources to improve library service to the residents of all participating jurisdictions. The 24/7 Reference service is staffed by local reference librarians, MCLS reference librarians, and library school graduate students hired by MCLS.

When users click on the Ask the Librarian logo at any participating library's Web site, the librarian answering the question may or may not work in their local library. When MCLS librarians cannot provide needed information, they refer patrons and/or their questions to their local library, the MCLS Reference Center, an expert, or another library. Note that MCLS had to hire additional graduate students to support their service; they did not go 24/7 with just the existing staff in their member libraries. Libraries using the 24/7 service can opt to participate with other libraries, taking questions from other consortium libraries, or choose only to deal with their own patrons. Because of the LSTA grant, MCLS member libraries choosing to participate in the 24/7 project do not have to pay for additional software or for training from the MCLS librarians on how to use the software.

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