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Reference and Information
Services Section

IFLA Digital Reference Standards Project

Submitted by Vera Fullerton
December 2002

IFLA Project: Digital Reference Guidelines and Standards

Many libraries around the world now offer digital reference services, or are in the process of considering whether or not to offer a digital reference service. During the IFLA 2001 Conference in Boston, the Reference Section submitted a project proposal to identify and monitor the progress of digital reference guidelines and policies. The project was approved and the report that follows provides an overview of the state of digital reference guidelines and policies.

The Current State of Digital Reference Guidelines and Standards

While interest in creating digital reference standards and guidelines exists, official guidelines and policies have not been developed to date. This is most likely due to the fact that libraries offering digital reference services are at different stages. Some libraries have been offering the service for two or more years while others are still exploring whether or not they have the resources and interest to offer the service. Library literature, list serv discussions, and professional conference agendas reveal a profession engaged in the early stages of planning and implementing digital reference services. Many librarians are still engaged in debate regarding the merits of the service, when to offer it, how to staff it, and which software to select while others have implemented the service and looking for ways to improve it.

Most libraries offering a virtual reference service are at the pilot or early post-pilot stage. If digital reference standards and guidelines have been created, they tend to be in the form of internal documents, informal in nature, and closely reflect those used for general reference services and e-mail reference. In most cases, if any policies or guidelines are made available to the public, they tend to address issues of patron privacy and service restrictions, but fail to address guidelines and standards that a librarian would consult, such as those approved by the American Library Association for other service. These are available at the following URL: http://www.ala.org/work/standards.html.

The wealth of literature regarding standards of traditional reference and e-mail reference services will serve as a useful resource during the development of digital reference standards. However, 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.

However, certain groups and individuals have taken steps toward the development of digital reference policies and guidelines. The following provides a summary of current activities and resources.

Groups and Individuals Involved in Creating Digital Reference Guidelines and Standards

Virtual Reference Desk (VRD)
The Virtual Reference Desk (VRD), a project dedicated to the advancement of digital reference and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, has taken the lead in working towards the development of standards. Large consortial-based virtual reference services, such as CDRS, have looked towards VRD for the development of standards. VRD's current version of digital standards, entitled "Facets of Quality" is available at the following URL: http://www.ala.org/rusa/mars/digrefcom.html. The 4th VRD Conference will be held in November 2002.

Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS)
Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS) is a part of the Reference and User Services Association of the American Library Association. MARS created a Digital Reference Guidelines ad hoc committee charged with producing guidelines for digital reference services. According to minutes from the MARS January 2002 Conference, "substantial progress is anticipated by Annual (June 2002). Completion was rescheduled with an eye toward the Virtual Reference Desk Conference this Fall" http://www.ala.org/rusa/mars/digrefcom.html

The National Information Standards Organization (NISO)
The National Information Standards Organization (NISO) is also exploring the issues and opportunities associated with the development of digital reference standards. In April 2001, the Networked Reference Services Standards Committee was charged with the following: 1.) Develop a question processing transaction protocol for interchange of messages between digital reference domains; 2.) Develop metadata element sets to identify and describe key components of both question and answer data and institutional and personal data; 3. Conduct experimentation and/or research in both areas to test the proposed standard. http://www.niso.org/committees/committee_az.html

Assessing Quality in Digital Reference Services
Described as "a study to develop methods to assess the quality of digital reference services, test and refine measures and quality standards to describe digital reference services, and to produce a guidebook that describes how to collect and report data for these measures and standards." Participants include: OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc., Florida State University, School of Information Studies, Digital Library Federation, Syracuse University, School of Information Studies, Multnomah County Library, Library of Congress, Strozer Library, Florida State University, Cleveland Public Library, Pennsylvania Office of Commonwealth Libraries, Bureau of Library Development, State Library of Florida, Division of Library and Information Services, and Reference and User Services Association. http://quartz.syr.edu/quality/

Digital Reference Guidelines and Standards

The following links provide access to digital reference guidelines and standards developed by libraries and associations. Overall, the guidelines are general in scope and informal, but serve as a useful starting point in developing official guidelines and standards and reflect the interest of the library profession in developing official guidelines and standards.

Virtual Reference Desk (VRD): Facet's of Quality
VRD's current version of digital standards, entitled "Facets of Quality" is available at: http://www.vrd.org/facets-10-00.shtml.

UCLA Digital Reference Project

Guidelines for Information Specialists of K-12 Digital Reference Services
Created by Abby S. Kasowitz (1998)

Washington Research Libraries Consortium (WRLC) Virtual Reference Project http://www.wrlc.org/virtualref/vrguidelines.html

Chat Communication Tips from the University of Florida

Electronic Reference Service: Some Suggested Guidelines
Sloan, Bernie. "Electronic Reference Services: Some Suggested Guidelines," Reference and User Services Quarterly 38:77-81 (Summer 1998). Reproduced with the permission of the American Library Association. http://www.lis.uiuc.edu/~b-sloan/guide.html

Other Resources

"Working Towards Digital Reference Guidelines."
This is the transcript of a presentation given by Bernie Sloan at the Reference Service in a Digital Age Conference, held at the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C., June 30, 1998.

Digital Reference Services Bibliography
Compiled by Bernie Sloan.

List Servs

The Virtual Reference Desk (http://www.vrd.org) sponsors the DIG_REF Listserv and provides a forum for the growing number of people and organizations answering the questions of users via the Internet. From Ask-an-Expert (AskA) services to libraries, an increasing number of organizations are creating digital reference services to provide expert information and reference help.

This list serv provides a moderated discussion of issues related to reference librarianship, including, but not limited to virtual reference.

Live Reference eGroup
This Yahoo Group discusses live reference services for librarians