Volume 2 Number 1 January 2001

Digital Reference: How Libraries Can Compete with Aska Services

By Ann Marie Parsons

Reference service has long been a cornerstone of the library profession. When users approach the reference desk in their library of choice, they come armed with a set of expectations and assumptions. These positive and negative mental models about the library and the professionals who attempt to answer their queries are, for better or worse, ingrained in our culture, and carry over into the digital age. Few would argue that the era of research performed exclusively using print sources is long over. But users now expect librarians to search a combination of print and electronic sources to find the information they crave. Therefore, though the era of reference service provided only through the traditional physical setting may be on its way out the door, librarians now have the unique opportunity to create mental models of reference in the digital paradigm.

The growth of digital reference service is organic. The Internet brings libraries new modes of communication and outreach. It allows librarians to furnish information and services in a whole new setting. Reference is merely one of the services users can hope to find in the digital branches of libraries in the future. Currently librarians are experimenting with the implementation of reference service via e-mail, query forms found on their Web sites, and through chat sessions where users have the ability to ask and receive answers to questions in some semblance of real-time.

Librarians, however, are not the only ones attempting to assist users with their information needs in the electronic environment. There are also "Aska" services. These corporate-sponsored web sites allow users to ask questions and receive answers for free from public information located mainly on the World Wide Web or from proprietary databases and networks of field experts. Aska services exist on the frontier of cyberspace, where libraries should make their mark as well.

Aska services offer attractive options to users. They break ground where librarians fear to tread. These services personalize themselves to users by incorporating cyber-personalities as intermediaries and including drop-down menus for those with ill-defined information requests. They deliver information almost in the blink of an eye and are available twenty-four hours a day. Well funded and marketed, they are immensely popular, judging by their proliferation.

Should librarians fear the competition to provide "all the answers" by for-profit Aska services? No. Creating and mastering online reference library-style can only help to ensure the stability of libraries in the future. Not all reference services are created equal. Libraries are the brand name in information provision. They have strengths that Aska services cannot hope to compete with. What librarians must do is identify a set of ideals and skills in traditional reference service that they wish to apply to the digital environment. Likewise they should analyze and learn from the Aska models when creating their own cyber-reference services. If libraries market what they have to offer and benchmarking their brand of online reference, Askas will be forced to compete with libraries and not vice versa. Libraries will then become the standard by which all other electronic-information services are measured.

Librarians know best what their strengths are, and they know how to benchmark the status of reference service in the physical setting. What librarians may not know is what Aska services have to offer. If the library's motto can be summed up as "Content is King," the user's motto is most certainly summed up as "Convenience is King." Convenience is a key ingredient in the success of Aska services. The illusion that everything can be found on the Web and found more quickly and easily than in the library are bedrocks upon which Aska models are built. Their services can be useful when browsing for information or defining a query. They often collect resources that the library does not. Mainly these nuggets of data manifest themselves in popular culture applications.

Aska services are not the all-purpose answer to reference, however. In fact many of the liabilities of Aska services are strengths of the library. Askas cannot compete with the quality and diversity of resources found at the library. Not everything of value is available electronically, nor is everything available electronically of value. Likewise not all information providers are subject experts, and not all subject experts are versed in information retrieval. Therefore the quality of the items retrieved by Askas are dubious. Aska services can be likened to convenience stores. While one could buy a chilidog at 7-11 any time of the day, few people would choose to do their weekly grocery shopping there.

Also, Askas are doing disservice to patrons by implying their authority. While some guide users to "speak" directly with subject experts, others provide merely computer specialists and salespersons attempting to answer users' questions. These faceless interpreters have neither the expertise nor the information at their disposal to carry out functional reference service. As for-profit companies, Aska services also have a vested interest in certain ideas. One Aska database searched by one company employee cannot be compared to the wealth of carefully chosen print and non-print sources at the disposal of a practiced reference professional.

Libraries provide quality information to targeted audiences while operating with less funding and marketing. Librarians have a distinct advantage of knowing how to perform reference; they are knowledgeable mediators who need only to modify their methods and give their services a facelift for the digital setting. For example, librarians know the difference between a biased and an unbiased source; they just need to share that information with the consumer. They need to learn to share it in a graphically palatable way to their electronic clientele.

Proper presentation of online reference service is essential as are explanatory materials that point out the differences in these services and why the library provides the proper one for users with scholarly interests. To create this format and prefatory material one must first understand what users want and need.

Users want high quality material as quickly as possible. They need to be guided along the pathway to gather that material. This includes making the library available to provide reference service through a multitude of communication devices at times that are convenient to its' clientele, and providing instruction about how to access reference service and how to phrase questions in answerable form, and about the value of the reference service librarians provide. In their physical locations, librarians already provide much of what users want and need: structure, service, human intermediation, and bibliographic instruction. The challenge before librarians today is to migrate these services into the digital environment.

Users of traditional reference anticipate getting personal service and vast knowledge held by a librarian when standing before the reference desk. They describe successful reference encounters as those in which the librarian is courteous and interested in assisting the patron. Users respect the queue but will not wait forever. Once it is his or her turn, the user expects the librarian's undivided attention and assumes the person helping him or her will be non-judgmental and interested in the question presented. Interestingly, in the traditional library setting, users seem to understand that no one person can answer every question, and will often return to the same librarian for assistance if they left the encounter with good feelings, even their questions were not successfully answered.

It appears as though users have similar mental models for Aska services as they do for in-person reference service. Hence in Aska interfaces, one "asks Jeeves" or "Eve" or some other cyber-personality for assistance. Regardless of whether a user is interacting with an unseen human miles away or standing before the reference desk, the sense of connection to another being is an important part of the reference experience. Aska users will not wait as long to have a question answered online by a search engine as they will from a live person.

So how can librarians meet these needs for content and interaction? Create policies for digital reference as one would do for traditional reference services. Personalize the digital service so that users can identify with the library from remote locations as they do in person. Remember that the usefulness of a tool is determined by the person wielding it.

Most likely the goal of digital reference service will be to supplement, not to replace, traditional reference service, but consider the users and collection, as well as the scope and limits of questions that can be answered online. Determine hours of online operation, create partnerships with similar institutions to extend hours, and outline management issues of the service. Set policies identify a minimum standard of quality and procedure to help ensure that all questions are handled in the same manner.

Web forms or other standardized query mechanisms could be designed to gather information the librarian needs in order to answer the user's question. Study online reference models already in use and brainstorm possible models of one's own to ensure the best interface for the specific population the library serves.

Upon every cyber reference desk should rest documents describing the expectations of both the user and the librarian. A Bill of Digital Reference Rights can be drafted to outlines realistic expectations of the service. Many Aska services already provide this information to prospective clients. A comprehensive reference policy should include detailed information regarding how questions will be dealt with, who will answer them, and why the information is worth the wait. Users have limited knowledge of what is involved in processing a reference request, especially when it is processed remotely. It is the librarian's job to decipher the user's need from behind the reference desk or from behind a computer screen miles away. That does not mean it should remain a mystery to the user.

This "Bill of Rights" should answer the questions, What? Why? When? and How? Librarians should tell users what information they need in order to answer a question. For instance, users are not likely aware that sending an email question negates the context a librarian needs to find information suited to that particular person. The "Bill of Rights" should include why librarians need users to provide identification information, such as level of expertise and final purpose for the research, as well as what the user can realistically expect in return for sharing this personal information. Users must also be made aware of when the information they request can be expected. Librarians should also explain why it takes a set period of time to answer a reference question. They should explain why some information can be made available via electronic delivery while other information must be accessed through Interlibrary Loan or even in person.

Creating a personalized environment should also be a priority. With Web pages already in place at many libraries, the reference department should build upon the strengths of what users are already familiar with. Portraying the librarian's helpful demeanor can be established by giving the reference staff a "face" on the site. This could include a group photo, description of skills, or other personalizing features. By showcasing the librarian's knowledge and reference service abilities on the web site, it is possible to engender trust and make connections. Take the time to look at Aska models. See what style of intermediary people respond to. Create one appropriate for the library.

Aska services assume the user will know where to find them but not how to use them. Should librarians proceed from the same premise? It is up to librarians to design effective systems that enable long distance reference interviews. The system must also provide service when it cannot provide answers, and must create a willingness on the part of patrons to return to the site if it is to be considered successful by traditional reference evaluation standards. Once the service is live, periodic evaluative processes and service upgrades should be established.

Digital and traditional reference services are not completely different animals. In each setting librarians are needed to assist users in the definition of queries and to put them into searchable terms. Users need someone to teach them how to think about the search, how to carry out the search, and occasionally someone to perform the search.

Librarians should hold themselves to the same high standards in the digital environment as they do in the physical environment. Users should expect transparent, authoritative, complete, and timely digital reference service carried out by trained professionals whenever possible. Librarians should teach users how to form queries, how to utilize resources, and what information is reasonably within their grasp.

It is not enough to change what services the library will provide in the future; libraries must also address how to provide the service and why it is what users have been waiting for. By studying benchmarking criteria used to evaluate in-person, physical reference service in conjunction with examples culled from Aska services, librarians can create policies to implement the best possible models for digital reference service as provided by librarians. Librarians can take advantage of systems they created previously and alter them to fit the needs of the digital paradigm. If librarians create standards for how and when quality information will be delivered to patrons educated with the knowledge of what information to accept and from whom, libraries will no longer be beholden to the standards set by Aska services. Instead Aska services will find it necessary to keep up with libraries.