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portal: Libraries and the Academy 4.2 (2004) 291-297

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The Ubiquitous Library Is Here

Neal Kaske

For years many of us have dreamed of being able to use a ubiquitous library. That is, a library available anytime, anywhere. Some of us are helping to make this dream a reality. We have done this over the last 25 to 30 years by planning, developing, and making our online library catalogs and databases available to our customers outside of the bricks and mortar library. For a few years this ideal was called "a library without walls." This went along with the idea of a "university without walls," which manifests itself today as online classes from all types of colleges and universities. In recent years libraries have added digital reference services, which were limited to just e-mail in the beginning but now include chat services, making librarians accessible both in synchronous and asynchronous modes. Some of these chat services are cooperatives on a statewide level, and some are expanding into national and international cooperatives. In the next few paragraphs I will explore if chat services are just a fad or if there is an infrastructure being built to support them. Are software and standards being developed to support chat services, and is there a research agenda being developed to understand and improve this new service? I will conclude by reviewing how well some of these services are performing and what their users have to say. All of this should lead to the conclusion—yes, we do have staffed ubiquitous libraries today.

Software and Standards

A number of organizations are developing software. A key element of this development is that basic software was not created for libraries but for organizations wanting to provide online interactive service with their customers. Today there are certainly refinements and changes being made in the software that will better support libraries. Cooperative library organizations and commercial vendors now are driving some customization of these software products for the library segment of the market. Many of us already have experienced using a chat service or see ways to use a chat service with major retailers, computer hardware and software vendors, and information technology support organizations. Some of the leading software vendors that libraries are already using are listed below: [End Page 291]

  • 24/7 Reference,
  • DOCUTEK Information Systems Inc.,
  • Questionpoint,
  • LivePerson,
  • LSSI Library Systems & Services, L.L.C.,

The National Information Standards Organization's (NISO) Standards Committee AZ - Networked Reference Services,, "is developing a Question/Answer Transaction Protocol (QATP) to support exchange between digital reference systems collaborating in the processing of a question."1 Sally H. McCallum of the Library of Congress is the committee's chairperson. The committee has the following task:

  • Develop a question processing transaction protocol for interchange of messages between digital reference domains. This will support processing and routing of questions and responses and packaging of other information to be exchanged.
  • Develop metadata element sets to identify and describe key components of both question and answer data, and institutional and personal data. These include:
  1. Question/answer metadata
  2. Profiling metadata (of institutions and people)
  3. Conduct experimentation and/or research in both areas to test the proposed standard2

NISO's "Z39.7-2002 Draft Standard for Trial Use-Information Services and Use: Metrics & Statistics for Libraries and Information Providers-Data Dictionary" now includes the term "virtual reference transactions" (Z39.7.3.1). The definition reads as follows: "Virtual reference transactions conducted via e-mail, Website, or other network-based medium designed to support virtual reference."3

The Reference Work Section of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has developed the "IFLA Digital Reference Guidelines." This is a very clear articulation, and it addresses a number of key areas such as: purpose, history, policy, planning, staffing, training, interface design, legal issues, publicity and promotion, and evaluation. The practice of digital reference is addressed, also. Their guidelines are available...


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