Virtual Reference is one of those things that I think is a fantastic idea that’s not being turned into a fantastic service. A good idea taken not quite in the right direction. And the more I think about reference (I think about reference an awful lot, I must admit), the more I like the idea of virtual reference.
At the moment reference too often means “the reference desk”. One of the things I discover more and more is that reference itself has nothing to do with any desk; it’s an expert service that can be provided pretty much anywhere. We’re most used to providing that service through a desk, but in order to really bring reference service into the present, we need to think outside the box about what the service is and how many different ways we can be providing it. For me, this goes hand in hand with the idea of integrating librarians into the curriculum; why are we waiting for those boiling-point questions to reach the desk? How can we present in other ways on campus (and off it) to answer questions at the point of need?
Virtual reference is one answer to that question. Rather than be at the desk, we can be behind an “ask us” link, there in case anyone needs help. They don’t have to come into the library, they don’t have to even know where the library is. This is the first service that pushes outside of the desk to bring reference service to users in alternative ways.
But to date the idea of virtual reference has been very much akin to the way we think about the OPAC or databases or webpage resources generally; they’re best if they’re available all the time. That the best thing about these things is their ease of use and the fact that anyone can use them any time they feel like it. So we end up with these systems are designed to be useable any time, because apparently that’s what the web means. Constantly on.
What we’re missing in this rush to be available constantly is one of the key elements that make a library a good library; it belongs to a particular place. Librarians spend an awful lot of time and effort making sure their collections reflect their users needs; they conduct user needs assessments to make sure every element of their services reflects a demonstrated need in their communities. A library is a reflection of the community it serves; if you want detailed legal information, you’re going to find better sources in a law library than in an arts & social sciences library. If you need detailed scientific information, go to a science library, right? This is why there are so many different kinds of librarians and different kinds of libraries. If you were looking for detailed information about the history of Guelph, Ontario, you wouldn’t necessarily go to the public library in Victoria, BC. You would go to the Guelph Public Library, or the local archives in Guelph. Right?
So why is it when we moved into virtual reference services we thought these local services were no longer significant? Why is this something we feel we can just outsource? Where does this idea come from that reference questions are so generic they can be answered by any librarian anywhere in the world?
Once I had a specific question about a publication by a faculty member at a school Boston. I noticed they had a virtual reference service at their library, so I got in the queue and asked them. But I wasn’t talking to a librarian in Boston. I was talking to a librarian in California, because they were sharing their virtual reference service in order to keep it open 24/7. This librarian in California didn’t have any extra resources to help her answer my question. She was in the same boat I was.
Why are we so sure our services can be so easily transplanted? Maybe it’s time to start thinking about shorter hours and local service, rather than flashy open-all-the-time service that’s much less institution-specific. Taking stock of our own value, and respecting the value that our own staff and our own collections can bring to our local patrons, might be the first step to making virtual reference the kind of service I know it can be.