The essence of reference work is personal assistance offered to users in search of information. Will those needing information in this electronic era still require personal assistance ? There is no clear cut answer to this question. It seems that much will depend on the future shape of libraries. However, virtual reference service seems to be gaining ground since some years.
Digital reference refers to the act of providing reference service via the web in real time. It extends the technology used in chatting with friends to the reference transaction, as a way of reaching users who are using library resources remotely such as distance learning students. It is one of the solutions to raised user expectations as it makes assistance available to the users at point of need in an easy and convenient manner: librarians are available when patrons have questions. Moreover, they do not have to leave the computer to secure the help needed, irrespective of their location or time of the day. The vast amount of unorganised information available on the Internet is just one more reason for the continuing need for libraries and librarians to organise and provide access to information to help users find it and assist them learn the critical thinking and information use skills which are essential to survive in this complex information environment.
A successful example of international library cooperation in the field of virtual reference service is the Collaborative Online Reference Service (CORS) established in 2001 by the Shanghai Library. This remarkable joint venture between ten academic institutions based in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States has won a prestigious award in 2007. Features of CORS include (1) Ask-A-Librarian (offering two options, namely, a “Quick” response (within one working day) or an “In-depth” response (within two working days); (2) Request for Expert’s Help from among sixty seven subject specialists located in Shanghai or overseas to answer queries ; (3) A “Chat” with subject specialists introduced in 2005 – enabling patrons to have an online dialogue with a chosen specialist. This is available four hours on a daily basis, (4) An Enquiries Database. More than 15,000 queries have been answered via CORS, out of which 75 % have been added into the knowledge database for sharing and re-use. Users can thus browse these past questions in the database to find answers to similar queries asked by other patrons.
In short, it seems that much less emphasis will be placed on the physical reference desk than online reference service as reference tools will be more and more electronic and user-friendly while patrons are becoming more technology savvy.
1. Lankes, Abels, White and Haque (2005). “The Virtual Reference Desk. ISBN 185604-566-8. 240 p. pbk. £ 40.00
2. Mui, Law Lin & Gao, Vicky (2008). Collaborative online Reference Service (CORS): a collaborative effort between Shanghai Library and National Library, Singapore. In CDNLAO Newsletter, No. 62. July Issue