Book Review: Implementing Virtual Reference Services

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Thomsen-Scott, Beth C., ed., Implementing Virtual Reference Services (Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2013), 152 pp., incl. index and Suggested Reading list. ISBN: 978-1-55570-899-3, $70.00 (paper).

“Virtual reference” is a concept that still sounds intimidating to many librarians – even as what is meant by it is now a dominant aspect of how librarians of all kinds, working in all types of institutions and organizations, actually provide services to patrons. At its simplest, “virtual reference” simply means any kind of reference transaction where the librarian and the patron are interacting using an electronic communication channel (1). It can include communication by e-mail, chat, a specific service or product such as Facebook, Second Life, Skype or Twitter, or any other current or future technology.

The very nature of law librarianship, with library patrons who can include attorneys working in offices around the world, students and professors on and off campus, judges, court employees, and members of the public makes it particularly important for law librarians to understand and use the tools and techniques necessary to implement effective virtual reference services. This book does just that – it brings together several short, readable essays on best practices in virtual reference services. This makes it valuable to any law librarian who is interested in reviewing and evaluating the many different technologies that can be used for virtual reference, and in learning about how these technologies have been used in real-world settings. It is obviously not a designed for a law library’s general collection, but as a work by and for librarians, it serves a particular and valuable purpose.

As with the other titles in the LITA Guide series of American Library Association books, the volume opens with an introduction that reviews the main qualities any library must consider when designing and implementing a virtual reference service, such as selecting appropriate technologies, establishing a reasonable staffing policy, training the actual staff, marketing the service, and evaluating and accessing any outcomes. The introduction also introduces several of the most common technologies that libraries actually use for providing virtual reference services.

The book’s main content is a set of eight individual essays. Several of these overview the features of a particular virtual reference technology and demonstrate how it has been used in one or more settings. The actual technologies that the chapters highlight include Twitter, Google Voice, instant messaging services in general, and even text messages, and the settings include several major research universities, an urban public library, and two library consortia. Some of the chapters emphasize the technologies, or services themselves, while others place more focus on the actual library systems and how the virtual reference service in general has been viewed by librarians and patrons. Each chapter is written by a professional librarian and structured for easy reading. Logical subdivisions, prominent section headings, frequent bullet points and text boxes, and numerous illustrations (primarily screenshots) make them easy to read and handy to use as guides. The language the authors use is generally professional, rather than academic, and the works cited sections are essentially suggestions for further reading than formal bibliographies. However, the volume also includes an excellent Suggest Reading list of relevant books, journal articles, papers, websites, and other materials that have been published on virtual reference in the last twenty or so years.

Probably the most interesting of the eight chapters, and certainly one that may be of most use to law librarians, focuses neither on a particular technology nor on a particular institution, but rather, on the broader idea of librarians embedded directly in virtual user communities using those communities’ tools to provide reference services. So, a librarian can be assigned as a research specialist to a class, and participate in the online discussions that the class’s students hold on a particular platform such as a forum, blog, or specialized discussion group. This is one of the longest chapters in the book, and perhaps the most intensely scholarly.

However, any law librarian who is considering this book should keep at least two things in mind. It is ultimately a volume that is focused on applications of particular technologies, not on general concepts. It does not – and cannot – address all of the possible technologies that a library can use for virtual reference For example, several libraries, both at law schools and in law firms, have been using the Altarama RefTracker product to manage virtual interactions with their patrons, but this service, and others similar to it, such as the Eos.Web Reference Tracking module, are not discussed at all, while LibAnswers only received a cursory overview in the opening chapter. Technologies change, and a guide to using technologies is only good until the next big change. Perhaps more importantly, none of the case studies and examples collected in this book feature a law library setting. They are useful as general guides, but not as templates. And, as with many case studies in library science, there is always the concern that a self-selection bias is in play, and the results that are presented are the best-case scenarios, and not representative of other attempts that were not as successful – examples of what Losee and Worley famously referred to as the “’how I done it good’ genre” (2) of publications in librarianship.

At the same time, even as an introduction and a collection of general guides, the value of this book is undeniable. Law librarians at law schools, law firms, courts, and public law libraries are practicing virtual reference every day. (3) And just as we work to meet the information needs of our libraries’ patrons, this book does a good job of meeting our own information needs.

Mikhail Koulikov is the Reference/Research Librarian at the New York Law Institute.

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(1) Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services, Reference and User Services Ass’n, American Library Ass’n (2004), http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/virtrefguidelines.

(2) ROBERT M. LOSEE, JR., & KAREN A. WORLEY, RESEARCH AND EVALUATION FOR INFORMATION PROFESSIONALS, at ix (1993).

(3) See Yasmin Morais & Sara Sampson, A Content Analysis of Chat Transcripts in the Georgetown law Library, 29 LEGAL REFERENCE SERVICES Q. 165 (2010); Christina Luini, Virtual Reference Service: A Case Study of QuestionPoint Utilization at the Gallagher Law Library (May 29, 2012) (unpublished MLIS paper, University of Washington),
http://lib.law.washington.edu/lawlibrarianship/CILLPapers/Luini2012.pdf
.

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