244 Modern Reference Services - Arizona State University

pastecoolAI and Robotics

Nov 14, 2013 (4 years and 8 months ago)



Modern Reference:

An Overview of
Reference Services

Jennifer O'Neill

San Jose State University




Traditionally reference librarians have staffed reference desks, waiting
to serve

patrons that need
assistance. Today, reference services can be access

anytime, anywhere, via email, chat and
even in virtual worlds like Second Life.
Pitfalls await in each, however, that can contribute to a
negative experience for patron and librarian.

A new library model has even been introduced that
does away with the reference desk altogether, instead creating help desks with paraprofessionals
that answer basic questions and forward tougher topics to the librarians. To stay relevant in an
y digital world, and to provide the best service possible, libraries must adapt to new
technology and serve patrons where they are.


Libraries are an ancient concept and have existed in one form or another for thousands of
years. They have contained all s
orts of materials, from clay tablets or one
kind manuscripts,
to board games or electronic books. Traditionally, they have been the go
to centers for research
and recreational reading needs. Reference desks have contributed to the image of librarians
gatekeepers of information, always available at the library to help patrons find whatever they are
looking for.
It was the late 1800s when Samuel Green of Worcester Free Library decided that
patrons would benefit from librarians' aid in selecting materi
als. He realized that librarians'
assistance "served a dual function, increasing the use of his library's collection and thereby
demonstrating the need for a library" (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006).

The idea of a library as a physical place
, necessary

to be

whenever a patron has an
information need

has faded since the advent of the internet. Today, many people that used to
visit the library for any sort of research need assume that the same information is available for
free, from home, on the World W
ide Web. The ease
use and ubiquity of the internet has
fueled predictions of the demise of libraries. Who needs books when we have Google? Now it's
up to libraries to demonstrate their relevance in a digital world. And librarians are in luck, for
use means an overwhelming amount of content available through patrons' search
engines, leaving patrons struggling to find quality information online. Librarians now must
assume a new role: as guides not only to their libraries' stacks, but to electronic
information, and
in this new 24/7 world,
they must be available anytime, anywhere a patron needs them.

In response to this demand, librarians have embraced new technology to create a new
setting for the old
fashioned reference interview.
Where once patron
s had to approach the
librarians at the neighborhood reference desk, they can now seek help electronically through
, various forms of chat and even in virtual worlds.



s with librarians is pretty straightforward: a patron sends a q
uestion, the
librarian responds
This is a form of asynchronous communication,
where communication
happens as the multiple participants check their messages and then write a reply.

"An asynchronous reference service allows librarians to answer requests on

their own
time, after having conducted all necessary research, which might enhance the accuracy
and completeness of replie
s. However, using the asynchro

channel inhibits question
cation. It excludes the non

verbal cues and synchronous feedback

that are crucial
for an effective reference interview, potentially inhibiting the effectiveness of the user

librarian interaction"
(Shachaf & Horowitz, 2008)

The delayed format of
s do allow the librarian time to thoroughly research a reference
stion, but this form of communication also slows down the reference interview and delay the
patron's receipt of useful information.
Libraries offer a link to email reference services

through their web page

include stipulations as to how

soon emails will be answered.
Commonly, libraries promise a reply within
48 hours. If the maximum time always passes
before receiving a reply, it might mean that several days will pass before
needed information is
received if the librarian needs clarif
ication or the patron needs more help.
Possibly due to this
time delay,
Lee (2004) found that email was more commonly used by patrons to ask
administrative questions than about online resources or research

Potentially, a

better tool for the
librarian interaction is chat.
There are
many different programs available for libraries to employ for chatting electronically with their
patrons. Libraries can choose to use commonly available instant messaging services that require
o financial investment, like those services available from Yahoo or Meebo. Or, they


may choose to invest time
(in training staff)
and money into purchasing commercial software
that facilitates chat by queuing users and offers co
browsing capabilities.


utilizing commercial software,
attempt to

replicate the in
person interview
as closely as possible. Upon the patron logging in, the librarian does a brief interview and then
searches for electronic information, sharing her screen so that the p
atron doesn't just receive
information, but
discovers how to seek the information required. Reference librarians,
in theory, do the same thing at a reference desk: they show the patron what they're doing on the
screen and lead patrons to whatever sources may be useful. After all, reference librarian
s don't
exist just to give answers, but to teach the skills necessary to find the answers independently.

Electronic communication i
s often perceived as convenient,

accessible and
likely to
be used by those that are uncomfortable
approaching referenc
e librarians in person
. But both
email and chat

open up helpful librarians to new problems: patrons that disappear in the midd
of an

or are rude in their inquiries where they

be rude in real life.
might accidentally close their

browser or navigate away in

the middle of a chat session.
AskNow reference website
must have had many patrons that disappeared suddenly
in the middle of an interview, for their website
s many instructions for patrons
. A few of these
tions are
: "Don't bookmark or print during the session. You will receive all session
information in a transcript after you exit if you provided a email address. If you must open a
second browser window during the session use the "Start" menu or "taskbar" s
hortcut. DO NOT
use Ctrl "N" or File "new" or your session will crash" ("How It Works," n.d.).

Literacy is also a major barrier to assisting patrons over chat or email. Patrons may
mistype their queries, leading to misunderstandings with librarians that
lead to frustration. Chat
interviews can also be delayed by slow typers, leading to aggravation on both ends. Even fast


typing is still slower than normal speech, however. In analyzing one particular transcript, Lee
(2004) found that a "163
word conversat
ion took 7:21 minutes. If the conversation were spoken
it would have taken approximately 70 seconds. This is approximately 600% longer." This
particular patron hung up partway through the interview.

performed a study of an Australian "Ask a Librarian
" service that analyzed chat and

reference service. Out of 128 chat "calls" made to the service in the study period, only 66%
were actually successful in connecting with a librarian. Lee found that an average of 57 words
are used for an


while 162 words were used in chat. "This raises the possibility that
chat reference services

more so than email

may give rise to 'chit chat' on the part of either
parties, and evidence of this was found when transcripts were analysed."
In contrast to
being mostly used for asking administrative questions,

more questions about online resources
were asked in chat.
It seems no matter how hard librarians try to electronically replicate an in
person interview

through chat and email
, technology issues a
nd the electronic barrier foil the

Tenopir (2004) argues that
reference services offered via chat are not practical or
. Thousands of libraries offer some sort of chat reference,

but positive information
outcomes are low and frustration with the services is high. "
Commercial call centers have
abandoned chat because it averages twice as long to answer a chat question as it does a phone
question. Also, most people don't like chat fo
r serious information because they have other and
less costly reference options, namely email and the telephone."

Both of the above cited sources are several years old, but the usefulness of chat services
hasn't seemed to improve. Eric Zino

(2009) is a reference librarian and is also an avid user of
virtual reference, particular

chat reference. He writes that

one reason

he is disappointed by


virtual reference services


because the librarians u
sually don't perform reference interviews,
hich begs the question: how can librarians help customers without understanding what the
customer is talking about?"

He also

writes that he

is dismayed by the quality of the reference sources he is referred to.

"During one VR session, when I asked the l
ibrarian for information on how to make
motions during meetings (information that Robert's Rules of Order would have supplied), I
was sent a number of web sites on meeting etiquette. That was the librarian acting like a
computer. Google
like matching got m
e frustrated, understanding would have gotten me
results. Nearly every VR service I've seen signals in some way that customers can talk to
real librarians. So the first step toward improving VR is for librarians to stop acting like

For any ref
erence service to be truly successful, so that patrons feel like their needs have been
fulfilled, librarians have to provide the same quality service that they would in person. Until that
happens, email and chat reference are second
rate services that will

never be fully utilized.

The newest frontier for reference is virtual worlds, like Second Life.
Virtual worlds are
created lands that users explore via the use of avatars. In Second Life, which is free,
most avatars take the form of humans but t
he platform allows for a seemingly endless variety of
forms. Users can interact with others by chat or instant message.
Mirroring real
life activities
Second Life users can buy virtual land, build virtual houses and have virtual toys. Many items
must be b
ought using Second Life currency, called Linden Dollars. Users can purchase this
virtual currency with real dollars or can earn it by performing certain activities in Second Life.
Other examples of virtual worlds are the massive multi
player online game Wo
rld of Warcraft
and the children
oriented Club Penguin.



The most famous of online virtual worlds

with over 14

million members
, Second Life has
become a magnet
for new library development and new forms of providing library services.
Many libraries, publi
c and academic, have purchased their own virtual land to build virtual
information centers, where patrons, through their avatars, can browse resources and receive help
from real librarians.
Like chat and

reference, visiting a virtual library is
convenient way for patrons to receive library services where they already are. Such virtual
interactions are just as informal as other electronic communications and allow the patron to avoid
the time and in
person anxieties that visiting a real refer
ence desk might provoke.

Reference staff
at these virtual desks can offer the same help they offer outside of virtual worlds through email
and chat

and often can share electronic resources that the library holds right in Second Life

Since purcha
sing virtual land and building virtual buildings costs real money, it can be
hard for librarians to justify the expense. But the new trend of offering a virtual library help desk
is born out of the library's mission to provide service to the user where the

user needs it.
Godfrey (2008) wrote:

"Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons for virtual reference service is to offer
services at their point of need. Previously, libraries waited for users to visit their physical
location. Reference librarians s
at at the desk waiting for users to approach them. This
approach has changed in recent years; librarians are now
moving to where their users are."

With d
oomsday predictions of libraries being killed by the internet, a flexibility and willingness
to engage
patrons using new technology keeps libraries relevant and encourages more use.

While engaging the patrons where they are

is a sound mission for librarians

Second Life may not be the best location for reference desks because of bad behavior on the part


of some users. The use of digital avatars obscures identities and allow many users to feel less

often in a good way, as
electronic interaction can bolster some patrons' confidence.
But the same lack of inhibition also can allow more rudeness to

manifest in a world that doesn't
the same

consequences for such behavior as real life.

Thompson (2009) lists the basic ways that real patrons can cause problems in virtual
worlds. She writes that some patrons become "over
emotional" or become overl
y argumentative
with the intent of having an altercation. Others engage in sexual harassment by asking
inappropriate questions of library staff members. She also describes problem patrons as those
"who arrive naked, who are seriously sexually aggressive, o
r who decide to perform sex acts at
the library." Other abuses of virtual library services are those with too
large or distracting
avatars, or whose avatars are so complex that they drain server resources, slowing down
everything else that is happening in
the nearby vicinity. Lastly, some patrons disrupt service by
behaving aggressively

using their avatar to push others around, or pinning them against virtual

while new platforms like Second Life may lack the social mores that govern
avior in reality,
such problem behavior
in virtual worlds
is not
typical. Real

sometimes to have to deal with

problem patrons

Thompson herself noted that she
has had to deal with verbally abusive and drunk patrons as well as vandals. Bad behavior can
anyplace at anytime
. Virtual bad behavior is a little more likely when perpetrated behind
a mask of anonymity
, however,

d in a "virtual world tends to be a bit more 'over the top' in
nature and does not fit into our learned expectations."

Back in the real world, reference desks might just disappear all together. The librarians of
University of California, Merced, which ope
ned in 2005, decided their library would do just fine


without a reference desk at all (Davidson & Mikkelsen, 2009).
Bound to a desk, traditional
reference librarians sit and wait for patrons to approach. "Although librarians may often be
characterized by t
heir eager willingness to assist users, sitting at a desk waiting for customers is
not typical of professionals in other fields and may send the wrong message about the value of
our services."

Instead, the

UC Merced

library installed two helpdesks that ar
e staffed by students.
"Library staff trained students to equip them with the skills to perform circulation operations,
provide basic reference, and refer more complex questions to library staff."
Davidson and
Mikkelsen point out that the services of a ref
erence desk are in reality

rather limited.
, the librarians are only available in the hours the library is open, and "access is
limited to those who actually walk through the library doors and muster up the courage to ask for

Those th
at sit at reference desks often have to answer the same trivial questions over and
over, with an in
depth research question coming only occasionally. The librarians at UC Merced
figure that these
everyday inquiries

are better answered by trained paraprofes
sionals. UC Merced
operate in
the assumption that their time is better spent managing larger problems
while being available to answer reference questions that their help desk staff can't whenever
needed. The students that staff the help desks ar
e trained to answer basic questions, including
where to find resources, and to summon a librarian whenever they have a question they can't
answer. "Overall, the library leadership strives to have librarians manage big solutions with big
payoffs rather than

solving the same or similar questions repeatedly, which can be a regular
occurrence at a reference desk."

Besides being "on
call" whenever a patron needs a librarian at a help desk, UC


Merced librarians offer appointments to assist patrons in their res
earch. Scheduling these

happen at a later time
gives the librarians time to prepare and makes their

comprehensive and useful. The librarians also are fluent in

and often prefer

communications, like

or instant message,

to in
person chats so that they are available
whenever they are needed. I
n the best spirit of Web 2.0, UC Merced's
librarians want as many


as possible

to be recorded and available t
o others. This is a concept
much like a

"Frequency Asked Ques
tion" list

if one
student has a question, another
might have the same. "A
reference desk interaction typically involves a conversation between two individuals
that is not re
purposed or made available to assist others

The future of reference desks will likely remain in the electronic realm as libraries strive to
improve and expand their services. Library Journal
(Kuzyk & Roncevic, 2008)

asked its readers
to describe what they think "Reference 3.0" would look like. Answe
rs ranged
from descriptions
of visions

everyone will have "
a sound/picture electronic device engineered by a black
centrifuge composed of energy and photoelectric cellular things that will instantaneously contact
and compress stuff about the univers
e and all its informational globules
" to rebranding and
redescribing reference services

helpful rebranding of the term reference to
mething more intuitive such as 'help,' 'research assistance,' or 'research guidance.'" Others hope
for broa
dening reference appeal to those not even thinking of libraries: Reference 3.0 will "
reference content as an attraction to users skimming along in the visible web to entice them into
their library’s content. If successful, this will bring the many valu
able resources in libraries to
users who weren’t explicitly looking for them.
" Still another hopes for totally customizable
content and access to it

creating access points specifically created for each user.

Regardless of how they are reached,
or how they reach out,
librarians are available to provide the


same old
fashioned assistance they have since Samuel Green's time. New electronic tools make
librarians more accessible, beyond library hours. Reference today also goes beyond the library
ing itself

new virtual desks are available and staffed in virtual worlds. Flexibility at
reference desks and the willingness to adapt to new forms of communication and technology
keeps libraries relevant and patrons engaged, and helps libraries provide t
he best service they
possible can. As technology evolves, face
face reference interviews over computers might
become commonplace, or

new versions of

reference desks might find homes in applications
designed for iPhones, or

access points to more help

ht be built
in to electronic reference
materials. As long as libraries are determined to provide the best services to the greatest number
of patrons, they will keep their relevancy and will help create a more information literate society.




Cassell, K. A., & Hiremath, U. (2006).
Reference and information services in the 21st c

an i
New York, NY: Neal

Davidson, S., & Mikkelsen, S. (2009). Desk bound no more: reference services at a new research

university library. The Reference Librarian, 50(4), 346
355. Retrieved November 14,

2009, from Library Literature and Information
Full Text.

This article was not retrieved from any of the Big Three because I discovered it when
browsing for a research topi

Godfrey, K. (2008). A
new world for virtual reference
Library Hi Tech
, 26(4), 529

Retrieved November 16, 2009, from
Library Literature and Information Science

DIALOG file 438;

text retrieved November 21, 2009

from Library Literature and

formation Full Text

Kuzyk, R., & Roncevic, M. (2008). Future
Present; What's possible now and coming soon in

reference. Library Journal, 133
(19), 4
4. Retrieved December 3, 2009, from LexisNexis.

Lee, I. J. (2004). Do virtual reference librarians dream o
f digital reference questions?: a

qualitative and quantitative analysis of email and chat r
Australian Academic

and Research Libraries
, 35(2), 95
110. Retrieved November 21, 2009,
from Library

Literature and Information Science DIALOG file 438;

text retrieved November 21,


from Library Literature and Information Full Text

Tenopir, C. (2004). Rethinking virtual r
Library Journal
, 129(18), 34
34. Retrieved

November 16, 2009,
from Library Literature and Information Science DIAL
OG file 438;

text retrieved November 21, 2009

from Library Literature and Information Full Text



Shachaf, P., & Horowitz, S. M. (2008). Virtual reference service evaluation: adherence to RUSA

behavioral guidelines and IFLA digital reference guidelin
Library and Information

Science Research
, 30(2), 122
137. Retrieved November 16, 2009,
from Library

Literature and Information Science DIALOG file 438;

text retrieved November 21,


from Library Literature and Information Full Text

, S. H. (2009). Pixilated problem patrons, or, the t
rials of working virtual reference

and what we've learned from it.
The Reference Librarian
, 50(3), 291
296. Retrieved

November 16, 2009,
from Library Literature and Information Science DIALOG file 438;

text retrieved November 21, 2009

from Library Literature and Information Full Text

Zino, E. (2009). Let's fix virtual r
Library Journal
, 134(2), 94
94. Retrieved November

16, 2009,
from Library Literature and Information Science DIALOG fil
e 438;


retrieved November 21, 2009

from Library Literature and Information Full Text