- The Virtual Reference Experience: Integrating Theory Into Practice
While not quite eclipsing the advent of online technology in general, virtual reference has been the paramount development in the field of reference librarianship in recent years. There is no denying that the early stages of designing virtual reference services ushered in a period of excitement (also trepidation) and creativity for reference librarians and established a vital stake in the digital library. Into this vortex of activity came the Virtual Reference Desk Project from the Information Institute of Syracuse (IIS), followed not long after by the Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) Conference. Once libraries started offering virtual reference services, practitioners were starved for more information and for research to help identify good practice and set standards for evaluation. The VRD Conference fed our voracious appetite for dialogue and gave the practitioners and the professoriate the opportunity to share experience and research.
This volume is an edited collection of presentations made at the 2003 VRD Conference in San Antonio, Texas. According to the editors, chapters have been developed, updated, and refined for inclusion in this volume to represent the latest thinking and frame the current issues on the subject of digital reference. The stated purpose for publishing the collection is "to extend that synergy beyond the conference to practitioners' real world practices, researchers' studies, and students' thinking." (p. xi) The compilation is well edited by individuals who are among today's elite theoreticians in the field of reference. R. David Lankes, Joseph Janes, and Linda C. Smith—faculty from three highly regarded information schools (Syracuse, Washington, and Illinois)—have all researched and published extensively on digital reference related topics. Christine M. Finneran is a PhD student at Syracuse whose research also relates to digital libraries. Lankes is a founder of the VRD conference and Janes and Smith have been key contributors over the years.
Janes sets the stage with an excellent introduction that explores virtual reference service as a mainstream component of library service versus an "add on" service. He convincingly conveys the value of ultimately integrating virtual reference service into the fabric of the community. To achieve this preferred outcome, Janes entreats us to " understand users and communities and their information needs, think hard and creatively about the nature of the information services that will help them to meet those needs, and then plan those services in such a way that they will succeed." (p. 6-7) He entices us to consider the studies selected for the collection as a step in the development of the best possible virtual reference service for our environment.
The contributors of the 13 chapters in the book represent a cross-section of library [End Page 283] professionals that include librarians, information specialists, and library educators. The strength of the collection lies in the wide range of ideas, experiences, and approaches, which the editors have organized into four "units of analysis." Early studies and publications on virtual reference services understandably focused inward to examine practices and the whys and hows of implementing services. As a departure, Part I of this volume focuses on the patrons of virtual reference services. Beth Thomsett-Scott offers the unique perspective of using focus groups with potential patrons of a virtual reference service. Their perspective on the design, operation, and marketing of reference services should be valuable for seasoned virtual reference providers, especially in light of reports that many chat services are not being heavily used. Closely examining the patron view is a first step toward achieving the preferred outcome described by Janes in the introduction.
The highlight of Parts II and III, which return the focus to the practitioners and practices, are the studies on training. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of conducting virtual reference service is communication in the computer-mediated environment and multitasking. The need to go beyond learning the software is substantiated in the studies that are presented here, which run the gamut from interpersonal communication to good writing...