Libraries have always tried to make reference services easier to access, whether by telephone, fax, or e-mail, but these services do not fully take advantage of the immediacy and convenience of Web interaction. This article explores the possibility of using Web contact center software to offer reference assistance to remote users. Contact center software provides live interaction and collaborative tools, including call routing (to network better with subject specialists in remote locations) and collaborative browsing (allowing the reference librarian to guide the patron's browser to the appropriate URLs). The Metropolitan Cooperative Library System/ Santiago Library System consortium has received a grant to purchase contact center software and test its applicability for reference. The implications of this project, including a proposed virtual reference network, are discussed. If this approach lives up to its promise, and reference is moved onto the Web, perhaps then it may be possible to provide our patrons with access to the library anyway, anyhow, and anywhere.
It may be true that "[t]he beginnings of reference service are lost in antiquity," but formalized reference services have been an integral part of American libraries since the last quarter of the nineteenth century.(1) At the first American Library Association conference in 1876, librarians were urged to actively disseminate information, rather than to merely collect materials.(2) Since then, reference librarians have utilized the latest technologies to ensure that information seekers get what they need, in the most convenient method possible. The dream, naturally, is to provide reference assistance right when the researcher needs the information. To achieve this dream, librarians have offered their services in many modes, including mail, telephone, fax, e-mail, and library Web pages, all in an attempt to bring the reference librarian to the researcher, and thus enhance the value of the reference transaction. But are the researchers of today who simply go to the library's Web page receiving the same quality of reference service that they would have received one hundred years ago by walking up to the reference desk? Although much has been gained, has something been lost?
Experiments with Reference on the Web
It is almost a cliche to state that the Internet has brought new challenges, along with new opportunities. Today, researchers have access to more information at their desktop than was contained in an entire library of fifty years ago. Librarians have been quick to adopt the Internet to meet customer demand; even before the advent of the World Wide Web, the Library of Congress and many university libraries set up gopher sites that organized Internet resources by subject. Now the gopher sites have become Web sites, but the best of them still fulfill the same mission: to provide a useful subject directory of Internet resources, selected and evaluated by librarians.(3) Although these sites provide an excellent foundation for self-help, they do not provide the same quality of service as that obtained at the reference desk.
One obvious solution to this is for libraries to attach an e-mail form to their subject directory, thus providing a means for researchers to obtain information not found on the library's Web page. A recent survey of public libraries in Los Angeles County revealed that 40 percent of the libraries, in fact, offered some form of e-mail reference services.(4) Some e-mail reference sites also exist apart from physical libraries, such as the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org) and the AskA service from ERIC.(5) Although these services do provide a mechanism for users to ask questions, the transaction does not contain the same qualities as the face-to-face interaction with a reference librarian. First, response is not immediate. Typically the user must wait at least one hour, and sometimes up to two weeks, to receive a reply. …