Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

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Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

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Article excerpt

Lesson Learned from K-12 Digital Reference Services

The Internet has brought libraries to a crossroads. The nature of collection, service, and information organization is changing rapidly. There is considerable anxiety about changing roles and responsibilities in this new digital environment. While a great deal of research and development is occurring in both collection development (such as NSF's Digital Library Initiatives) and information organization (metadata), little attention has been paid to how reference and user services will function in this new digital environment. This article outlines some of the thinking in this area as it relates to K-12 digital reference services. These services answer thousands of questions every week and have addressed many issues involved in providing human-intermediated information and referral services via the Internet.

For the purposes of this article, digital reference services are defined as mediated interfaces between users in an "anomalous state of knowledge" and a collection of information.[1] The user's anomalous state of knowledge is operationalized as a question that needs to be answered. This question may be expressed as an e-mail request or a query to a system.[2] The collection is a set of information in the form of documents, files, and/or knowledge (including human expertise). In digital reference services, all information is delivered to a user electronically (such as via the Internet).

Mediation between the user and the collection is the central topic of reference research. Mediation can be performed either through a human expert (e.g., reference librarian) or an automated interface (e.g., online catalog). The primary purpose of the interface is to match the user's information need to the system's organization and capabilities.[3] The mediator (automated or human) becomes the user's advocate to the system or collection. While this view of reference is maintained in today's electronic reference environment, the role of the mediator is changed when the collection becomes vast (millions upon millions of documents), changing (with new Web sites and resources becoming available every day), and heterogeneous (with no common organizational scheme).[4]

Impacts of the Internet on Reference Services

The literature shows that greater access to the Internet and Internet tools has resulted in significant impacts on reference services. These impacts include new skills needed by information and reference librarians.[5] The Internet is also expanding traditional library collections and improving location and access to reference resources (e.g., ready reference materials and pathfinders through Web sites, access to catalogs and electronic reference sources through telnet). Most significant, the Internet allows reference services the ability to conduct entire reference transactions (from specifying users' needs to delivering information from the collection) via the Internet.[6]

A great deal of literature has focused on augmenting traditional reference services with Internet resources and capabilities. This literature ranges from evaluation criteria for online reference sources to discussions of technology used to locate and access Internet resources.[7] In these discussions, the interface to the user remains the same, but the collection is expanded to include Internet resources. These new resources change the reference environment. Mardikian and Kesselman present five "rationales for changing reference":

1. increasing access to resources beyond the library (networked resources including the Internet),

2. lack of geographic constraints for users ("users may no longer need to come to the library to obtain information"),

3. the need to differentiate services to different populations of users (i.e., inside an organization and outside an organization) in the face of shrinking budgets,

4. increases in complexity of information resources and the need for specialized knowledge, and

5. …

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