NELLCO and Virtual Reference
by Tracy L. Thompson, Executive Director
New England Law Library Consortium (NELLCO)

Electronic reference, digital reference, live reference, remote reference, synchronous reference, chat reference; all of these terms are used to refer to reference service provided in an online environment in real time. The term virtual reference seems to have won out, so I will use it here for simplicity's sake. But in using this term, let me first clarify that I prefer the definition of virtual, when applied to this technology, that is set forth in the online edition of the OED (http://www.oed.com) under virtual, a. (and n.)1.a. Possessed of certain physical virtues or capacities; effective in respect of inherent natural qualities or powers; capable of exerting influence by means of such qualities. I realize the definition originally intended is more akin to 4.g. Computers. Not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so from the point of view of the program or the user. The former definition, if we must use the term virtual, more accurately describes the kind of service that we hope to provide!

Last summer, when Diane Klaiber was passing the NELLCO torch, she and I had a discussion about the role of virtual reference within the consortium. At that time, although I was very interested in this vehicle for the provision of reference service, the concept seemed still in its infancy and the idea of a NELLCO initiative was something to keep in the back of my mind. As I began to speak with librarians and library directors however, it became clear that there was interest in and need for the technology now. As I dug deeper I realized that this is a technology whose time has come, and many libraries have already made exciting and successful forays into the world of virtual reference. I learned a great deal about the current state of the art by attending the 3rd Annual Virtual Reference Desk Conference in Orlando last November. I would recommend this conference to anyone considering a virtual reference service. The next VRD conference is slated for Nov. 11-12, 2002 in Chicago. For more information about the conference see http://www.vrd.org.

Virtual reference solutions cover a broad spectrum. Simple text-based chat software, such as Rakim, is freely available in a beta version at http://styro.lib.muohio.edu/rakim/ and may provide a perfectly acceptable solution. At the VRD conference a special library had selected this type of simple solution primarily as a means to enhance access to their print collection for their narrow, on-site user base. They and their users were thrilled with the results. Bringing up the middle are solutions like Live Assistance (http://www.liveassistance.com/), which comes with a price tag and includes text-based chat and page pushing but does not yet employ co-browsing. At the other end of the picture are higher-priced, high-functioning solutions like Convey Systems (http://www.conveysystems.com), LSSI (http://www.lssi.com) and 24/7 (http://www.247ref.org). Each of these high-end solutions has its strengths and weaknesses. All of them combine text-based chat with page pushing and co-browsing features, which allow reference librarians to steer their online patrons' computers. Convey Systems even employs video and voice over IP (voIP), but also requires a one-time client-side download that many librarians feel would be a real deterrent for patrons at this stage of development of the technology. All of these solutions, including the freeware, include transcripts of every reference session saved in an archive and copied to the patron for later reference. Some of these solutions have very versatile reporting applications that will allow a provider of the service to really mine their statistics. All of this development is happening very quickly, and the early implementers really have a hand in directing its growth.

Why should law libraries consider this approach to reference? Well, it's no secret that our users are not visiting our physical space in the numbers we once saw.1 Instead, our users are often `remote'. `Remote user' is another term I use with some hesitancy, and I concur completely with Ann Lipow of Library Solutions Institute and Press who said in a keynote address in 1999, "rather than thinking of our users as remote, we should instead recognise that it is we who are remote from our users. We need to change how we do business in such a way as to get us back together."2 (Emphasis added) Our patrons are becoming accustomed to working in a physical space of their own choosing and on their own time, whether it's the local coffee shop at 5:00 a.m., their dorm room at midnight, or their office or home between other tasks. They are becoming accustomed to portable access to the resources they need. The library may seem restrictive and confining to patrons today, and to an even greater extent to our patrons of tomorrow. However, the need for reference assistance still exists, and may in fact be magnified as our patrons struggle to navigate the growing corpus of electronic resources available to them. How can we effectively "get us back together"? The answer seems obvious. We must go to them. Virtual reference can get us there.

After a meeting with the NELLCO Directors and a subsequent meeting with the NELLCO Reference Liaisons last fall, NELLCO decided to test the waters. A Virtual Reference Task Force was established to investigate the idea of an online, collaborative legal reference service and develop a pilot project. The Task Force is composed of 10 volunteers, each representing a different NELLCO institution. The Task Force has made some progress. At a meeting held several weeks ago at the Connecticut Judicial Branch Library in Middletown, CT we arrived at some decisions about the pilot. First, we hope to have our software in place by mid-summer so that we will have an opportunity to train staff and practice our skills on a limited basis. The full-scale pilot would then be rolled out to our patrons in order to coincide with the start of the academic year. The pilot would run for one full academic year and we would evaluate the service in the spring of 2003. We expect to employ a system architecture for the pilot that would see the vendor acting as an application service provider, with our service housed on their centralized server. This would minimize the IT involvement for participating NELLCO members and maximize the ease of access for those librarians staffing the service. We plan to staff two `seats' on the service; at any time our service is operational two librarians can be on duty and serving patrons at the same time.

The Task Force has seen a number of software solutions to consider. One of our members, Scott Matheson at Yale, put together a Rakim-based chat solution for the group to evaluate. A representative from 24/7 Reference attended our Reference meeting last fall and demonstrated their software. At a meeting of the Task Force a few weeks ago I demonstrated Live Assistance to the group. After discussion about what we expect our needs to be in this new environment we chose a solution that we think will be the best for our pilot. I am working to negotiate some favorable pricing for our limited pilot project so I won't reveal our choice at this time.

We don't yet know which NELLCO members will opt to take part in the pilot, but it will be open for participation to the entire membership. Many of the decisions that the Task Force needs to make are chicken-and-egg choices. For example, we don't know what sort of staffing commitment we will need from participating libraries until we see how many participants we will have, but members may not want to commit to participation until they know what the staffing commitment will be. We are working to solve these riddles.

As with the provision of any new service, there are obstacles. In a collaborative environment there may be more obstacles, since individual missions vary. Our obstacles include issues surrounding hours, staffing, service policies and guidelines. We are all anxious to overcome these stumbling blocks and provide a viable service for our users. I think we can succeed. We need to focus on the service that we hope to provide collaboratively, rather than the ways in which we are diverse independently. We need to capitalize on the fact that we are all law librarians and we share a level of expertise. We need to recognize the good fortune we enjoy in having a patron base with a generally high level of computer literacy; a group well suited for this endeavor. We need to compromise and move forward. I think our patrons will be pleasantly surprised to find us in cyberspace!

(Footnotes)

1 See, for example, Suzanne Thorpe, "Trends in Law Library Public Services: Have You Seen Your Patrons Lately?" AALL Spectrum, 6 (Feb. 2002): 6.

2 Ann Lipow provided the keynote address at Information Online & On Disc 99: The Ninth Australasian Conference and Exhibition. For the full text of her comments please see http://www.csu.edu.au/special/online99/proceedings99/200.htm


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