Academic journal article Journal of Education for Library and Information Science

Remote Reference in U.S. Public Library Practice and LIS Education

Academic journal article Journal of Education for Library and Information Science

Remote Reference in U.S. Public Library Practice and LIS Education

Article excerpt

The state of remote reference services in the United States was assessed by surveying remote reference availability at 100 U.S. public libraries, examining remote reference in the syllabi of American Library Association (ALA)-accredited library and information science (LIS) courses in the U.S., and analyzing national competencies and guidelines. Findings indicated that the telephone was the most common medium in use for remote reference services at public libraries, followed by e-mail and chat. In teaching, however, syllabi at LIS programs addressed digital remote reference media far more often than the telephone. Reference standards and guidelines primarily focused on general practices applicable to both remote and face-to-face reference work, rather than on specifics relevant to differing remote reference media types. Included in this study are recommendations to address this apparent disconnect among reference practices, teaching, and professional guidelines.


For more than 50 years, U.S. public libraries have provided remote reference services using a variety of information technologies, from correspondence mail in the 1940s and earlier1 to telephone reference in the 1930s to 1950s2 and reference by teletype in the 1 960s.3 In the 1990s, digital information technologies brought experimentation with remote reference via computer video conferencing,4 MOO (online text-based virtual environments),5 e-mail,6 and beginning in 2000, chat and instant messaging.7 By 2001, 48 million Americans were estimated to have used instant messaging and 100 million were e-mail users.8 By 2005 there were an estimated 134 million American cell phone users, 34 million of whom had sent text messages.9 Considering the popularity of these various digital media, it is not surprising that libraries began integrating them into their reference services.

There are indications that new generations of users will expect continued innovation in remote reference services from public libraries.10 Abram and Luther described young library users born since 1980 as accustomed to 24-hour information-seeking via computers, PDAs, and cell phone text-messaging, and advised librarians to "explore IM or other communication technologies that allow us to deliver good quality, interactive, remote reference services,"11 adding that "over 60% of workplaces have enabled IM for business use, sometimes at the demand of their newest employees."12

Current and future students graduating from LIS programs may be employed in libraries offering not only traditional face-to-face reference services, but also remote reference services requiring skills in using a variety of different media types. It is unclear, however, whether LIS reference curricula are preparing students not only to be adept in face-to-face reference services, but also to be ready to assist employers with a variety of remote reference services that patrons may expect and demand of libraries in the 21st century.

With these issues in mind, this study sought to address three research questions:

* With what frequency are remote reference services offered in U.S. public libraries, and do the remote reference services offered differ with the size of the libraries?

* To what extent are remote reference skills and concepts covered in LIS graduate education programs in the U.S.?

* To what extent do professional standards and guidelines address remote reference, and what behaviors and skills are needed for the successful provision of remote reference, as indicated in the guidelines?

The study employed multiple methods to address these three questions. First, reference services offered in a sample of 100 highly-ranked public libraries were examined to better understand the types of remote reference services that students may be expected to provide after graduating from LIS programs. Then, course syllabi of 40 LIS graduate programs were examined for the extent to which the remote reference media types were reflected in the teaching of students in LIS programs. …

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