Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Quality Standards for Digital Reference Consortia

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Quality Standards for Digital Reference Consortia

Article excerpt

This article identifies a working set of standards by which to assess individual digital reference services (Internet-based human-mediated information services) and to define membership within a collaborative network of digital reference services. The standards are designed for the Virtual Reference Desk AskA Consortium, a group that represents several subject-area and information referral digital reference services geared in part to the K-12 education community. However, the standards can serve as a model for digital reference consortia and cooperation in general, This article presents the standards in the context of traditional and digital reference evaluation, describes the process by which the standards were created and revised, presents the standards as defined by multiple levels of adherence, discusses common themes reflected in the standards, and applies the standards to other digital reference contexts and consortia. Plans for continual evolution of the standards are also discussed.

In the emerging field of digital reference--the provision of human-mediated, Internet-based information services--little work has been done to define quality standards. Few research papers on the evaluation of reference services have been published. This article identifies a set of standards by which to assess individual digital reference services and to define membership within a collaborative network of digital reference services.

Measuring the Quality of Digital Reference Services

For the purpose of this article, the term "digital reference service" is used to represent all Internet-based, human-mediated information services, including those based in library settings and other types of organizations. Digital reference services can also be referred to as AskA services, as in "Ask a Scientist" and "Ask a Linguist." Service staff members responsible for answering user queries are referred to as experts, whether their expertise is in a specific subject area or a process, such as information referral. This article considers digital reference services in a variety of contexts that address different groups of users, including the K-12 education community (e.g., students, parents, educators).

Quality Standards in Reference Service

To some extent, digital reference can borrow from traditional reference in terms of identifying quality characteristics of reference service. The same basic goal applies to both forms of reference--helping users meet information needs--and many of the same processes and characteristics are considered important, including easily accessible service, instruction to users on finding information independently, knowledgeable staff, and interactivity to confirm the user's needs. However, the nature of the digital reference environment requires new applications and interpretations of quality characteristics. For instance, interactivity in face-to-face reference consists of effective in-person communications, while interactivity in digital reference can include exchange of e-mail messages or capturing of important information through a Web-based query form.

In reference service, it is difficult to establish quantitative standards for quality characteristics. Therefore, reference standards are mostly general, leaving individual libraries to set their own standards for quality or compare their situations to those of other libraries.(1) Studies that focus on defining quality in reference service offer some characteristics and components that can be generalized across institutions. Schwartz and Eakin identified a number of qualities and standards associated with good reference service and indicators of performance for evaluating the work of reference librarians. Their standards focus on librarian attitude, knowledge, skill, and appropriateness.(2) Mendelsohn identified four dimensions of quality reference service--knowledge, willingness, action, and assessment--as well as two prerequisites for quality service: time and morale. …

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