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Bimonthly Report
ARL: A Bimonthly Report, no. 219 (December 2001)

Libraries Meet the World Wide Web: The Collaborative Digital Reference Service

by Diane Nester Kresh, Director for Public Service Collections, Library of Congress

Imagine a reference service where a patron in a public library in the United Kingdom can query an online system and get reference help from a librarian at a public library in southern California...all within a matter of hours...sound hard to believe? It is exactly what is possible with the Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS).

What is CDRS?

CDRS provides professional reference service to researchers anytime, anywhere, through an international, online network of libraries and related institutions. Launched by the Library of Congress in June 2000, CDRS now includes more than 200 member libraries—academic, public, special, and national—worldwide and that number is growing weekly. The collaboration has been very beneficial in that each library brings its professional experience, knowledge of user behavior and needs, and subject expertise to bear on the project.

CDRS uses technology to provide the best answers in the best context, by taking advantage not only of the millions of Internet resources but also of the many more millions of resources that are not online and that are held by libraries around the world. CDRS supports libraries by providing them additional choices for the services they offer their patrons. Libraries can more ably assist their patrons by sending questions that are best answered by the expert staff and collections of CDRS member institutions from around the world.

An advisory board, comprised of representatives from CDRS member institutions, meets to discuss policy and future directions of the program. Business meetings with member representatives are also regularly held to get feedback, report on and solve workflow problems, discuss training and performance measures, and build esprit de corps. The CDRS homepage posts general information and news links, information for members, and project milestones. An electronic mailing list allows members to communicate frequently with one another, get technical questions addressed, and comment on the efficacy of the network.

The World at Your Fingertips

At no other time in history has the emergence of technology affected so significantly the core mission of a library. These technological advances have created new service opportunities for libraries and library patrons. For information to have relevance, it must be up-to-date and receive the hands-on touch of the skilled reference librarian to provide context and added value. Through the CDRS network, LC and its partner libraries can serve researchers everywhere and, in so doing, bring control, context, greater choice, and timeliness to the world of information.

CDRS includes two component parts: submission of a question and answer, and archiving the answer for future use. The workflow looks like this: An end user requests information through a CDRS member institution. The member institution sends the query to the online Request Manager (RM) software for processing and assigning. The RM searches a database of CDRS member institution profiles looking for the institution best suited to answer the question. Once a match on an institution has been made, the query is sent to that institution for answering. After the query has been answered, it is routed back to the original CDRS requesting library via the RM to allow for closing out the case and completing other administrative tasks.

ARL Bimonthly Report 219 CDRS Process
Click image for larger version.

The library profile is the core of the routing and assignment activity, and each institution can "code" itself as broadly or as narrowly as it chooses. Library profiles contain basic information about the library, including hours of service (and time zones), collection strengths, staff strengths, education levels served, languages covered, geographic location of users served, whether there are special services provided and what they are—as many as 28 data fields. This information is captured in a table, where it is used by the online RM to sort, assign, and track incoming questions and to deliver answers to the end user. Further, the profile tool is flexible enough to allow for regular updating to reflect staffing changes or special circumstances that would affect the automatic routing by the RM. For example, if the astronomy specialist is on sabbatical for several months and no back-up is available, the library might choose to remove that subject strength from its profile until the staff member returns.

Answers are edited and stored in a separately searchable knowledge base of information. The knowledge base, to be populated with the diverse and authentic information provided by CDRS librarians, will ultimately serve as a front end to CDRS, designed to "catch" and answer incoming questions if there is a ready match. If there is no match on the knowledge base, the question will be routed through the RM and assigned to a library.

CDRS Implementation

The implementation process began by defining a concept of operations by which CDRS would work on behalf of its members. For example, the advisory board agreed that CDRS is a membership model; CDRS builds its infrastructure once and shares that cost among its members so all can afford to use the service; CDRS is open and members need only Internet access, a browser, and e-mail to use it; quality is considered number one and policies, certification, and Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are enforced to ensure that the brand lives up to the market's expectations; the technology platform is built to serve the membership as a whole; and, finally, CDRS is an international service that does not give preferences to certain jurisdictions or members.

We also initiated a series of pilots to test the technical solutions. Pilot 1 had two principal goals: to test the effectiveness of the library profiles and to test a web form for submitting questions. Results indicated that more standardization of the data elements was needed, for example, agreement on use of a standardized tool—such as a truncated version of the Library of Congress Classification schedule—to describe a library's subject strengths. All of the libraries contributed edited sample questions and answers that were sent through the system according to a scripted schedule.

In Pilot 2, we added more institutions worldwide, increased the number of questions asked of the system, revised the profile database, and began to experiment with software packages to serve as the Request Manager.

CDRS Accepts All Comers

There are no restrictions on the types of libraries that can participate. Size of a library or collection is not a factor in determining whether a library can become a member. The aforementioned Service Level Agreement defines the nature of the member library's relationship to the CDRS and that agreement is codified in the library profiles. Many types of agreements are possible and are limited or expanded depending upon the strengths (e.g., subject) or limitations (e.g., staffing or hours of service) of the individual library. For example, a library may agree to ask and answer questions; only ask questions; ask or answer questions only during specified periods; serve as an editor for the knowledge base; or serve as the on-call library if the automatic Request Manager function is inoperable. In addition, many libraries have local collections that are unique to them. These local, specialized collections make a potent contribution to CDRS overall, filling special niches that larger research institutions may not be able to fill.

In addition to defining roles and responsibilities among the partner libraries, the SLAs will ultimately be used to determine what it will cost a library to be a member of CDRS. While the pilot is underway, CDRS is free. However, we have been examining a variety of funding options with the goal of being as flexible as possible, both to allow for the broadest participation among types of libraries and to ensure that no one library or group of libraries has to bear all of the costs of establishing and sustaining CDRS. To that end, we conducted a series of marketing surveys, both in person through interactive sessions and online, to develop potential cost models. These sessions provided valuable information to the planners, affirming support for a service through which credentialed experts provide high-quality information and affirming a willingness to pay for such a service.

The Value Proposition

We have encouraged maximum flexibility in developing the many component parts of CDRS. For a library to want to participate, CDRS has to be perceived to have value. Just as there are no "one size fits all" libraries, so too are there no "one size fits all" arrangements with CDRS. Libraries are structured and organized differently, they have different local audiences, and they have different policies and procedures for ensuring quality control. To be useful to a library, CDRS must fill an unmet need and offer something that the library does not already have, e.g., adequate staff, a subject strength, or a special collection unique to a participating library that the whole collaboration then has access to. When the participating library defines the terms of that value, that library will have greater incentive to make the arrangement work, for itself and for CDRS. Our job is to create the tools; the library then decides for itself how to make the relationship work.

Where to Next?

Currently, libraries participating in CDRS connect with other libraries on behalf of patrons so that the libraries can conduct the reference interview before sending the question, define the parameters of the service, determine what works and what does not work, and create a service that is scalable and maximally responsive to user needs. From the beginning, however, we have envisioned that CDRS will become a service that is available directly to patrons, recognizing that many individuals never go to their local library but still need information. Over the next several months, we will work with our members as we begin to define the direct-to-patron interface. Eventually, we hope to build a service that provides one-stop shopping for reference and information.

In January 2001, the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and the Library of Congress, on behalf of CDRS member libraries, signed a cooperative agreement to guide CDRS through its next phase of development. OCLC will provide technical and development support to CDRS by building and maintaining a database of participating institution profiles that will route questions and answers through CDRS; building and maintaining a question-and-answer database system that will enable CDRS participants to catalog answers and store them in a searchable and browsable database; and providing administrative support for CDRS, including marketing the service, registering new members, and providing training and user support. Together, the Library of Congress and OCLC will develop a viable model for a self-sustaining digital reference service and promote CDRS in the library community.

We continually examine our technical solutions to ensure that we have the right ones to meet our mission, and that the tools we have created are easy for librarians to use. As we look to expand globally and become a true 24/7 service, there are many issues we must examine: language and literacy, service to local populations in their own language, acceptable Internet access and technical infrastructure support mechanisms for a worldwide constituency, cultural and political sensitivities, and e-commerce and trade agreements that may affect pricing models. The solutions to these issues will determine the long-term success of CDRS.

Current information about CDRS, including how to participate, can be found at

To cite this article

Diane Nester Kresh, "Libraries Meet the World Wide Web: The Collaborative Digital Reference Service," ARL, no. 219 (December 2001): 1–3,