AUTHOR:R. David Lankes
TITLE:The Birth Cries of Digital Reference
SOURCE:Reference & User Services Quarterly 39 no4 352-90 Summ 2000

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In the May 1999 issue of American Libraries, David Tyckoson wrote, "In practice, e-mail reference service is far from adequate. Despite all of our publicity and promotion, patrons simply do not use it."(FN1) While it would be hyperbole to say that this statement alone led to this special issue on digital reference, it would hold a grain of truth. This comparison will illustrate. The AskERIC service of the National Library of Education averages more than one thousand reference inquiries per week to trained librarians and education information specialists; in operation since 1992, this service has seen a sustained 20 percent annual growth since its inception. This increase stands in sharp contrast to the reported 10 percent decline in face-to-face reference transactions occurring at our public and academic libraries.(FN2)
The National Library of Education is not alone in the growing use of digital reference. The Library of Congress has seen similar growth in its digital reference services. Morris County Library in New Jersey and the Internet Public Library have paved the way in providing reference resources and services on the Internet in a public library setting. The National Museum of American Art Reference Desk and the American Association of School Librarians' KidsConnect service have demonstrated the power of serving special populations at a distance. These library-based services answer more than one hundred thousand reference inquiries a year. This figure represents only a portion of the inquiries received by so-called "AskA" services and other digital reference services currently struggling with an overwhelming demand.
This demand has led to the emergence of several concerns, including:
* how to manage the overwhelming use of digital reference services;
* how digital reference changes library practice, such as the reference interview; and
* software and customer service operations that provide real-time service.
These concerns are considered in this special issue of Reference & User Services Quarterly. Taken as a whole, the articles in this issue demonstrate that e-mail reference and, more broadly, digital reference, are not only adequate but are important factors to be considered in the larger reference context. These papers are based on papers solicited for or presented at the Virtual Reference Desk First Annual Conference, "Reference in the New Millennium: Evolving Roles for the Information Professional," held October 14-15, 1999. Nearly 250 participants gathered at Harvard from across the globe to take part in presentations and workshops about how to reinvent reference in the age of the Internet.
In the first article in this issue, "Quality Standards for Digital Reference Consortia," Kasowitz et al. demonstrate that digital reference has gone beyond an e-mail address read at a reference desk. The authors explore the creation of a digital reference consortium of AskA services and libraries. This consortium was formed not to encourage patron use, but rather as a way to survive overwhelming use and success. One of the outcomes is a set of standards that can serve as a model for digital reference consortia and cooperation in general.
Bernie Sloan's statistic that only one reference question in one thousand is received from the Internet reminds me of the makers of horsedrawn carriages in 1900.(FN3) As these craftsmen looked at the number of automobiles on the road, they concluded that horse power would remain the predominant form of transportation for the foreseeable future. Certainly one or two automobiles amongst the horses could not portend a new way of getting from one place to another. Just as our society and institutions had to adjust to cars, so must we, the libraries and librarians, adjust to the new paradigm of networked information and services.
Unlike those carriage makers, librarians see the future. At the Virtual Reference Desk First Annual Conference, all but three of the participants reported that they were currently offering Internet-based reference services in some fashion. Supporting that trend, Gray's article "Virtual Reference Services: Directions and Agendas," demonstrates clearly that libraries are taking digital reference seriously. Gray shows how patrons' expectations and usage are changing in the technologically advanced academic setting. As technology adoption and Internet access grow in K-12 and consumer settings, these impacts will be increasingly felt by school, public, and special libraries.
Certainly one of the keystones in current reference practice is the reference interview. According to Tyckoson, digital reference lacks interactivity, and reference requires real-time interactions.(FN4) As a result, a growing number of library-based reference services are now providing 24-hour service, 7 days a week, 365 days a year through the Internet. While these services may use e-mail, the Web, or other asynchronous methods, they generally receive high satisfaction ratings from patrons and consistently prove the value of trained reference librarians in cyberspace. These digital reference services can create environments where librarians and patrons who fear the intimacy and potential embarrassment of face-to-face reference can contribute equally to those who revel in the reference interview. We assert that the value of the reference librarian is providing context to the practically infinite information resources available to today's library patrons, not the ability to produce a warm smile and easy conversation.
In his article "A Virtual Understanding: the Reference Interview and Question Negotiation in the Digital Age," Straw examines the reference interview in this new Internet environment. In "Moving Reference to the Web," McGlamery and Coffman look at software and customer service operations that provide real-time librarian/patron interaction without standing on either side of a physical desk. And in "Evolution or Entropy Changing Reference/User Culture and the Future of Reference Librarians," Wilson describes the microculture of the library in a decentralized and distributed information environment, where reference librarians no longer have a franchise on information provision. These articles discuss real work, real advancements, and real success in digital reference.
There is no doubt that there is much work to be done in digital reference. Recent initiatives from the Library of Congress and the long-standing work of the National Library of Education illustrate various ways of meeting the needs of the Internet patron. These types of debate are healthy. Internet-based digital reference compels us to re-evaluate all that we know about reference. We understand the reference interview. We understand the need for question negotiation. We feel comfortable with the practice of using human beings to provide context to users. Reference has evolved dramatically since we recognized the need for patrons to get human help while dealing with too much information and inadequate finding aids. From Taylor's groundbreaking work on question negotiation to Dervin's work on open-ended questions to the latest discussions of the consultative model, we have focused on helping patrons when we are looking them in the eyes.(FN5) It is now time to reexamine all of these assumptions in the light of a new connected world. Are they still true?
As libraries reinvent themselves from keepers of the knowledge, to gateways of knowledge, we must understand how these changes influence the reference function. The reference librarian simply cannot continue doing business as usual in an institution where: patrons have increased access from home; the resources used to answer questions are no longer selected by a library committee; and the population has come to expect instant answers. Reference librarians can no longer sit behind desks of wood to serve patrons in cyberspace.
Tyckoson is correct when he states that reference librarians are under pressure and face a changing future. He is also correct in asserting that reference needs the human touch.(FN6) Let us not, however, look at digital reference in its early stages and claim that is either unused or that we have seen the medium's full potential. Reference and reference librarians must continue to evolve. With additional tools, technology, and experience, digital reference processes will become increasingly manageable and efficient, and will minimize the workloads of already busy library staff. Readers of this issue should heed the cries of an infant digital reference field, or they will be deafened by the roars of the coming reference revolution.(FN7)
R. David Lankes is Director, Information Institute of Syracuse, and Assistant Professor, Syracuse University's School of Information Studies; e-mail: The articles in this issue are based on papers solicited for or presented at the Virtual Reference Desk First Annual Conference, "Reference in the New Millennium: Evolving Roles for the Information Professional," held October 14-15, 1999. Joanne Silverstein, Head of Research and Development, Information Institute of Syracuse, coordinated the compilation of these articles. Versions of some of these articles will also be published in Digital Reference Service in the New Millennium: Planning, Management and Evaluation, ed. R. David Lankes, John. W. Collins III, and Abby S. Kasowitz (New York: Neal-Schuman), in press.
Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 352-54

1. David A. Tyckoson "What's Right with Reference," American Libraries, 30 (May 1999): 58.
2. Anne G. Lipow, "Serving the Remote User: Reference Services in the Digital Age." Accessed May 15, 2000,
3. Cited in Tyckoson, "What's Right with Reference," 58.
4. Ibid.
5. R. Taylor, "Question Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries," College & Research Libraries 29 (1968): 178-94; Brenda Dervin and Patricia Dewdney, "Neutral Questioning: A New Approach to the Reference Interview," RQ 25, no. 4 (1986): 506-13; Stuart Sutton, "Future Service Models and the Convergence of Functions: The Reference Librarian as Technician, Author, and Consultant," in K. Low, ed., The Roles of Reference Libraries: Today and Tomorrow (New York: Hawthorn Press, 1996), 125-43.
6. Tyckoson, 58.
7. This editorial draws from a letter to the editor of American Libraries (published in a much shortened form). The author would like to thank the initial signatories of that letter that were omitted in the publication: Blane Dessy, Executive Director of the National Library of Education; Abby Kasowitz, Coordinator of the Virtual Reference Desk Project; Joseph Janes, Founding Director, Internet Public Library, Assistant Professor, School of Library and Information Science, University of Washington; Bernie Sloan, Senior Library Information Systems Consultant, University of Illinois Office for Planning and Budgeting; Maura Daly, Acting Director of the National Library of Education; Michael Eisenberg, Director, School of Library and Information Science, University of Washington; Joan Stahl, Administrator, Reference Desk Project, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Nancy A. Morgan, Coordinator of the Gateway to Educational Materials; Blythe Bennett, KidsConnect Q-and-A Coordinator; Pauline Lynch, AskERIC Coordinator; David S. Carter, Director, Internet Public Library; Joan Kad, Reference Librarian, Onondaga County Public Library; and Don Ely, member of National Task Force to plan the National Library of Education.