Reference and Information Services Section
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IFLA Digital Reference Guidelines
"The terms "virtual reference," "digital reference," "e-reference,"
"Internet information services," "live reference" and "real-time
reference" are used interchangeably to describe reference services that
utilize computer technology in some way..."
The purpose of these guidelines is to promote digital reference best
practices on an international basis. The online environment is uniquely
suited to consortial models of work and to the development of shared
resources. Libraries in different countries may have different
traditions of public service, which both affect their current reference
practices and their patrons' expectations. But it is also important to
recognize that new technologies will enable librarians to redefine the
scope of their public services. These guidelines attempt to create some
common standards from diverse traditions in the hope that this will
allow the worldwide community of librarians to freely explore the
Some issues raised in these guidelines may ultimately warrant
additional consideration and expansion-issues such as the management of
change: how does the administrator of a digital reference project
mitigate the impact of new models of work on an institution's staff,
schedule, and clients? Additional work might also be done to determine
the exact funding requirements for these efforts in a variety of
different communities, with respect to staffing, resource acquisition,
"...The unique nature of digital reference introduces a new
realm of issues and challenges. The need for guidelines and standards
becomes even more important as consortium-wide digital reference
services continue to evolve..."
Vera Fullerton, IFLA Digital
Reference Standards Project, 12/2002.
IFLA's Discussion Group on Reference first met in 1998. It was created
to address the effects of new technology on reference work and on user
expectations. In 2002, acknowledging the importance of these issues as
well as the group's growing audience, IFLA created the official
Standing Committee on Reference Work. These guidelines grew out of
reference workshops and meetings held over the course of several years.
This document addresses the needs of library administrators as well
as practicing librarians:
Section 1: The Administration of Digital Reference
Services, was written with the responsibilities of program
administrators in mind.
Section 2: The Practice of Digital Reference,
provides guidance for the practitioner of digital reference, and
articulates standards of practice to facilitate collaborative work.
Defining a user base: Before establishing a digital
reference service, it is important to clarify one's target clientele.
Consider how the use of the technology may effect and/or expand an
institution's user base. Physical location is of less importance when
an institution has an online presence. In addition to the Library's
traditional users, new and different types of users may choose to take
advantage of online services.
THE ADMINISTRATION OF DIGITAL REFERENCE
Examine existing institutional procedures and policies before
establishing new services. Determine how these might be affected by a
transition to or addition of a digital environment. It may be necessary
to revisit long-held service policies, clarify and adapt them for this
1.1 Reference Policy
- Clarify goals for this new reference service.
- Identify an overseer or oversight group responsible for creating
best practices, defining acceptable behavior, and articulating a
code of conduct and the consequences of violating these.
- Draft applicable guidelines by integrating existing policies and
procedures with these goals, making sure they are consistent with
the overall mission of the institution.
- Consider how often a review of these policies should take place,
describe procedure and designate responsibility.
- Provide for compliance with copyright and all other applicable
- Determine who can use the service. Define and target primary
clientele. If you serve everyone regardless of age, race, gender,
sexual preference, religion, social status, economic status or
disability, say so. If there are persons excluded (e.g. clients
from outside of a particular community) -- enforcement should be
- Determine whether there are types of questions the institution
will or will not answer. For example:"We will answer factual
and ready-reference questions. We will not answer questions asking
for medical or legal advice. Questions from our primary clientele
are given priority over others..."
- Develop policy for client misbehavior. Persons using the service
should do so in a manner consistent with its purposes and
The scope of the service provided should be based on realistic
planning and the available financial resources, as well as on the
perceived needs of the community served.
- Create a working group of administrators and practitioners within
the institution to explore available service options and establish
- Develop concrete goals-a vision--how will this service serve the
needs of the community? How might this service develop over
- Draft an initial action proposal.
- Evaluate available software and services.
- Determine the likeliest sources of funding.
- Solicit client feedback.
- Determine whether other institutions (locally, regionally, etc.)
might be interested in pooling resources to develop a cooperative
- Re-evaluate initial action plan based on findings from steps
- Present action plan and secure managerial support.
[See: Revision of IFLA's Guidelines for Public Libraries: Funding:
[To Be Discussed]
- Select participating staff upon the basis of initial interest
(this is key), ability, availability, computer skills, and
interpersonal communication skills. Clearly define their specific
responsibilities and assignments.].
- Consider how many full time librarians are required, as well
as how many technicians, if any, to distribute questions,
- Maintain enough staffing flexibility to incorporate staff
members who express interest in participating after they have
become accustomed to the idea. [Remember that the future of the
project depends on encouraging interest rather than
- If a 24-hour-a-day service cannot be achieved or is not
desired, schedule the staffing during the hours that best meet
patrons' information needs and expectations. This is especially
important if using chat reference tools.
- Examine and evaluate scheduling and librarian workload
distribution on an on-going basis. Adjust whenever necessary
- Create a centralized schedule for primary participants as
well as relief and/or backup participants.
- Determine who within the institution or consortium will provide
the necessary technical support [an organized technical support
group is vital to the success of a digital reference service.]
- Determine which staff member/s will oversee the observance of any
limitations on use such as any contained in licensing agreements.
- Determine which staff member/s will be responsible for making
sure that reference standards are maintained.
- Plan for the integration of the service into daily procedures and
workflow. Standardize procedures so that when staff members take
leave, no reference questions will be lost.
1.4 Training: The Basics:
- Determine who will train staff, and set aside time for staff
training and orientation and professional development.
Key skills a digital reference librarian should have include:
- Clear communication skills, especially in writing.
- Database and online searching skills.
- Interviewing skills - to compensate for lack of visual and
- Knowledge of reference resources.
- Familiarity with software package selected.
- Update training as necessary. Encourage and enable staff members
to meet regularly to discuss their experiences and new developments
in the field.
1.5 Interface Design:
The online reference desk should be designed to allow access to
resources and expertise for the greatest number of people, regardless
of language, technical capability & physical impediments. Please
note: Although you are planning for an online service, do not overlook
the physical and logistical details required to provide digital
reference efficiently: providing staff with an appropriate workspace --
furnishings, hardware, software, paper resources, Internet access, web
browsers and supporting email accounts- is as important to the service
as what the clients see on their screens.
It is also important to set up your virtual workspace properly:
- Exemplify "user friendly" interface and easy navigation.
- Establish standard structure and design, and apply it
consistently throughout the site, so that a first-time user can
figure out how to navigate the site after using one or two
screens. Position the link to the service [the "Ask A
Librarian" button] consistently on all institution web
- Use icons and images as much as possible to orient the user.
Try not to fill the page with long blocks of text.
- Identify the institution clearly, and provide a link to the
library's home page.
- Include a brief paragraph defining the scope of the
institution's reference services and state how long users can
expect to wait for a reply/response to their inquiries (e.g.
"...all questions submitted to this service will be answered
within 5 business days...").
- Provide information to guide the user through the form. (I.e.
The "Resources Consulted" field should contain at least one
example showing the user that it's important to include vol.
number, Page number and date, title and author information,
- Common fields of information that you might consider adding
to your web form include essential ones like "email address,"
and "Question Text," as well as optional fields such as:
"Name," "Phone Number," "Education Level" [of desired answer],
and "Reason for Research," etc…
- Create fields for whatever information you feel you will need
in order to provide the most effective service, but not so many
fields as to be off-putting.
- Provide Links to relevant internal and external online
resources (reviewed and updated regularly)-Home Pages, Online
Catalogs, Databases, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
- Provide a link to details on institution's general
reference/correspondence policy and service guidelines.
- Identify and provide contact information for all means of
communicating with library staff: via live chat service, email,
web form, fax, postal mail, telephone, etc…
- Take the potential limitations of hardware and technical
sophistication of end users into consideration when planning the
site. Minimum hardware requirements for use of the service should
be clearly stated.
- Incorporate policies and comply with laws that ensure that all
users, including those with disabilities, are able to access the
- Clearly state who answers the questions and state what the
service will not do.
Due to time constraints, and the volume of questions we receive
- Fax material to patrons.
- Create bibliographies.
- Conduct extensive research.
- Renew materials via this service...
- Privacy Statement, disclaimer, etc… [Based on legal code of
The purpose of this statement is to inform users of this
website what information is collected about them when they visit
this site, how this information is used and if it is disclosed.
In common with most websites, the British Library website
automatically logs certain information about every request sent to
it. This information is used for system administration and for
producing usage statistics. Summary statistics are extracted from
this data and some of these may be made publicly available, but
these do not include information from which individuals could be
identified. Relevant subsets of this data may be used as part of
investigations of computer misuse involving this site (see also our
guidelines on use)...
- Determine how long chat transcripts and questions will be
archived, and who will have access to them. Determine whether it is
necessary to maintain patron anonymity by stripping away all
personal information. Establish a maintenance process and
- Provide a means for patrons to provide feedback-survey, emails,
1.6 Legal Issues
It is important for all librarians to familiarize themselves with
the current state of public information legislation in their region,
and, when it affects the scope of services offered, to share this
information with their patrons.
- Digital Reference and Freedom of Information/Local Culture.
- National Information Policies--What is the political
- Public Information Legislation.
- Related Legislation.
- Privacy and confidentiality issues.
- Licensing Agreements.
- Consortial Relationships.
[See: Revision of IFLA Public Library Guidelines http://archive.ifla.org/VII/s8/proj/gpl.htm]
1.7. Publicity and Promotion
- Identify key audiences.
- Develop project "identity" and logo/name with targeted community
- Encourage word-of-mouth promotion among staff to long-term
- Create strategic links from library web site, and/or the sites of
potential institutional partners.
- Contact local media - community newspaper, friends-of-the-library
newsletter, local radio station, local educators.
- Post announcements to professional and special-interest
- Conduct user surveys of both patrons and staff. Monitor concerns,
problems, and questions from staff and patrons.
- Compile and evaluate statistics of service activity, as well as
possible technical or policy issues.
- Implement changes to services based upon statistical analysis,
and librarian and patron feedback.
Online tools enable libraries to share their resources with other
similar or complementary institutions. This allows them to offer their
patrons a greater range of services and expertise.
But collaborative work is not without its challenges. Collaborators
- Establish a common vision of the services the new entity will
- Develop common guidelines for practice and procedures.
- Build trust between partners - establish accountability.
- Think through the issues that may constrain the delivery of
- shared resources, e.g.: copyright law, licensing agreements,
liability, national information policies, etc…
THE PRACTICE OF DIGITAL REFERENCE
2.1 General Guidelines
Digital reference services must meet the same standards as traditional
reference services. Participants should:
- Be committed to providing the most effective assistance.
- Show professional courtesy and respect when answering
- Uphold the principles of intellectual freedom.
- Acknowledge receipt of patron question. Provide patrons with
responses as quickly as possible. Letters and other forms of
communication should be answered promptly and courteously (IFLA PL
- Create and adhere to stated response turnaround policy.
- Comply with contractual licensing agreements, for both electronic
and print materials, as well as specific restrictions of use, and
any copyright laws governing the materials in question.
- Practice good search strategies.
- (See RUSA document: Guidelines
for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services
Professionals. Section 4.0 Searching. RASD Ad Hoc Committee on
Behavioral Guidelines for Reference and Information Services.
Approved by the RASD Board of Directors, January 1996
- Respond to 100% of questions that are assigned, if only to say,
"I'm sorry I don't know, but you can try…"
2.2 Content Guidelines
- Digital reference service should be informative; Promote
information literacy by providing patrons with information on how
you found an answer to their question.
- Maintain objectivity and do not interject value judgments about
subject matter or the nature of the question into the
- Use a neutral questioning interview technique to determine
"the real question," and once this is determined, provide
users with accurate answers, appropriate in length, level, and
completeness to the need. Include notification that the question
may be forwarded to consortial partners, if this is the case.
- For questions requiring more in-depth answers, assistance may be
provided if appropriate. Search time should be limited to the
amount of time that supervisor recommends.
- A well-structured written response has a heading, body and
- Heading: Greet patron, include a generic
notice of thanks for using the service, refer directly to
subject of patron's inquiry: Example:"Information
on_________may be found________,"
To find out more about___________, we would
- Body: Cite sources fully, and in a
consistent citation style. Describe all materials (if any) sent
under separate cover or attached. Explain how the relevant
information was found, its placement with regard to the
suggested resource, if this is not immediately evident.
- Signature: A signature should be a part of
every closure. The librarian signature may contain librarian
name or initials, title, institution and any contact
information, as is prescribed by supervisor. Examples: "We hope
the information we've provided will assist you with your
research"; "I hope you find this information
"We hope this answers your question. If you have further
questions, please contact us again and we will be glad to
provide additional assistance…"
- Avoid using jargon, acronyms, or Internet abbreviations (such as:
- Write all responses clearly and relate them to the level of the
inquiry (as much as possible).
- Offer accurate responses--check facts and know (evaluate)
- Check spelling in written responses, and validate URLS.
- Select and cite only from authoritative resources:
- Evaluation criteria for paper-based resources: Author, Date
of Publication, Edition or Revision, Publisher, Title, Intended
Audience, Coverage, Writing Style.
- Evaluation criteria for reviews, Accuracy, Authority,
- Evaluation criteria for web resources: Author, Content,
Domain Name, Date of Last Revision, Objectivity, Authority, and
- Always cite sources of information completely, whether web
page, reference book, database, or other. Use a consistent
citation style institution-wide, if possible.
- The librarian should add value to information either through
analysis, description, keywords, pathways, or rewording.
- The librarian should do his or her best to locate and recommend
at least one resource for every question.
2.3 Chat Guidelines
- Ideally, chat with a patron should be initiated as soon as the
patron enters the chat queue.
- Chat queries should be responded to in the order that they are
- Librarians serving chat patrons should identify themselves
immediately upon initiation of conversation. [Covered in 2.3.8.]
- Be aware of other patrons waiting. (Research from various chat
projects has indicated an average session may be expected to be
about 15 minutes long. Librarians may use their own judgment in
- As you search, periodically reassure the patron that they have
not been disconnected.
- Bookmark URLs used frequently.
- Use spelling, grammar and capitalization appropriately- "chat
speak" is generally more conversational than formally written
- Develop generalized institutional scripts to help librarians save
time, and provide consistent service within an institution. The
service administrator should approve institutional scripts.
- Encourage individual staff members to develop scripts as
- Receive questions that require similar responses on
topics not handled by others.
- Handle subject specialties that merit personalized
- Make the same reference to another institution,
association, resource or web site.
- Establish a consistent form of greeting or closure that
is different from the institutional or group script.
- If the session cannot be closed in a reasonable amount of
time and/or there is another patron in the queue, offer to
email a response, providing a time estimate, e.g. "I will
continue to search for an answer and I will send you an email
within X hours or minutes"; "Is this enough to get you
started?" "May I send you an answer via email?"
- Work with more than one patron at a time, if appropriate. If
you feel comfortable, you may also pick up the second patron
(it is recommended that you use a separate browser). E.g. "I am
currently working with another patron. I will return to this
chat session as soon as I can." "Will you please hold for five
2.4 Guidelines for Chat Sessions
- Clarify the information need. Allow the patron to fully explain
his/her information need before responding.
- Use open-ended questioning techniques to encourage the patron to
expand on the request, e.g. "Please tell me more about your topic."
or "What additional information can you give me?" or "How much
information do you need?"
- Use questions to refine the search query. E.g. "What have you
already found?" or "What type of information do you need (books,
articles, etc.)?" or "Do you need current or historical
- Break up long responses into a few blocks (e.g. 30 words per
block)-this avoids long pauses and the client can begin reading
your response while you are completing it.
- Explain your search process to the patron and describe what you
are finding whenever possible. Remember that the patron cannot see
you. Let the patron know what you are looking for and where you are
- If you are going to be checking printed sources or taking a bit
of time with the question, either provide patron w/ resource to
look at, or offer them the option of follow-up via email.
- Use complete citations.
- If an inquiry needs to be referred to another librarian, give the
patron detailed information about who to ask, how to contact them
and what to ask for.
- "Inappropriate behavior": When patron behavior is inappropriate
(as determined by institutional guidelines), send a scripted
warning message or terminate the call. Repeat offenders should be
- Type like you talk, in a conversational manner.
- Use the client's name and ask them questions when
- Avoid yes/no responses. Yes/no's can be interpreted as cold and
unfriendly, just as in face-to-face reference.
- Clarify confusing terminology and avoid excessive jargon. Use
terminology that is understandable to the patron.
Resources Used to Create Draft:
IFLA Public Library Guidelines (Revised) http://archive.ifla.org/VII/s8/proj/gpl.htm
Library of Congress. QuestionPoint Users Group
Lipow, Anne G. The Virtual Reference Librarian's
Handbook. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2003.
QuestionPoint Member Guidelines:
Reference and User Services Association [RUSA], American Library
for Developing Guidelines: [Accessed 01/12/2006]
Guidelines: [Accessed 01/12/2006]
Sloan, Bernie, ed. Digital Reference Services: Bibliography.
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Virtual Reference Desk:
Facets of Quality for Digital Reference:
Version 4 - October 2000:http://www.vrd.org/facets-10-00.shtml
Version 5 - June 2003]: http://www.vrd.org/facets-06-03.shtml
Guidelines for Information Specialists of K-12 Digital
Created by Abby S. Kasowitz (1998)