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Virtual reference toolkit 2.0

By Henrietta Thornton-Verma / June 2004

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In the past, all students at a given institution had equal access to its library's resources. In recent years, however, colleges have seen a rise in the number of students who are taking advantage of online learning. The challenge for librarians is to maintain service (as well as vital usage statistics) by continuing to serve students who cannot or will not visit the campus. An increasingly popular solution to this problem is the provision of virtual reference services, and there are many products available to facilitate this. One such product is Virtual Reference Toolkit (VRT) 2.0 from Library Systems and Services (LSSI). It is a proprietary service and works by having librarians log into a Web site for their shift and wait for patrons to log in with questions. When a patron logs in, usually by clicking on a link from the library's homepage, the patron will ask a question and "chat" back and forth with the librarian as necessary. This all takes place in one corner of the screen, while the rest of the screen is taken up by the librarian's "console." Here, the patron can watch (and possibly interact) while the librarian browses the Internet or uses the catalog or other databases.

Some of LSSI's primary competitors are 24/7 Reference and OCLC's QuestionPoint service. Similarly to LSSI, they target the library market, but unlike LSSI, OCLC and 24/7 are both non-profit entities and gain many customers by offering discounts through library consortia memberships. LSSI also has numerous for-profit competitors, for example Convey OnDemand, Docutek VRLplus, DesktopStreaming, eLibrarian, HorizonLive, LiveAssistance, and LivePerson. Except for Docutek, these vendors' primary customer bases consist of commercial businesses, with libraries as a secondary market. Virtual Reference Toolkit offers all the features that its competitors do, and some that they do not offer. Primary advantages include the fact that VRT was custom built for libraries, is available in Spanish, and has a staff of librarians who are available online (for a fee) to supplement a library's own staff.

The patron can enter the system using Basic or Interact modes. In both, the librarian and user will confer using live chat. It is possible for the librarian to use canned phrases as a time saver. If the patron's computer is a PC, and is configured to allow JavaScript, the patron will enter the session in the Interact mode, which makes it possible to co-browse Web pages and proprietary databases with the librarian. This allows the patron to see the entire search process and ensures a greater quality to the reference interaction, as the librarian can share peer reviewed articles and electronic books. In addition, the librarian and the patron can lead each other to Web sites, and the librarian can lead the patron to offline files. The ability to lead the user through PowerPoint presentations eases online bibliographic instruction. In the lower Basic mode, the patron will be sent Web pages but will not be able to interact with them.

Supplementary, more advanced features include:

  • Patron profile and tracking: If switched on by the administrator, these features allow the librarian to see information about the patron (name, phone number, e-mail address, operating system, browser configuration, etc.). It is also possible to see which pages of the library's Web site the patron has already tried, and information on this patron's previous VRT sessions.
  • Reports: LSSI generates statistical reports on a library's VRT activity, which may be exported into Excel. This feature is vital to the provision of usage statistics to management and accrediting bodies.
  • Knowledge base: It is possible to save documents here, in order to save time or capitalize on the varied subject expertise in any library staff. One staff member can save information on a subject for usage by others in his absence.
  • Transfer and conference of live sessions: A librarian can enlist the help of another staff member with a reference question or hand the student over entirely, with no interruption in service.

LSSI sells its service in "seats." One seat generally means one librarian, though the system allows a few minutes of overlap during shift changes. Many librarians can share the same seat by working in shifts. By using the "Librarian Monitor" function, a librarian whose shift is finished can check if the next librarian has logged on yet.

It is possible, though difficult, to work with several patrons simultaneously. The challenge lies in helping one patron well, while periodically switching back to the other waiting patron(s). The ability to have periodic, automated messages sent to the waiting patrons would be a welcome addition to future upgrades of VRT. Patrons are placed in an automated queue, which is visible to the librarian. VRT will give the patron an estimated waiting time.

In larger libraries or systems with multiple locations, scheduling can be very complicated. A link on the VRT site leads to "Schedule Source," an automated scheduling software. Librarians enter their availability here each week and Schedule Source comes up with a roster based on their availability. Thus, the virtual reference schedule can be built around local needs on a week-to-week basis. However, Schedule Source is far from intuitive to use and all the times are given in CST. A useful future upgrade would be the ability to click a time zone and have Schedule Source adjusts accordingly.

LSSI provides training to new users, as well as a very detailed, easy to follow manual. There is also an online tour on the Web site, and it is possible to get a refresher course over the phone. The company provides 24-hour online or telephone technical assistance, and the LSSI staff is patient and helpful.

All in all, VRT is recommended for virtual reference. It is a powerful tool with strong technical service to back it up.


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