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Book Review: Implementing Digital Reference Services

Ben Wynne reviews a collection of papers from the Third Annual Virtual Reference Desk Conference.

This book, first published in the United States by Neal-Schuman, brings together revised and updated papers originally presented at the Third Annual Virtual Reference Desk Conference held in Orlando, Florida in 2001. As such it has an almost entirely American focus although most of the issues addressed are equally relevant to libraries elsewhere.

The papers are organised into six sections. The intention is to reflect the stages followed in establishing any new service - from identifying the need, to project inception, implementation and evaluation. Part I, entitled ‘Identifying the Need for Digital Reference Services’, takes two e-mail based services as examples. The three papers in Part II - ‘Managing Key Digital Reference Issues’ - consider privacy issues, the impact of copyright law and licences on service delivery and the potential use of artificial intelligence in digital reference services (to adopt the term used in the title of the book). Part III - ‘Implementing Real-Time Reference Service’ and Part IV -‘Conceiving and Implementing Collaborative Reference Services’ - are largely devoted to case studies, the latter involving collaboration between a number of libraries. Finally, research into the use of digital reference and the evaluation of digital reference are covered in Parts V and VI respectively.

These papers illustrate a great diversity of digital reference services with respect to the type and level of service offered, the technical complexity - or otherwise - of the software used and the extent of collaboration between libraries. Many libraries answer enquiries by e-mail. There is an increasing trend towards use of software that supports interactive communication with enquirers. A few libraries are exploring automated enquiry answering systems such as the Open University in its OPAL project, (a solitary UK contribution to this book).

Such diversity makes it difficult to define what is meant by ‘digital reference’. These papers alone use a variety of terms to refer to reference services in the electronic environment, including ‘virtual reference’, ‘digital reference’, ‘online reference’ and ‘real-time reference’.

In the final analysis, however, surely what matters is the appropriateness and value of such services for their target audiences? In this respect, this book makes clear that much remains to be achieved. In particular, in a very useful literature review, Melissa Gross, Charles R. McClure and R. David Lankes note that, particularly compared to non-library providers such as ‘Ask Jeeves’, “ - libraries that provide digital reference services report that they receive relatively few requests from users.” (p.173). They highlight a number of issues that need to be addressed if digital reference services are to really make their mark. “This review of the literature indicates that while interest in digital reference is strong, progress is hampered by a lack of economic models, strong evaluative research and a lack of user input”. (p.178)

This book does little to address these gaps. Nonetheless, a clear message comes across that libraries cannot afford to ignore digital reference services. There is a need to move beyond a stage in which many libraries have been experimenting with digital reference. More attention needs to be given to finding solutions to shared problems, such as: the need for quality definitions and technical standards, understanding the dynamics of the ‘reference interview’ in the electronic environment and finding ways to market the service effectively.

If you are considering introducing or enhancing a ‘digital reference’ service of some kind, these papers do identify many issues that need to be addressed. An index is included and many of the papers contain useful lists of references for further reading. As a collection of conference papers, the book does not, however, add up to a guide to implementing digital reference services as such. Its title could, therefore, be found somewhat misleading.

Author Details

Ben Wynne
e-Strategy Leader
University of Sussex Library

Email: b.b.l.wynne@sussex.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/library/

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Article Title: “Book Review: Implementing Digital Reference Services”
Author: Ben Wynne
Publication Date: 30-October-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue 37
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue37/wynne-rvw/