ERIC Identifier: ED427794
Publication Date: 1999-03-00
Author: Wasik, Joann M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Information and Technology Syracuse NY.
Building and Maintaining Digital Reference Services. ERIC
Easily accessible digital information has rapidly become one of the hallmarks
of the Internet. Online resources have surged in popularity as more individuals
and organizations have connected to the global network. Thousands of
organizations have turned to Internet-based information delivery as an effective
and cost-efficient alternative to traditional communication methods, and many
have expanded their services further by interacting with their users and
responding to inquiries via the Internet.
Digital reference services (also known as "AskA services," as in
"Ask-an-Expert") provide subject expertise and information referral over the
Internet to their users. This Digest provides an overview of the growing digital
reference movement and its implications on sponsoring organizations, and
examines current practices in the creation and maintenance of such services.
WHAT IS DIGITAL REFERENCE?
Digital reference and AskA
services are Internet-based question-and-answer services that connect users with
experts in a variety of subject areas. In addition to answering questions,
experts may also provide users with referrals to other online and print sources
of information. As opposed to traditional expert systems that attempt to capture
and model problem-solving tasks in a manner similar to humans, digital reference
services use human intermediaries, or experts, to answer questions and provide
information to users. The question/answer process in digital reference services
is modeled after the methods practiced by reference librarians in traditional
library settings. As in a face-to-face interview, experts determine the amount
of information appropriate for the user, the applicability of that information,
and the level of information required. User queries must occasionally be
clarified, and an online reference interview may be conducted to help define the
user's information needs.
HISTORY OF DIGITAL REFERENCE
The origins of digital
reference can be traced to the library field, where libraries sought to augment
traditional services by providing reference assistance in an electronic
environment. One of the first services to go online was the Electronic Access to
Reference Service (EARS), launched by the University of Maryland Health Services
Library in Baltimore in 1984 (Wiese & Borgendale, 1986). Although initial
e-mail-based digital reference efforts received little attention from patrons
(Still & Campbell, 1993), digital reference services proliferated over time
and became increasingly popular, eventually spawning such internationally-known
services as AskERIC in 1992 and the Internet Public Library in 1995.
During the past several years, digital reference services have become
important and effective resources for meeting the information needs of thousands
of users, and the number of user requests to these service has continued to
increase. In September of 1996, KidsConnect, a question-and-answer, help, and
referral service for K-12 students on the Internet, experienced 1000%
growth--from 20 questions a week to 200 questions per week (Lankes, 1998). With
proper planning, AskA services can effectively manage high volumes of questions
and prevent disruptions in service. Services that are launched prematurely,
however, may not be prepared for the potential impact a global audience may have
on their organizations.
IMPLICATIONS OF DIGITAL REFERENCE
The dynamic nature of the
Internet creates an ever-changing information environment and transforms the way
information is delivered and accessed. As greater numbers of users connect to
the Internet, user expectations for more immediate access to information and
knowledge resources steadily rises. While many organizations realize that their
best response to shifting user demands is proactive rather than passive service
(Cargill, 1992), the online environment can raise important issues for those
interested in offering digital reference services.
The creation and maintenance of Internet-based question-and-answer services
can be fraught with difficulties. AskA services often struggle with issues such
as how to maintain consistent quality of service, which user populations to
serve, and how to respond to question overload. The need to secure funding for
continued operation also figures prominently in the building and maintaining of
digital reference services. Many services devote much time to the pursuit of
grants, corporate sponsorship, or non-profit status (Wasik, 1998). Despite such
potential problems, organizations offering digital reference services find many
rewards. AskA services serve the public good by providing valuable information
in a timely fashion, and have the potential to gain international visibility.
Parent organizations of many services reap enhanced public relations benefits by
having satisfied users and by providing high-quality information. Accessible
24-hours a day and unrestricted by geography, digital reference services are a
powerful means for the free exchange of information and the promotion of
A lack of information resources for practitioners of digital reference,
however, has allowed many AskA services to go online without a clear
understanding of either the process of digital reference itself or how to
develop and manage such services effectively. Since many of these services
struggle and sometimes fail altogether, methods and standards have been proposed
to ensure a consistent level of quality for digital reference and to provide
guidance in the introduction of new services. Organizations interested in
offering Internet-based information services must understand not only the
fundamental tenets of the question-and-answer process, but also how this
information is processed and translated into actual service.
HOW DIGITAL REFERENCE SERVICES WORK
Although there are
slight variations among services, all digital reference and AskA services
function in a similar manner. Human intermediaries evaluate incoming questions
via e-mail or Web interface, and then decide on an appropriate course of action.
New questions may be checked against an archive of previously answered questions
for an appropriate answer, and if no suitable answer is found, passed along to
an expert for answering. The expert supplies the necessary information, which
may consist of an actual answer (factual information), pointers to additional
resources (information referral), or some combination. Responses are sent to the
user's e-mail address or posted to a Web site for the user to access at a later
date. In some smaller AskA services, the experts themselves may also monitor the
The task of creating and managing Internet-based question-and-answer services
is complicated by the ever-changing nature of the Internet. Lankes (1998**)
examined exemplary K-12 AskA services to determine how such services answered
questions, processed information, and operated in a highly complex online
environment. Lankes identified five fundamental components that commonly exist
in the methods used by digital reference services to answer questions, and which
in turn form the basis of a conceptual framework, or "meta-description," of the
Services receive questions electronically (Question Acquisition), then route
the questions to an appropriate expert according to a set of internal rules. The
questions progress to a Pool of Possible Respondents, where they are queued
according to some criteria, such as user need, date received, etc. In services
staffed by multiple experts, some sort of triage may be initially performed to
help expedite the answer process, such as selecting the best expert to answer a
particular question. The expert composes an answer in compliance with service
policy (Expert Answer Generation), and replies are sent to the users (Answer
Sent). The final component of Lankes' meta-description, Tracking, identifies
popular subjects and trends that may be used to compile statistics or generate
Viewed in its entirety, the meta-description reveals a level of convergence
in the volatile online environment. By identifying a set of common methods in
the question/answer process, organizations may develop a series of planning
documents to assist in the creation and ongoing maintenance of digital reference
BUILDING AND MAINTAINING DIGITAL REFERENCE SERVICES
on Lankes' meta-description, a six-step process was developed to aid
organizations in the creation and operation of digital reference services
(Lankes & Kasowitz, 1998). The AskA Starter Kit describes each of the six
steps in a series of instructional modules. The information presented in the
AskA Starter Kit is applicable to a wide variety of organizations and audiences
including the K-12 education community, government agencies, libraries, and
industry. The six stages are briefly outlined as follows:
1. Informing: Nascent AskA services conduct preliminary research both into
the field of digital reference and into existing services in their area of
2. Planning: AskA services' policies, procedures, and methods must be
developed and evaluated to ensure alignment with overall organizational goals.
3. Training: The development of a comprehensive training plan, including
training materials, activities, and tools, is necessary for the preparation of
an effective staff.
4. Prototyping: Many digital reference services fail because they are
launched prematurely. Services that are first pilot-tested in a controlled
environment can identify and correct problems with minimal inconvenience.
5. Contributing: Upon launching an AskA service, it is important to institute
the development of ongoing publicity and resource development to support the
6. Evaluating: As with any service, digital reference services benefit from
regular evaluations to ensure a quality product and to gather data for continued
support from the organization.
The six-step process reveals an overall methodology that many digital
reference services do not employ. Due to inadequate planning and perhaps
inexperience with Internet-based information delivery systems, many services
experience question overloads and are often forced to cease operations as a
result. Systematic planning and training such as that outlined in the AskA
Starter Kit can help digital reference practitioners create robust, high-quality
In today's rapidly changing information environment, digital reference and
AskA services are important tools that support learning and promote intellectual
inquiry. The need for specialized training and information resources for digital
reference providers has become increasingly critical as the popularity of such
services continues to grow. Without proper planning and without an understanding
of digital reference practices, many services will experience significant
difficulties. New research and information resources, however, seek to promote
standards and practices to ensure high-quality service, and the effective
creation and maintenance of exemplary digital reference services.
AskA Digests. [Online]. Available:
http://www.vrd.org/AskA/digests.html [December 28, 1998].
Cargill, J. S. (1992). Electronic reference desk: Reference service in an
electronic world. "Library Administration & Management," 6(2), 82-85. (EJ
Whitwell, S. C. (1997). Internet Public Library: Same metaphors, new service.
"American Libraries," 28(2), 56-59. (EJ 539 658)
Lankes, R. D. (1998). "Building and maintaining Internet information
services: K-12 digital reference services." ERIC Clearinghouse on Information
and Technology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. (IR-106, ED number pending).
Lankes, R. D. & Kasowitz, A. S. (1998). "The AskA starter kit: How to
build and maintain digital reference services." ERIC Clearinghouse on
Information and Technology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. (IR-107, ED
Lipow, A. G. (1997). Thinking out loud: Who will give reference service in
the digital environment? "Reference & User Services Quarterly," 37(2),
Still, J. & Campbell, F. (1993). Librarian in a box: the use of
electronic mail for reference. "Reference Services Review," 21(1), 15-18. (EJ
Wasik, J. (1998). AskA services and funding: An overview. [Online].
Available: http://www.vrd.org/AskA/aska_funding.html [January 4, 1999].
Wiese, F. O. & Borgendale, M. (1986). EARS: Electronic access to
reference service. "Bulletin of the Medical Library Association," 74(4),