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Providing virtual reference service

Information Today [April 2001]


Virtual reference service--the delivery of personalized reference resources to users outside the physical library--has become a major issue in the last year or so. While this isn't an entirely new idea, many libraries are now beginning to explore more sophisticated ways to take advantage of the Web-based technologies that can help them offer these services. There is also considerable interest in developing collaborative approaches in which groups of libraries can efficiently work together to deliver virtual reference services to their remote users.

By providing key services through the Web, libraries have expanded their reach beyond their physical walls--although we'll continue to offer collections and resources that can only be taken advantage of by those who come to the library. Many folks will continue to visit our libraries to borrow materials, read, study, and use the traditional and electronic content that comprise our collections. But it's becoming increasingly important to expand the services available to those who don't physically visit the library.

Libraries, in general, are channeling more of their resources toward Web-based information services. We've invested heavily in Web-based OPACs and in subscriptions to Web-based information services, and work hard to construct new digital collections. As our content becomes more Web-based and more actively used by patrons outside the walls of our libraries, we also need to provide avenues of support to these remote users. In addition, we must be careful not to be overshadowed by non-library companies that seek to generate revenues by offering similar services to our clientele--and not necessarily in ways that seem adequate from the library's perspective.

To achieve this, libraries have begun to explore ways of expanding their reference services via the Web. Libraries are service-oriented organizations. Most librarians feel it isn't sufficient to simply offer their content on the Web. Rather, they feel they should complement that content with professional experts who can assist patrons in learning to use these resources and in finding the information they need.


As they enter the realm of virtual reference operations, libraries can benefit from technologies and service models developed for the commercial arena. The evolution of e-commerce stimulated the development of systems that provide personalized customer service on the Web. As merchants began to sell their wares online, they soon realized that superior service matters just as much on the Web as it does in their brick-and-mortar shops. Quality merchandise, competitive pricing, and excellent service are all factors in building an online business.

A new industry then sprouted to provide customer relationship management (CRM) on the Web. CRM involves software and services that enable organizations to deliver personal assistance to remote customers. These services have been designed to supply efficient tools to service providers, allowing them to give personal assistance to a high volume of customers in very efficient ways. The CRM industry offers significant expertise in interacting with customers. Almost all corporations with a large Web presence take advantage of some type of CRM system to deliver technical support and customer service.

Virtual Reference Environment

Libraries face a similar challenge as an increasing number of our patrons don't come into the library, but use the Web-based resources that we provide for them. There is great interest in offering assistance and support for these products and in supplying some degree of general-reference service to remote users.

Providing reference support to remote users is nothing new. Libraries have long answered questions by phone, fax, e-mail, and even through videoconferencing systems. But the Web now allows us to offer remote support with more sophistication and immediacy, and maybe even do it with a more personal touch.

As I mentioned, in the last year or so, interest in providing digital reference service has grown enormously. Many libraries are now engaging in pilot projects or have begun production services. Virtual reference has been a hot topic at library conferences, and many vendors are beginning to offer products and services to support these efforts. Space doesn't allow for a comprehensive review, but we'll take a quick glimpse at these endeavors.

Virtual Reference Features

One approach to providing a virtual reference service is by using the same type of CRM software that's used by the commercial sector. This CRM environment lends itself in many ways to doing just that. Some of the features that need to be in a virtual reference product might include the following:

  • Knowledge base--The first line of attack in delivering remote reference assistance lies in having a store of information that users can consult before going to resources that require human intervention. Not every question that comes to a reference desk is unique. Patterns aren't likely to be different on the Web. A very useful feature to have in a virtual reference environment might be a database of frequently asked questions. This database should be easily searchable and have clear, complete questions and answers that are easily understood. Such a knowledge base can also be a valuable resource for the library staff members who provide virtual reference service.
  • Online chat--Chat or instant messaging has become an extremely popular way of communicating on the Web, especially with younger users. Instant messaging involves a two-way conversation in real time--just like a telephone call, except that it uses text instead of voice. Chat sessions offer an immediate and personal flavor; the remote user feels like there really is someone on the other end of the line. In the library context, instant messaging can be used to answer simple questions since it doesn't necessarily lend itself to long and complex answers.
  • E-mail--Even when a question is initiated in a chat session, there will be many cases in which it involves a complex answer that may not be immediately available. Once the answer has been developed, it can be sent to the patron's e-mail address. E-mail will also continue to be a popular method for users to submit questions to the library. Many prefer to thoughtfully compose an e-mail rather than having to type as they think in a chat session.
  • Co-browsing--A more sophisticated approach to providing assistance on the Web involves the ability to interact with and control the user's Web browser. Especially in providing support for Web-based databases, e-journals, and the like, it's very helpful to have a certain degree of control over the remote user's Web browser. The librarian might want to see what's currently displaying on the patron's browser, operate the patron's session by remote control, or push other Web pages to him or her. Through these co-browsing features, the librarian can much better visualize the user's problem and can demonstrate solutions more easily.
  • Pre-constructed messages--In operating a virtual reference environment, there are many parts of a typical exchange that are often repeated. Such things as the standard greeting to a visitor as a session begins, the sign-off message, and basic instructions for the major library databases are examples of texts that might be automated. In order to reduce the amount of typing required by the virtual reference system's operator, there should be some facility for sending frequently used text to the remote user through a single keystroke or mouse click.
  • Logging and statistical reporting--It's important to have the ability to learn how the system is being used, to see patterns of use, and to evaluate the effectiveness of the overall system. Most CRM systems include a number of reporting features that can help libraries answer these questions.

CRM Systems

Some CRM systems that libraries use to provide reference service include the following:

  • eGain ( basis of the Virtual Reference Desk product created by Library Systems & Services, LLC (LSSI). This is a Web-based system that includes chat, co-browsing, and many other features.
  • LivePerson ( chat, co-browsing, and other features. It's a totally Web-based solution, requiring no hardware or software to be installed by the library.
  • WebLine ( sophisticated call-center system that's the basis of the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System's 24/7 Reference Project. WebLine was acquired by Cisco Systems in September 1999.

Chat Utilities

While the full-blown CRM systems offer a great deal of sophistication to the virtual reference environment, they're more complex to operate and require a significant financial investment. A lower-cost approach to virtual reference might involve a simple chat-based utility. A chat utility allows a managed two-way text conversation between the reference provider and the remote library user, but doesn't necessarily offer the ability to view the contents of the user's browser window or to push Web pages. It also doesn't have some of the other features available in the CRM applications.

The advantage is that most chat-based services are free. Netscape's Instant Messenger and Microsoft's MSN Messenger Service are very popular in the home-computing environment and have been adopted by some libraries for virtual reference. But HumanClick ( and Livehelper ( are the utilities more libraries have selected for chat-based virtual reference services. For those libraries that prefer open source software, Temple University has created a chat-based utility called Camden ([sim]jlabonsk/camden.html).

Gerry McKiernan, a librarian at Iowa State University Library, maintains a Web page that provides information on a sampling of libraries that offer live virtual reference assistance and t

View Citation
Publication Year:2001
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Information Today
Publication Info:Volume 18 Number 04
Issue:April 2001
Publisher:Information Today, Inc.
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Library Systems Today section / "Systems Librarian" column
Subject: Digital reference service
Record Number:9105
Last Update:2022-11-25 14:27:38
Date Created:0000-00-00 00:00:00