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Tech Notes

E-Reference: Closing in on 24/7

As little as a year ago, librarians were still discussing the idea of online reference: answering queries via email or web-based forms from the library’s web site. As seems to be the way with cyberinformation, though, there’s been an explosion. Like wildflowers after a desert rainstorm, suddenly all kinds of e-reference services are springing up. Some of the impetus comes from the activity of commercial inquiry sites such as AskJeeves and More, however, comes from public libraries’ constant rethinking of their service parameters what do people need? How are we serving them? The question now seems to be not whether public libraries should provide online reference services, but how it should be done. As with all of the Tech Notes, the links and the bibliography here form an integral part of the story.

What is e-reference?

Online reference, or interactive reference, or e-reference (we use those terms interchangeably here), covers a multitude of services from placing a searchable Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on the library’s web site, to answering reference questions via email or a web-based form, to real-time assistance using Chat software or other kinds of software like HumanClick or LivePerson.

Like telephone reference, e-reference grows from the application of the ancient library tenets of access and service to a new technology. We already have put our catalogs online, made it possible to place holds and request renewals online. It seems logical to invite patrons to query us using that same medium.

The mother of all online reference is the Internet Public Library. IPL began as an experiment: a graduate seminar in 1995 at the University of Michigan School of Information and Library Studies. It continues to serve as the public library of the internet: answering reference questions, providing pathfinders, offering exhibits, telling stories, giving homework help. Any library seeking to initiate online reference would do well to start by studying IPL. A fine and informative book by IPL’s founder, Joe Janes, is listed in the bibliography.

Why should my library do e-reference?

A better question might be, if not now, when? Online reference provides patrons with traditional reference services in a format they may be more comfortable with, more familiar with, and in settings where traditional reference would not work as well nor be as easily available.

Interactive reference allows access at times when now there isn’t any. In our multicultural environment, there is always a time that is someone’s Sabbath or holy day. It also means, in a diverse culture, that your holiday is some other person’s work time. E-reference allows service to all, 24/7, in a society that increasingly is expected to function 24/7/365.

Who’s doing it, and how?

There are huge projects, like the Library of Congress’s Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS), and small projects, like Suffolk County (NY) Public Library’s Live Librarian (formerly Sunday Night Live), basic reference and homework help for teens.

LC’s CDRS, which is profiled in the Library Journal article cited below, envisioned by LC’s Diane Kresh as “the gateway to everything” has nearly 100 academic and public library members. The project is in testing mode, both in models of service and in software to power it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Suffolk County (NY) Public Library’s Live Librarian offered real-time, interactive homework help on Sunday evenings from 5 p.m. until midnight to teens, on the logical assumption that those hours represented peak panic time. Those hours have recently been expanded.

And some librarians, like Sara Weissman and her colleagues at the Morris County Library in Whippany, NJ, have been doing e-reference for more than four years eons in cybertime. Weissman offers good advice in a sidebar to the LJ article cited on what to think about in making your first, basic decisions about online reference.

Gerry McKiernan Science and Technology Librarian and Bibliographer, Iowa State University Library, has created a registry of real-time reference services, classified by type of library. He indicates the software each uses in the provision of services: AOL Instant Messenger, LivePerson, HumanClick, etc., and provides links to the technology’s web sites. He also links to two sites for online discussion groups, livereference and Dig_Ref. Both of these online groups discuss issues and questions in interactive reference.

It’s important to note, as should be clear from LC and others, that not all libraries are doing this on their own. From the Library of Congress to small state and county consortia, many public libraries are planning and implementing their online services collectively.

How do we start?

There’s good advice out there for those libraries implementing online reference. What’s more, it all tallies people seem to agree on the ways to proceed. Bill Drew, Associate Librarian, Systems and Reference, SUNY Morrisville College Library, offers a clear template:

  1. Keep the service focused on its mission; providing live reference to your patrons.
  2. Keep it simple: too many features do not facilitate the process.
  3. Use off-the-shelf software. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Consider such programs as AOL Instant Messenger that most users already know.
  4. Don’t expect an overwhelming number of users. The services will probably grow slowly.

Sara Weissman of Morris County (NJ) PL (see bibliography), who will be speaking about e-reference at PLA’s conference in Phoenix in 2002, continues:

The central thing to remember in e-ref is do NOT insist on the full reference interview before you start! That is baggage from your desk days. Please leave it behind. Give the patrons something, engage them, start the conversation. It’s a new format and you do have to develop some slightly different inquiry behaviors.

My local library’s online reference

The Branch Libraries of the New York Public Library instituted beta testing for its Ask Librarians Online service in November 2000. Two veteran librarians with decades of service behind them responded to my (online!) query about its origins. Harriet Shalat is the head of Telephone Reference and of Ask Librarians Online; Carol Anshien is assistant project director. Like most libraries, online reference is folded into “other duties as required” at NYPL at this time. Policies are similar to those of Telephone Reference, with these differences: patrons must be NYPL cardholders to use e-reference; more time is spent on e-reference questions; and full bibliographic citations are given for each answer.

The service is new and will not be widely publicized until later this spring. Just now there are only a handful of questions a day, as against about 240 telephone calls a day. Staff expect this to rise, possibly dramatically. Ask Librarians Online does have a searchable archive, wherein are the answers to some of its more unusual questions such as, Who was the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island?

Questions beyond the scope of Telephone Reference resources are forwarded to subject specialists throughout the library. Various subject divisions and centers in the branches and the research libraries also answer e-questions that arrive from their various web pages, although these are not a part of Ask Librarians Online.

What else is going on?

The Virtual Reference Desk is planning its third conference. VRD “is a project dedicated to the advancement of digital reference and the successful creation and operation of human-mediated, Internet-based information services.” VRD’s third conference will take place in Orlando in November 2001; attendance doubled between the first and the second.

Steve Coffman of LSSI offered a demo of virtual reference live from ALA Midwinter 2001. “Live from DC” transcripts are available. Not all of the links in those presentations still work, and they are transcripts of online conversations so they are choppy, but if you work your way through them, there’s information to be gleaned. LSSI offers e-reference facilities to libraries, and Coffman will publish an article about e-reference in an upcoming issue of Public Libraries this year.


Joseph Janes, editor. The Internet Public Library Handbook. Neal Schuman Netguides. 1999. 218p.

Norman Oder, “The Shape of E-Reference” in Library Journal, February 1, 2001, p46-50. Includes Sara Weissman’s sidebar “Considering a Launch?” on p49 and Oder’s “A Real-Time Test” on p50.

A very good summary of what’s happening now, from the broad, scholarly approach of LC’s Collaborative Digital Reference Service, still in its planning stages, to Weissman’s sidebar on the planning and provision of online reference services at a public library in New Jersey.

Bernie Sloan’s “work in progress,” A Digital Reference bibliography, about half of which is linked to its full text on the web. Sloan is at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has done a fair amount of work in digital reference.

Prepared by GraceAnne A. DeCandido for the Public Library Association, March 2001, email

The Public Library Association’s Tech Notes project grew out of the desire to continue the work of Wired for the Future: Developing Your Library Technology Plan by Diane Mayo and Sandra Nelson, published for PLA by ALA in 1999. Each of the Tech Notes is a Web-published document of 1,500–2,500 words, providing an introduction and overview to a specific technology topic of interest to public libraries at a particular point in time. Topics were identified by PLA’s Technology for Public Libraries Committee. Each Note is marked with the date of its completion and posting, and updates are noted.

Readers’ comments and suggestions are welcome and should be addressed to Please use Tech Notes in your subject line.