by Diane Clark


Table of Contents

Desktop Videoconferencing
Ethernet and ISDN
Graceful Degradation
ShowMe Video
Remote Reference
Instructional Tool


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Desktop videoconferencing is an effective and viable tool for conducting reference service to remote customers. This technology is appropriate in a library environment due to resource sharing and consortias, furthermore as budgets are shrinking and there is an increase in demands from users there is a place for desktop videoconferencing in a library environment.

This discussion will commence with defining the audience. It will also provide a brief history of videoconferencing. To alleviate potential confusion there will be a section that provides definitions of terms that are common with this technology. In addition, there will be an abridged version of the confusion in the literature regarding videoconferencing. Also included will be a brief analysis of selected videoconferencing brands, i.e., inter-operability and cost. In addition, disadvantages and advantages will be addressed in order to determine the feasibility of establishing and maintaining reference service through videoconferencing. Advantages and disadvantages will examine associated costs of both personnel and equipment, potential technical problems and keeping up with advances in technology. Further, there is the more ephemeral quality of providing a service to the library's customers will be discussed.


While videoconferencing has applications in the business world it is the library environment and more specifically reference service which is the primary focus of this project. Therefore, the intended audience includes reference librarians in public, special or academic libraries, professors, library school students, systems personnel (working in a library) and educators. Further, this topic may be of interest to individuals living in remote areas or those who are unable to travel to a library but have reference needs.

Brief History

The concept of desktop videoconferencing began with a picture phone at the 1964 World's Fair. (Snell 8) Since this time it was steadily developed until it evolved into a specially equipped room with expesive equipment where everyone would sit around a table and view similar rooms on a monitor at remote sites. Now videoconferencing is desktop based and users are able to stay in their offices and dial up participants, similar to a telephone. (Hudson 1)

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Definition of Terms

To eliminate or alleviate confusion it would be best to begin with a list of terms and definitions that will be used in the course of this discussion. Beginning with the most obvious; videoconferencing. Included in the definition of videoconferencing will be a brief discussion on what the package does not include and what the library must have or purchase before videoconferencing can be attempted. Other terms that will be defined are: bandwidth; Ethernet and ISDN; inter-operability; whiteboard; and lastly, graceful degradation.

One of the advantages of desktop videoconferencing is that it combines computing, multimedia and telecommunications on one workstation. It's major advantage is that the system facilitates communication between two or more parties whose computers are inter-operable. The products run on DOS, OS-2 and Mac's. The input and output devices, the telecommunications hookup, codec and systems software constitute a basic videoconferencing package. However, the system does not include the following:

PC (486 or higher); Windows 95 (or Windows NT, Windows for Workgroups 3.11 running in enhanced mode); 256 colour (8 bit) video with 640 x 480 (or higher) resolution; sound card with 8 bit sound; minimum 4MB RAM (8MB or more is recommended); ISDN phone line; telephone device; camera with standard NTSC output; microphone; and lastly, application sharing software. (Pagell 21; Rustici 36-37)

There are also add-ons available such as:

modems, additional cameras, VCR's or a separate headphone or headset for better 'phone-like' sound. (Pagell 21; Rustici 36-37)

Bandwidth is a term that repeatedly pops up in the literature. Basically this is the speed at which information moves through communication channels. The channels are limited insofar as only a certain amount of information can travel at a given time. Speed is given at bits per second. Bandwidth is the limiting factor in this situation. Video moving through a communications channel requires a significant amount of bandwidth due to its size. (Hudson 2)

Both Ethernet and ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Networks) work at diminishing 'bottleneck'. Ethernet is used to network computers in a particular environment. Ethernet is "packet switched," this refers to communication channels that "share their total bandwidth among all [of] their users" (Hudson 3). Basically all of the users' data moves along the same shared line. Further, when the line is heavily loaded then the packets take longer to send and retrieve information. ISDN is a digital phone line that replaces analog phone lines. Unlike Ethernet, ISDN are "circuit switched," which means that channels are formed that, "provide a communication channel to the users. The connections last as long as the user wishes" (Hudson 3). Therefore, while the connection is active the bandwidth is completely dedicated to that particular connection. Of the two types it is circuit switched which is better for videoconferencing.

Inter-operability is perhaps one of the most important concepts when discussing videoconferencing and this simply refers to the ability of one system to communicate with another. For communication to take place both PC's must operate on the same system. However, the establishment of standards have eliminated the problem of inter-operability. One of the standards is H.320, "which guarantees inter-operability between systems from different manufacturers" (Ajluni 56). H.320 relates to how video and audio will operate over an ISDN. Another standard, "H.261 describes how two videoconferencing will communicate with one another in terms of format and structure of bit streams" (Snell 9).

Another term that is used in the literature is whiteboard. A whiteboard is a tool that allows the users to write while communicating. An illustration of this is if a student does not have the correct bibliographic citation, the librarian can type the information out for them. The whiteborad is an excellent communication tool.

Lastly, there is the concept of graceful degradation. This refers to the behaviour of videoconferencing system when using the packet switch channel that is heavily loaded. Or more simply, how well does it perform in this situation. (Hudson 6)

For further information Hudson's webpage is a good place to begin.

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Confusion in the Literature

A literature search reveals that the term videoconference has been appropriated in a variety of forms. For instance, videoconferencing can refer to telephone communication with no mention of computers or cameras. The term can also refer to non-desktop videoconferencing and instead there is a small television studio that is equipped with computers and related paraphernalia. This term has been widely used in non-computer literature to refer to similar ideas, this can be very confusing to someone who is new to the field or subject matter.

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Types of Videoconferencing

There are a multitude of videoconferencing products available, each with their own idiosyncrasies. Three have been chosen to be reviewed and those are: CU SeeMe; ProShare; and finally, ShowMe. Included in the description will be costs which are noted in U.S. dollars.

CU-SeeMe from Cornell University was originally designed for Macintosh AV computer, however it now runs on Windows as well. This is perhaps the most well known of the products. The system supports video and audio conferencing over the Internet. It is experimental insofar as providing real-time delivery across TCP/IP. One of its advantages is that it provides multiple connections at once. However, as this system does not use multicast, the consumed bandwidth is increased with each connection. One selling feature of this system is that it is free. To see more information about this product CU-SeeMe Welcome Page is a good place to start.

Intel's ProShare Conferencing Video System 200 provides desktop videoconferencing with ISDN and Ethernet. There is a shared whiteboard facility and a friendly interface. Intel is also moving toward standardized video formatting and as such inter-operability regardless of platform may not be an issue. This version has H.320 support over ISDN. Furthermore, this is the only system when, "installed in a PC configured with the proper network interface, also operates over NetWare and TCP/IP LANs" ("ProShare" 1). The cost of this system is $1,499 and it should be noted that this price does not include ISDN service as it previously did ("ProShare" 1). To see more information on this product visit Intel ProShare Videoconferencing.

The third entrant is Sun's ShowMe Video, this is an integrated package that includes video, audio, shared whiteboard and shared application system that runs on a UNIX system. The interface is well designed. It utilizes IP protocol, hence can be used on the Internet. Further, the video reception does not require any special hardware. ShowMe costs $1280 for the software package (Garland and Rowell 240). To find out more about this package visit the Sun's Microsystems ShowMe Video page.

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Application in the Library Environment

While the primary focus of this discussion is the use of desktop videoconferencing in reference services it should be noted that there are multiple applications for this product that directly relate to library environments. Further, it is not only the public library that could make use of this technology as special libraries and academic libraries could utilize this system to better serve their remote customers. This discussion will examine other applications of videoconferencing first and then move on to a discussion of how reference can be conducted with videoconferencing.

Remote Reference

One possible application of this technology is found in the rural areas of Alberta (and the rest of the country). There are number of individuals and families that inhabit remote areas within this province (and the country); are their information needs being met or even addressed by the library community? The library with their embracing of technology in combination with the computer era has the, "potential to eliminate the economic and social barriers faced by rural residents" (Ford 36). However, at the present time remote users have little choice in how they can conduct a reference interview. One choice is to make a long distance phone call to the closest library for their information query. Anyone asking an advanced reference question understands that this is often difficult to do via telephone and may in fact become rather expensive. Another consideration is that there are library systems that may not provide the needed information if the caller does not hold a valid membership. This scenario leads to frustration on behalf of the customer and poor customer service on the part of the library. One solution may be the use of desktop videoconferencing. This technology allows for interpersonal communication between the librarian and the remote patron at a less expensive rate than a telephone call.

One of the best applications of this technology is providing remote reference to patrons. An illustration of this is found in the article, "Lights! Camera! Action!" While this article does not use desktop videoconferencing it does demonstrate a possible application of this technology. The author notes that, "the Minnesota Department of Corrections is committed to the ITV technology" in conjunction with the Outreach Services Department of the Minnesota State Law Library (Westward 43). The technology that is referred to is a television studio that is set up with camera, cables and microphones. There is also a graphics camera that is able to send a photo of a page from a book.

Every second Friday a librarian enters a studio and conducts reference interviews with the occupants of a correctional facility via ITV. When the customer asks a question the librarian is able to hold up a reference tool and say to the client, "This is the book you want." An advantage of this is the, "visual interaction. Being able to see the inmates personalizes the experience and helps with communication" (Westwood 44). The author also notes that the inmates have poor communication skills and this aids in the communication process alleviating any problems with accents or misinterpretations.

Another illustration of desktop videoconferencing is a direct application of this technology at the Centre for Business Information and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. The centre uses desktop videoconferencing to deliver distance reference, also included is, "consultation, documentation, training and sharing of CD-ROM databases" (Pagell 21). Currently the university is involved in a Virtual Library Project to, "investigate a variety of new technologies, new approaches to the user community... The Virtual Reference Librarian was part of the initiative" (Pagell 22).

The Centre for Business Information is separate from the business school and the location where the MBA classes are held. While the students are on campus they do not have professional support (the information centre and the school are separate buildings) when searching databases and doing research. Providing better service to these students was the impetus behind this programme. Emory University was successfully able to their remote patrons through the use of this technology, thus fulfill a need that had been previously neglected. (Pagell 24-26)

Instructional Tool

In addition to reference services this system is also useful as an instructional tool; a type of virtual training. A common application of this technology is found in distance education. An illustration of virtual training is available at Emory University where the librarians decided to load LEXIS-NEXIS and hence have it available via videoconference to the patrons. The librarian was then able to walk the user through the commands and help with their searches. (Pagell 24) A further application is that librarians working in remote branches or locations need not leave their offices to learn new databases or software as they can learn through videoconferencing (providing that it is loaded).


An additional real-world application is that it permits librarians to communicate face-to-face with their colleagues who are in others areas of the province. This will almost eliminate the need for travel. The cost savings is significant, however, this will be addressed later. With the reduction of travel time there is a correlated increase in productivity, i.e. jet lag has been eliminated. Further, a meeting can be organized without having to clear calendars months before a meeting can take place. With videoconferencing a meeting can be arranged and conducted without the participants leaving their offices. Videoconferencing also facilitates interpersonal communication between libraries and professionals. While desktop videoconferencing has not been widely implemented in the library environment it has been used in the corporate world with success for the reasons stated above.

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As with anything there are disadvantages and videoconferencing is no exception. This section will address some of the concerns that may arise when using this system, these are the following: personal concerns; technical dilemmas; cost; and lastly, marketing.

The first disadvantage is loosely associated with the personal anxieties of the library's patrons. One such concern is that the users may not like being on camera. This is an area that the librarian has no control of but should be aware of it a valid concern on the part of the client. Another barrier is that some customers will feel that this is an invasion of privacy; knowing that the librarian is able to see you can be disconcerting. These personal considerations must be addressed before deciding if this is a tool that is right for your institution

A bridge between the personal and the technical is that real-time representation has not truly been achieved. This results in the user having to learn how to adapt to a new method of communicating. As Rustici states, "We may not need lessons in how to talk with each other, but a little understanding of what it means to talk and see through a computer to someone across the Internet and the world is in order" (Rustici 25). Communicating via a computer is not the same visually as talking with someone face to face and this is something that must be addressed.

There are a multitude of possible technical problems that can arise, instead of listing them all it would be best to describe some of the technical dilemmas which arose at Emory University. Pagell states that most of the technical problems were centered around telecommunications. Specifically there was a problem with the phone numbers must, "match the machines and the local telecom configuration" (Pagell 23). In the beginning the system often crashed because the application-sharing software was ultra sensitive. Another consideration is that of picture quality; this depends on the quality of the camera and the lighting in the room. Also problematic is background noise. While the human ear is able to filter out background noise and 'concentrate' on other sounds the vidoeconferencing system does not have this same ability. (Pagell 23)

In addition, to the technical problems there is also the issue of keeping up with technology. One recent advancement in the technology is the use of the Internet for videoconferencing. As Ronald Vetter states in the article, "Videoconferencing on the Internet," the Internet's, "infrastructure is beginning to support videoconferencing applications in several ways" (Vetter 77). One problem that needs to be addressed is the placement of the mrouters and reflectors and that certain, "configuration of mrouters [and] reflectors will result in better utilization of network bandwidth than other placements" (Vetter 77). Vetter provides an example to make this clear; for Cu-SeeMe the reflector should be electronically close to the site that has the most participants. (77) Problematic is the number of participants, when there are hundreds then where does the reflector go?

A further problem is that libraries may become married to the rapid rate of technological advancement and thus will have to be prepared to both benefit and suffer at the hands of videoconferencing technology. Maintenance is linked to this concern as the organization including technical services must be able to support the system. This may cause expenses to rise if additional staff are required if special training is necessary.

In not for profit organizations the cost factor is always a major consideration and the application of videoconferencing is no exception. As previously mentioned it is extremely important to identify a need within the library. Further, if the library does not have the proper hardware and must upgrade then this may not be a viable solution. Keeping abreast with new technology is expensive as there are peripheral costs to consider, i.e. training.

The last area to consider is the problem of marketing the system. If videoconferencing is not well supported within the library it may not be appropriate to market a service that the staff is not familiar with and difficult to use. If videoconferencing is well supported then marketing should be a high priority. For this to be considered successful the users must be aware that it is available for anyone to use.

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While there are many disadvantages to videoconferencing there are also many advantages. The following will be examined: personnel cost and related issues; and serving the remote customer.

One advantage of videoconferencing that is related to customer service is illustrated at the correctional facility in Minnesota and their decision for implementing "videoconferencing". This decision was founded in the philosophy of providing quality service to clients at a reasonable cost. A further consideration was better time management, as it is a two-and-a-half hour drive (each way) to the facility each week. The cost for videoconferencing is approximately $25 per call (coast to coast in 1994) compare to the cost of leasing a car or paying for mileage, not including the lost time of the librarian. (Snell 8) This organization had to pay for leasing a rental car or paying for the mileage. Furthermore, "videoconferencing" saved five hours of librarian time which allows for more productive activities, i.e. performing research.

Related to personnel costs is training. For instance, gathering librarians together can be costly in terms of travel and lost time at work. Moreover, centralized training classrooms add another expense. The cost of videoconferencing is relatively low in comparison. Five years ago a "coast to coast call cost $1,500 per hour. Now that same call is less than $25 per hour" (Snell 8).

It has been stated that libraries are a service environment and as such they should strive to meet the needs of their customer base. With videoconferencing patrons do not have to phone or drive to the closest urban centre to conduct their reference interviews. Keeping up with the rest of the world in the latest business, scientific, manufacturing and educational practices has been simplified. The information is coming to the user and not the user relocating to the information.

Another advantage for the user is that if they are hearing impaired communication can still be achieved. The audio portion is not necessary, conversely the video is in this situation. The video component allows for communication with others in the outside world either through a keyboard or in sign language. (Rustici 270) This scenario can be extended to those who are homebound (for whatever reason). Usually this patron would conduct their reference interview over the phone and as mentioned previously the telephone is not the best method. If the customer's query is too complex the librarian has to call back and this can take several days; this is not good customer service. With videoconferencing the librarian can better communicate with the user and is able to transfer their information document immediately.

The ability of the Internet to support videoconferencing was addressed previously, however, the Internet's ability to support this application is also an advantage. The multicast backbone can, "efficiently send traffic from a single source over the network to multiple recipients" (Vetter 77).

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The decision to incorporate videoconferencing into the library must be supported by both management and technical services. In addition, these departments must be equally committed to the project and its golas and objectives. A further consideration is that of the vendor; it is important to find the right vendor who meets and understands the library's needs. Before buying a system it is important to identify the library's needs, i.e. how will it improve or enhance customer service? If the institution offers distance education then perhaps vidoeconferencing is appropriate as it can connect distance learners with library training and documentation. Another consideration is that not everyone enjoys being on camera. Some users may feel that it is an invasion of privacy. A further consideration is that of other library systems or consortia; is their videoconferencing system compatible with yours? Despite these potential problems the technology does have the capability for better serving the remote customer. As a final note, videoconferencing is only one tool that is available which may meet a particular need within the library community. The computer era has radically altered the way reference service works, in addition to the way librarians search and disseminate information. The walls of the library are fading and as a result reference service is not confined to a physical location. Libraries and their services must reach beyond the walls in order to serve the ever changing customer.


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Other Interesting Sites on the World Wide Web



ShowMe Video


Videoconferencing as an Instructional Tool

General Information


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List of Works Cited

Ajluni, Cheryl. "Videoconferencing Standards Target Desktop Applications." Electronic Design 44.17 (1996): 55-58.

Ford, Karen E. "Reference Service in Rural Libraries: Issues and Trends." Reference Librarian 43 (1994): 29-41.

Garland, Eric and Dave Rowell. "Face-to-Face Collaboration." Byte (1994): 233-242.

Hudson, Rhett D. "Introduction to Desktop Video Conferencing." DT-5: Enabling Technologies Desktop Video Conferencing. (1996): 8 pp. AltaVista. 13 March 1997. Available

Pagell, Ruth A. "The Virtual Reference Librarian: Using Desktop Videoconferencing for Distance Reference." Electronic Library 14 (1996): 21-26.

"ProShare Conferencing Video System 200." PC Magazine Online. (1996): 3 pp. Yahoo. 13 March 1997. Available

Rustici, Robert. Enhanced CU-SeeMe: Internet Videoconferencing. New York: MIS Press Books, 1996.

Snell, Monica. "Picture This: Videoconferencing." Computer 27.5 (1994): 8-10.

Vetter, Ronald J. "Videoconferencing on the Internet." Computer: Innovative Technology for Computer Professionals 28 (1995): 77-79.

Westwood, Karen. "Lights! Camera! Action!" American Libraries 27 (1997): 43-45.

This website was written by Diane Clark. Last updated March 20, 1997.
Please send any comments to Diane Clark.

Copyright © Diane Clark, 1997.