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Digital Reference

[Note: For more recent information on digital reference, please see my blog.]

Until the Internet really began to take off in the mid-1990s, librarians relied on the mail, the telephone, and the fax machine to help users who were unable to come in to the library for reference assistance. With the advent of Internet-based tools, librarians now have a greatly expanded set of options. Some of these digital technologies allow only for asynchronous interactions (the user and librarian interact in a delayed fashion as opposed to a live one, such as in the case of e-mails sent back and forth between user and librarian). Others Internet options offer synchronous (or live) interaction that approximate at different levels the experience of the face-to-face reference encounter. Some live systems allow for user and librarian to send short messages back and forth via chat software; other systems allow for the librarian to take control of the user's browser as though the librarian and user were at a reference desk looking at a single computer monitor. As wider and wider bandwidth becomes the norm for Internet users, it's easy to envision librarians and users speaking directly to each other via streaming audio or even streaming video.

Forms of Digital Reference

Digital reference services can currently be broken down into two main types: e-mail and chat. Libraries are using a couple of different means of running an e-mail reference service: using basic e-mail or web forms. There are also a few different ways of operating a chat reference service: using simple chat software, web-based chat rooms, and web contact center software. On this section of my web site, I've created pages for each method of delivering digital reference. I've also put together a page that discusses how two or more libraries can team up to offer digital reference service as a consortium or collaborative network. Below is a quick preview of each of the delivery methods and links to the pages I've written with more detail.

User sends the library an e-mail with a reference query, supplying whatever information he or she feels is necessary. The library may reply by e-mail, phone, fax, letter, etc.

Web forms
User fills out an online form on the library's web site. The form asks the user to answer clarifying questions that will help the reference librarian responding to the query. The user sends the completed form to the library by clicking a button on the page labeled "send" (or "submit" or something similar). The library may reply by e-mail, phone, fax, letter, etc. While e-mail reference allows the user to write down the query in his or her own words, a web form structures the user's request somewhat, prodding the user to supply additional information that will specify the request.

Chat reference using simple technologies
User exchanges short, text messages back and forth with the librarian. Running a service this way doesn't allow for all the fancy interactivity that web contact center software allows (see below) but it does allow for rapid, basic communication. There are three ways of running this kind of a service: with free, instant messaging software (such as AOL Instant Messenger), with a web-based chat room (such as those at, or with chat software purchased by the library (such as Conference Room). With most of these services, the user types in an opening query or greeting to get the attention of the librarian staffing the chat reference service. The user and librarian may exchange a series of short messages to get to the heart of the user's request. This exchange of messages is live (it takes place in real time) and allows for negotiation of the user's query.

Chat reference using web contact center software
Borrowing technology from online customer service, software for web contact centers not allow for instant messaging, but they also offer give the librarian power to control the user's browswer. A librarian can actually make the user's browser display a recommended web page, such as a search engine (with a suggested query typed in by the librarian!) or the main page for the library's online catalog. As the librarian pushes pages onto the user's browser, the chat window can also appear on both user and librarian's screen, allowing them to have a typed conversation about the web pages being sent to the user.

Collaborative networks for reference
In this model, two or more libraries team up to offer reference service using any of the above online formats. The user would send to a member library his or her request, which would be forwarded to the library best able to answer the question. A library may get a question routed to it because it has particular strengths in its collection that match the needs of the user. Or a member library might get a question routed to it because it happens to be open when the user makes his or her request. For example, a user in New York who tries logging on at 3 a.m. Eastern time to the chat reference service of a member library in Boston could be automatically routed to a member library in Hawaii or Australia that, thanks to a time zone difference, is open.

Other Web Sites Focusing on Digital Reference

Bernie Sloan's Digital Reference Pages
Bernie Sloan at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has put together a great collection of pages about digital reference (a core bibliography, an exhaustive bibliography, and more).

Digital Reference Services: A Bibliography
An exhaustive bibliography created by Bernie Sloan.

ELITE Project
The library of the University of Leicester (UK) has assembled this excellent overview of digital reference services and offers links to libraries already offering such services.

LiveRef: A Registry of Real-Time Digital Reference Services
Created by Gerry McKiernan, a librarian at Iowa State University, this site offers links to libraries providing live online reference service.

Live Reference
Moderated by Lori Bell (a librarian at Spoon River College), this site offers an active and lively e-mail list to join as well as links to digital reference projects.

Virtual Reference Desk
As sponsor of the annual Virtual Reference Desk conference and of the popular Dig_Ref listserv, the Virtual Reference Desk works to advance "AskA" services on the internet and digital reference in general.

Forms of Digital Reference

E-mail Reference

Chat Reference Collaborative Networks

Index of Chat Reference Services

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E-mail your comments or suggestions to Stephen Francoeur

Last updated: August 27, 2002