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Virtual Reference

This post will focus on messages of the instant persuasion. Often referred to as Virtual Reference, chatting programs are marketed as away to connect directly and immediately with a reference librarian. The service is based on the premise of convenience…the ability to chat from your own home – in your bathrobe! And slippers! I thought about putting a link to the Snuggie website here, but I didn’t want to get too far off topic. Just believe me when I say, the idea of chatting with librarian is supposed to make reference as convenient as a corner produce stand in downtown Vancouver.

The program with which I’ve had the most interaction in this field has been askaway, where you get to talk to “Real people.” And you receive “Real help.” Or so they say…I’ve used the service several times though, and have no complaints.

I’ve asked away to two different libraries, Vancouver Public Library and UBC’s library system, and like I said, the experiences were positive. The first time, I signed in to ask a librarian at Koerner Library for assistance in locating some DVD’s for my viewing pleasure. While the exchange went well enough, there were not many results that worked for that particular situation. More recently (about a week and a half ago as of this writing), I engaged VPL Central to assist in a search for government documents. In this case the both the exchange and the results were favorable. As we were chatting, the librarian sent me a list of links (and I didn’t have to write anything down) to browse; I found useful and usable information very quickly.

Apparently, having taken part in this particular mode of communication, both myself and the librarians with whom I was conversing are, as the kids say, “hip.” So Marshall Breeding would have us believe anyway…he labels instant messaging as such.

Not wanting to get left behind, Green River Community College’s Holman Library became hip this past summer, announcing the addition of virtual reference to their services. This has been a common theme in the past few years. In 2006, a statewide website was launched in Pennsylvania called Ask Here PA that now covers nearly 60 libraries in the state.

Considering the success I’ve had with virtual reference, it’s hard to imagine any true disconnects that others may have had. That would be the problem that I would suggest to be the worst-case scenario – being disconnected. This post quotes several users who feel similarly to the way I do…the convenience is appreciated, even when the results may lack.

Following the rules of responsible blogging (which may or may not exist…I’ll google it sometime), I will admit to the existence of naysayers, and even post a link here. This post is from 2005, but the points made by the author are not wholly unreasonable or outdated. The author feels as though virtual reference is not in the best interest of the patron, nor is it the best medium through which the library can accurately connect with their patrons. He says that we lose our sense of “community” and replace it with an insecure conversation with a person who may not even be affiliated with our local libraries.

The American Library Association (ALA) tells us that Virtual Reference has been around for some time, having gotten its start in 1995 with the Internet Public Library. It is relatively recent, however, that instantaneous chat has been the primary means of communicating. The initial service was based on email, and still has the potential to be helpful (just…not really). On the Library of Congress webpage, most of the reference question are still set up to be answered by email. Email suffers when compared to chat based on the time it takes to communicate. Email is, by nature, a slower medium, with more of an emphasis placed on composition instead of instant transmission.

If ever there was an attempt by libraries to engage their users, this would likely be it. Reaching out to the homes of patrons via the internet allows for quick reference help on a wide range of topics. As the technology available continues to develop, the process will be smoothed out. The next generation of library users will likely be comfortable with a concept that was developed only 14 years ago.

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