The Virtual Reference Librarian's Handlbook
by Anne Grodzins Lipow
In the Foreword, Clifford Lynch summarizes The Virtual Reference Librarian's Handbook as "a book that is really about questions, about the process of asking questions and challenging assumptions in a constructive, analytical, and thoughtful way, about developing new and broader visions for libraries" (p. xiv).
We couldn't agree more. The Virtual Reference Librarian's Handbook has a clear orientation toward raising issues rather than issuing proclamations regarding effective virtual reference services. Instead of advocating a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to virtual reference planning, Anne Grodzins Lipow has created a set of questions and exercises that help guide librarians through the maze of complex issues surrounding the extension of a library's current reference services into the virtual realm.
For the purposes of this book, Lipow defines virtual reference (VR) as synchronous, point-of-need reference via chat or voice software. The book is structured into three main sections: Part I is written for librarians in the process of deciding whether to start a virtual reference service; Part II is for those who are about to launch a VR service, or those who currently offer VR but would like to improve their service; Part III tackles the subject of marketing VR services to ensure a consistent volume of question traffic. Organized in this manner, the handbook is not meant to be read cover-to-cover. Instead, readers are encouraged to focus on the parts that are most relevant to their libraries at the present time. Along the way, Lipow allots lined margins for note-taking, and includes a CD-ROM containing printable versions of all the exercises and checklists presented in the book. As virtual reference practitioners ourselves, we can see how the book would be helpful for all virtual librarians, regardless of how far along they might be in implementing their own services.
Part I, "Making the Decision to Go Virtual," focuses largely on exploring the reasons and motivations for launching a virtual reference service. Rather than spending much time addressing factors that might indicate VR isn't feasible for a particular library at this time, this section is geared toward those librarians who will, in fact, decide to offer VR. However, Lipow does address common reasons why some libraries choose not to go with VR, and she offers convincing rebuttal to those reasons. She also challenges reference librarians to rethink their role in a virtual environment. For example, instead of waiting for users to come to the desk to ask a question, why not bring a virtual desk to meet users at their point of need. Lipow acknowledges that librarians may be wary of adding a virtual reference shift to their already-busy schedules. To counter this concern, she offers suggestions for redistributing workloads and freeing up staff time to monitor the virtual reference desk.
Once a library has decided to launch a VR service, one of the first challenges is choosing a software product. Lipow has conveniently outlined all the possible issues a librarian would need to consider when evaluating software for VR purposes. Does it have a co-browse feature? What about transcripts? Do users have to download anything to use the service? What platforms does it support? What are the costs? Is training included? The book includes a thorough checklist librarians can use to compare all the VR software possibilities, as well as advice on how to choose the software that best meets a library's needs and, perhaps more importantly, budget.
Part II of Lipow's book begins with a set of exercises to help staff practice the basic technical skills on which they'll need to rely during VR sessionsskills such as chat etiquette, navigating multiple browser windows, becoming familiar with online resources, controlling session lengths, etc. The goal is for librarians to become extremely fluent in the online environment to ensure they can deliver a level of high-quality service comparable to that which they provide at the physical reference desk. The exercises are very practical and skill-centered; librarians responsible for training other staff members will benefit from choosing exercises from this section of the book to structure their training sessions.
Lipow devotes an entire chapter to the development of library policies that address issues specific to virtual reference services. In keeping with the style of the book, rather than simply presenting a list of issues to consider, Lipow provides sets of questions to guide librarians through the process of drafting meaningful policiesto address issues such as: who the eligible users are, how the scope of the service will be designed (and which types of questions will be referred elsewhere), the ever popular "use of licensed databases to answer questions", and how to deal with inappropriate client behavior. Although not explicitly stated, we think the author would agree that it is helpful to view policies as flexible statements of intent; no matter how much forethought goes into policy drafts, over time each VR service will find policies that must be updated, revised, or adapted to fit changing circumstances. It may be difficult to decide beforehand, for example, on a limit for how many virtual questions a patron may submit per day. In policymaking, it is better to let flexibility and experience be the guides. Often, VR policies are planned with the best possible intentions, but these policies should be revisited frequently to ensure they still make sense and continue to guide service in productive ways.
While there is much discussion in professional circles regarding appropriate policies, or issues surrounding staff training for reference in the virtual realm, we have seen far less attention to the presentation of a library's webpage (aside from discussions regarding the placement of links to the VR service). However, Lipow clearly shares our belief that the design of a library website can make or break a VR service. She writes, "Just as your physical desk has a personality that falls somewhere along the spectrum from inviting to intimidating, so too can your cyberdesk range from welcoming to bewildering" (p.91). Libraries must ensure their websites have a clean, logical design that facilitates quick access to online resources, including the virtual reference service. Lipow presents a series of checklists for evaluating current websites, and suggests ways to survey library users to determine how to better design the website for their ease of use. For example, choice of terminology can make a big difference in a site's usability; while the word "reference" is quite meaningful to members of the librarian community, to a user "ask a question" may more readily convey the purpose and usefulness of a library chat service.
Part III of Lipow's book covers one of the most challenging aspects of building a virtual reference service: marketing/promotion. Lipow recommends a four-step marketing strategy for libraries to follow when planning for promotion, and she provides tips for how each step could be carried out. For example, a slogan and a logo are important parts of any marketing strategy, but they should be complete enough to let users know exactly what type of service they represent. As examples, several VR services successfully employing these strategies are highlighted. One interesting strategy involves dividing the community into market segments to target specific user populations, e.g., graduate vs. undergraduate students. Lipow also points out the importance of marketing to non-users; VR service, with its anonymity and convenience, may be what they've always wanted but were afraid to ask for or didn't even realize was possible. Reflecting on her previous web design discussion, Lipow also makes the case that good web design is an important marketing technique for VR services. These marketing techniques are designed to help libraries create lively VR services and attract new library users, which should be a goal of any library implementing this type of service. While it's true that this could result in overload, Lipow hopes that librarians will embrace the challenge. Unfortunately, she doesn't provide advice on how specifically to handle overload, aside from briefly mentioning consortiums as an option. As an established service, we would like to have seen some specific suggestions on how we can increase our network or VR options to continue providing quality service even after we've exceeded our current capacity.
Throughout the book are undercurrents of Lipow's client-centered service values. Rather than thinking "How can we get our clientele to come to the library to use the wonderful services we have for them?", she challenges us to consider "How can we bring those services to wherever our users are?" From the planning stages to the marketing phases of VR services, designing a user-oriented service is not only the key to maintaining a high volume of happy usersit's a confirmation of the service values held so dearly by the library profession.