Boston Library Consortium Offers Workshop on Virtual Reference
by Joan Shear and Michelle Pearse

On December 5, 2001, the Boston Library Consortium offered a workshop on virtual reference. A number of speakers touched on the topic of the evolution of the need for virtual reference service. While patrons are going to the web for their research questions, they are increasingly frustrated, either finding too much information with too little qwality cues to be meaningful, or not finding the specific information they really want. They then want help where they got stuck, which is on the web. We, as librarians, need to find the patrons where they do their research, and that means we need to find them, or rather have them find us, on the web.

Speakers from a variety of libraries shared their experiences. Issues discussed included planning for, staffing, marketing and evaluating virtual reference service. All the librarians who presented were very enthusiastic about this service. They also cautioned that some people are not, and that this type of interaction does not come naturally, and librarians need extensive training to be able to provide virtual reference service. Workshop attendees were also able to view demonstrations of various software products that could be used for a virtual reference project.

Kathe Collins of the Illinois State University Library in Normal, Illinois discussed the Ready for Reference ("R4R") Project where eight Illinois academic libraries have partnered to provide digital reference service to patrons. Library Systems and Services, Inc. (LSSI) supplies the software for the project and provides back up after hours and during times of peak use. Project liaisons coordinate activities with their respective libraries. Priority for the service is extended to those affiliated with the 8 institutions, then to those at other libraries in their Alliance System, followed by Illinois and non-Illinois residents as possible. In evaluating the system, they found that weekdays were busiest and that April was the busiest month, with the median question lasting a little over 13 minutes. She found that the key ingredients seem to be stable software, ongoing training and 2-3 hours per library per week. See http://www.alliancelibrarysystem.com/ready for more information. The final report on the R4R project is available at http://www.lis.uiuc.edu/~b-sloan/r4r.final.htm and includes a log of questions of actual questions posed by users during the busiest two-week period of the pilot project.

A panel discussion moderated by Steve Coffman followed. Steve mentioned that the cost of the software varies greatly. He mentioned free options such as AOL Instant Messenger, as well as a lower-priced option called "Live Person." He discussed how some software allows one to take patrons through databases to show a search, but remarked on the problems that might arise with authenticating patrons.

Jana Smith Ronan of the University of Florida's Reference Express (http://refexpress.uflib.ufl.edu ) then discussed staffing issues that arise in providing such services. Issues include personnel, what hours to provide, training, scheduling and communication. She suggested consulting e-mail usage, website or database usage and staff availability when determining what hours to provide. She also suggested the possibility of outsourcing during unpopular hours. For scheduling, she suggested setting a semester schedule with librarians being responsible for replacements, while avoiding scheduling chat sessions back to back with reference desk hours. Sixty-three percent of their users learned about the service through their website. Librarians are able to work from home when providing the service and lack of resources for such an arrangement has not been an issue.

Sarah Wenzel of MIT then discussed publicity and marketing. She stressed the need for marketing digital reference service with other reference services and the entire library. She stressed the important of service quality, returning customers and word of mouth, with the good customer service being internal marketing. She stressed the need to "think" marketing (marketing audits, e-mail stats and expanding publicity), managing technology and evaluating services.

The Boston Public Library's Marta Pardee-King then discussed the library's participation in "24/7 Reference" and demonstrated how the sofware they use works. For more information about this project, see http://www.247ref.org/ for general information about the project.

Jane Stewart of the University of Massachusetts-Boston wrapped up, remarking on the need to share our common resources and to show the library as a useful institution.


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