Digital Reference Services in Academic Libraries

By Janes, Joseph; Carter, David et al. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Digital Reference Services in Academic Libraries


Janes, Joseph, Carter, David, Memmott, Patricia, Reference & User Services Quarterly


To identify the proportion of libraries conducting digital reference service and to examine the characteristics of those services, we conducted a survey of 150 academic library Web sites. Approximately 45 percent of the surveyed libraries offered digital reference services, with higher proportions among larger and more comprehensive institutions. We also examined: direct links from library homepages, ways in which users submit questions, FAQ documents, policies, technological barriers, and the role of institutional control.

The new phrase "digital reference" encompasses two old ideas: that one of the primary professional functions of a library and its staff is to help people find information, and that libraries and librarians should take advantage of new technologies to aid them in their work. Digital reference is merely the most recent in a long string of examples of librarians examining new technologies, learning about them, evaluating them, and incorporating them in their daily work, extending not only their own professional capabilities but the reach of those technologies.

Although there has been much discussion of digital reference work over the past few years, little data exists about this quickly emerging area. As participants in the Internet Public Library, one of the first large-scale digital reference services, we were interested in finding out what our colleagues were doing, who was building and providing services, and what those services were like. We conducted a survey of 150 randomly selected academic libraries to answer two basic research questions: (1) what proportion of libraries conduct digital reference services? and (2) what are the characteristics of those digital reference services? The purpose of presenting the data from this preliminary study is to further inform the discussion on developing services and practice, generate ideas, and pose questions for further examination and research.(1)

Review of Related Literature

There has been a great deal of writing in the professional and research literature on digital reference services and the use of the Web in reference work. Many of these have been case studies, including the fine work of Lankes and others on the Virtual Reference Desk project, as well as work in the U. K. at EARL, at the National Museum of American Art, in medical libraries, and in academic libraries, including an article on the "well-kept secret" of e-mail reference.(2)

There have also been some studies on the use of the Web in answering reference questions by Zumalt and Pasicznyuk; Janes and McClure; Gabriel; Tenopir and Ellis; Hsieh-Yee; and Bushallow-Wilbur.(3) Guidance on building digital reference services can by found in Lagace; Lagace and McClennen; and Fishman.(4) Broader, more conceptual contributions have been made by Sloan and Kautzman.(5) Perhaps Ryan's is the most useful article for this work, as she examined previous technological innovations in reference work, specifically mail, telephone, and teletype. She concluded that these technologies were quickly and effectively adapted and adopted, that policies and limitations to those services soon followed, and that librarians used them not only to extend the reach of their work but also to communicate with each other.(6)

Methodology

We chose to focus on academic libraries in investigating these questions for two reasons. First, it was our impression that many academic libraries were incorporating digital reference at the time, which would give us more examples to look at in detail. Second, it was easier to find Web sites for colleges or universities than for public libraries, which facilitated data collection. However, many public libraries provide high-quality service to their users via digital means, and we hope to be able to conduct a further investigation into those services in the near future.

We could find no guidance in the reference literature for a definition of "digital reference service," so we developed our own: a mechanism by which people can submit their questions and have them answered by a library staff member through some electronic means (e-mail, chat, Web forms, etc. …

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